In December, Communist Chinese military units driving UN forces from North Korea approached the South Korean capital of Seoul. The directors of several orphanages in the area feared that enemy occupation or combat operations would threaten the lives of their children. For this reason, they moved about 1,000 infants and children up to the age of 12 to Inchon to meet a ship, which, it was expected, would move them to the relatively safe island of Cheju Do. While waiting for the ship, the orphans suffered from inadequate food and shelter and many became ill. When the ship did not arrive, orphanage directors appealed to the Fifth Air Force chaplain for Air Force assistance. The chaplain relayed the request to the Combat Cargo Command.
The commander of the Combat Cargo Command, Lt. Gen. William H. Tunner, agreed to airlift the orphans from Kimpo Airfield near Seoul to Cheju Do. Flying 12 C–54 Skymasters, the 61st Troop Carrier Group launched Operation Christmas Kidlift from Kimpo on December 20. One aircraft carried as many as 122 passengers. Flight crews gave their own food to the orphans and laid straw mats and blankets on the aircraft floor for the passengers. Ten C–54s arrived at Cheju Do Island the same day, with two landing with radio guidance because the sun had already set. The remaining Skymasters flew to Ashiya and Itazuke ABs in Japan for the night and continued to Cheju Do the next day.
En route to Cheju Do, some children died from malnutrition or overexposure contracted before the airlift, but the majority of the orphans arrived safely on the island, where food and shelter was available at an old school.
The 61st Troop Carrier Group did not forget the airlifted children. In April 1951, group members followed up the exodus with an airlift of six tons of rice for the orphans. In December 1951, one year after the evacuation, the group flew a Santa Claus laden with presents to Cheju Do. The 61st Troop Carrier Group also raised $3,000 for the orphanage.