On Saturday and Sunday, May 21 and 22, a series of immense earth quakes struck southern Chile between Concepción and the Gulf of Corcovado. Five tremors registered between 7.25 and 8.5 on the Richter scale and, for 25 miles, the earth’s surface sank 1,000 feet. Aftershocks were felt as far away as Buenos Aires on the other side of the continent. The earthquakes spawned the eruption of at least seven volcanoes and set off numerous landslides and avalanches. Tsunamis (tidal waves) devastated the Chilean coast. Towns and cities such as Angol, Puerto Montt, Valdivia, Castro, Concepción, Puerto Saavedra, and Corral were all but destroyed. The multiple disasters left more than 8,000 people dead or missing, 5,500 injured, and 248,000 homeless. Property losses approached $500 million.
On May 23, President Jorge Alessandri Rodríguez of Chile requested U.S. assistance through Ambassador Walter Howe, and the Departments of State and Defense arranged a massive airlift of relief equipment and supplies. On May 26, the Air Force began what became known as the Amigos Airlift.
Between May 23 and June 23, the Eastern Air Transport Air Force of MATS and the Caribbean Air Command airlifted more than 1,014 tons of emergency goods to Chile. Cargo included two 400-bed Army field hospitals, two Army helicopter units (10 helicopters), 64 tons of mobile radar landing approach equipment, 140 tents, 2,000 blankets, radios, trucks, trailers, food, cots, forklifts, medical supplies, water tanks, building materials, and two water purification units.
The 63d Troop Carrier Wing from Donaldson AFB, South Carolina; the 1607th Air Transport Wing from Dover AFB, Delaware; the 1608th Air Transport Wing from Charleston AFB, South Carolina; the 1611th Air Transport Wing from McGuire AFB, New Jersey; and the Caribbean Air Command from Albrook AFB in the Panama Canal Zone flew the airlift using 13 C–118, 66 C–124, 4 C–54, 3 C–47, and 2 H–19 missions. The planes carried 2,489 passengers, including refugees, medical personnel, and communications specialists.
Most flights followed a 4,500-mile, 25-hour route from the United States via Tocumen International Airport, Panama, and Limatambo, Peru, to Los Cerrillos International Airport at Santiago and to Puerto Montt in the devastated area. Cargo came from a host of bases and cities, including Lockbourne AFB, Ohio; Tinker AFB, Oklahoma; Pope AFB, North Carolina; Andrews AFB, Maryland; Dover AFB, Delaware; Albrook and Howard AFBs in the Panama Canal Zone; Brookley AFB, Alabama; Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; and Atlanta, Georgia. The 7th Army Field Hospital from Fort Belvoir, Virginia, and the 15th Army Field Hospital from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, respectively, set up operations at Puerto Montt and Valdivia, where they were assisted by 10 airlifted helicopters of the U.S. Army’s 56th and 57th Helicopter Detachments.
Caribbean Air Command C–54 and C–47 airplanes came from various locations across Latin America. Military Airlift Command C–124s, unable to land safely at U.S. air bases in the Canal Zone because of runway limitations, used Panama’s Tocumen International Airport. The United States contributed the largest share of international assistance.