Operation Hay Lift

  • Published
  • By William Medema
  • 341st Missile Wing Historian
Airmen at Malmstrom Air Force Base share many different visions of the holiday season as they prepare to return home or settle down to enjoy the holidays.  Fifty years ago, the members of the base witnessed a little different vision of the season.  At the beginning of December, temperatures began to plummet with the thermometer reaching 32 degrees below zero. On Dec. 16, 1964, the temperature extremes held true for much of Montana and persisted for nearly a week. Obviously we can relate to the chill coming down from the north, but the extremes that year proved unusual even for Montana.  Frequent heavy snowfall accompanied the frigid temperatures as well.

Ranchers suffered major livestock losses resulting from the extreme temperatures and snowfall, preventing the landowners from reaching their cattle and sheep.  On December 18, former President Lyndon B. Johnson initiated a major disaster declaration for southwest Montana.  He allowed the mobilization of Air Force Reserve air mobility assets for the region.  The 341st Strategic Missile Wing stood ready to assist in the relief efforts.  On December 19, MAFB Airmen began assisting five air mobility organizations led by the 349th Air Mobility Wing from Hamilton AFB, California, for Operation Hay Lift to air drop hay to stranded herds on the Montana plains.  The C-119 Flying Boxcar cargo aircraft assigned to the reserve units staged out of the Malmstrom air field with members of the Malmstrom community providing the air field and logistical support for the operation.

Malmstrom's 341st Supply Squadron issued temporary cold weather gear to the reservists to withstand the cold that permeated the region and began loading the Flying Boxcars with hay bales trucked into the base from surrounding ranches.  Besides loading the aircraft, providing refueling and directing air traffic, many more members donated their time and efforts to help avert the disaster.  By December 21, road crews cleared access routes for farmers and ranchers to get to their starving animals.  Approximately 17,000 cattle and 26,000 sheep perished in the freezing and snowy conditions, but the Air Reserve C-119s managed to drop 65 tons of hay to about 100,000 head of livestock in the effort, using low-level drops of hay bales to the stranded animals.  The transport crews flew 17sorties over an eight-county area in Montana and logged 150 flying hours during the operation.  The men and women of the 341st Strategic Missile Wing and other base units provided hundreds of man-hours refueling and loading the aircraft, while providing assistance with their knowledge of the area and targets for the drops.

The conditions of the effort and the operation itself represented an out of the ordinary mission for most folks at MAFB, but the dedication and persistence showed by those Airmen wasn't in the least unusual.  The men and women proved before Operation Hay Lift and afterwards to this day their willingness to overcome conditions and accomplish any number of challenges that present themselves.  The event itself is part of the history of the base and the wing, and the personnel at Malmstrom continue to add to that history.  The story of a wing isn't always about the great battles and heroic deeds of times long in the past (I don't consider anything that happened after I was born long ago) by people you never heard of.  The history of the base and the 341 MW continues to be recorded every day by folks you know still stepping up to carry out their mission and to tackle the hard tasks that still challenge those on Malmstrom AFB.  By the way - bundle up and happy holidays.