An earthquake registering 7.5 on the Richter scale struck southern Guatemala at 2:50 a.m. on Wednesday, February 4. Although it lasted less than one minute, it left almost 23,000 people dead and over 76,000 injured. One-fourth of Guatemala’s population—1.5 million people—were left homeless. The quake destroyed 300 towns along the Motagua and Mixco faults north and west of Guatemala City. The most severe damage occurred in a 100-mile arc to the north and west of the capital, where many of the country’s inhabitants were concentrated. Over 1,000 aftershocks compounded the catastrophe. In the town of Progresso, only two buildings were left standing; and at San Martín, where no house survived, 3,000 people died—10 percent of the population.
President Kjell Laugerud García of Guatemala immediately appealed to the United States for emergency aid. Within 24 hours of the initial tremor, MAC established an airlift from Howard AFB in the Panama Canal Zone to La Aurora Airport in Guatemala City. Led by MSgt. Wayne W. Frankenberger, a 1300th Military Airlift Squadron combat control team arrived in La Aurora on February 4 to assess damage and establish air traffic control communications for the airlift. Within 10 days, Air Force cargo aircraft moved over 444 tons of supplies and 230 support personnel to Guatemala, including a 100-bed field hospital, 500 tents, a 15-kilowatt generator, 10,800 penicillin tablets, and 500 pints of blood plasma.
By the end of February, the Twenty-first Air Force had flown 19 strategic airlift missions to Guatemala, carrying communications equipment from Charleston AFB, South Carolina; a mobile hospital from Altus AFB, Oklahoma; dry rations from Memphis, Tennessee, and Fort Smith, Arkansas; helicopter support equipment from Gray Army Air Field, Texas, and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; water trailers from Howard AFB; a hospital unit from Fort Dix, New Jersey; and an environmental health unit and engineering personnel from Pope AFB, North Carolina.
By March 8, just over a month after the disaster struck, the Air Force had sent more than 60 planeloads of relief supplies and personnel to Guatemala from 10 U.S. bases. The Military Airlift Command transported medicine, water purification systems, blankets, clothing, fresh water, and construction equipment to clear roads and rebuild housing. Nine C–130s also delivered bulk fuel to support Army helicopters that flew mercy flights to remote sites within the country beginning February 10. By the end of Operation Earthquake, MAC had hauled 696 emergency support personnel to Guatemala, including medical doctors, nurses, engineers, and communications experts.