A humanitarian Christmas at Charleston AFB

By Joshua Mayes, historian | 628th Air Base Wing | Dec. 21, 2018

JOINT BASE CHARLESTON, S.C. —

Eleven years after the end of World War II, the destructive effects were still being felt by many nations in Europe. And the political turmoil affected many. By the autumn of 1956, the Soviet Union had put down a massive Hungarian uprising in Budapest that resulted in President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “Atlantic Division Order 73-56” to evacuate Hungarian civilians to the United States under Operation Safe Haven. 

The 1608th Air Transport Wing, Medium, assigned to Charleston Air Force Base, was tasked to provide airlift for 6,500 refugees in the form of C-121 Constellations. On Dec. 10, 1956, the first of the C-121’s departed Charleston Air Force Base for Munich, Germany, to load the passengers for transport back to McGuire Air Force Base, New Jersey.  In addition to air transport, the Military Sea Transportation Service, under the U.S. Navy, transported 8,944 refugees from Bremerhaven, Germany, to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey. 

Bad weather during the operation diverted a total of 279 Hungarians to Charleston only a few days before Christmas.  Col. Clinton C. Wasem, 1608th Air Transport Wing Commander, greeted the refugees as the first C-121 touched down and stated that the facilities of the base would be at their disposal until their departure. 

“We’re happy to welcome them here, and will make them as comfortable as possible,” Wasem said.

Airman Second Class William J. Bartus of the 1608th USAF Dispensary and Mrs. Small, a base dependent, acted as interpreters for the Hungarians during their stay. The American Red Cross provided linens, clean clothes and other basic necessities. The USAF Dispensary offered medical and dental services, while volunteers warmed milk for babies. The Officers Wives Club conducted a gift drive, asking for gift donations to give the Hungarian kids as much of a Christmas as possible. In addition to daily hot meals, the base’s active duty members and dependents hosted a holiday gala for the displaced families.

A Hungarian school teacher, one of the refugees, requested a moment of silence at the gathering before Christmas and said, “I know that I speak for all of my countrymen when I say that we will be forever grateful for this welcome and the opportunity to come to the United States.”

By December 27, 1956, all Hungarian refugees had departed Charleston AFB for McGuire Air Force Base, New Jersey.

During the post-war turmoil in Europe, the men and women of Charleston AFB rose to the challenge of providing a sincere humanitarian effort time and again when it was needed. And in the winter of 1956, the military and civilian members of Charleston AFB not only took in refugees in need, but they also provided a Christmas these newcomers would never forget.