Operation Hajji Baba

by Daniel L. Haulman

Operation Name:
Operation Hajji Baba
Lebanon and Saudi Arabia
August 24–29, 1952
Emergency: As the end of the Muslim pilgrimage season approached, more than 3,700 pilgrims on their way to Mecca were stranded at Beirut.
Organizations: 1602d and 1603d Air Transport Wings, and 41st and 86th Air Transport Squadrons
Airlifted: 3,763 Muslim pilgrims.
Aircraft Used: C–54 (13)

Muslims flocked to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, during August 1952 for the Islamic pilgrimage. Commercial airlines at Beirut International Airport could not handle the huge influx of passengers eager to reach the holy city before the pilgrimage season ended in August. The Lebanese government appealed to the State Department for an airlift of excess passengers from Beirut to Jidda, near Mecca. The Military Air Transport Service’s Atlantic Division prepared an operation called Hajji Baba to fulfill the State Department requirement.

Between August 24 and 29, the 1602d and 1603d Air Transport Wings conducted the airlift with Brig. Gen. Wentworth Goss serving as the task force commander. Using 13 C–54 Skymaster cargo planes from the 41st Air Transport Squadron from Wheelus AB, Libya, and the 86th Air Transport Squadron from Rhein-Main AB, West Germany, General Goss arranged to take passengers in groups of 50 from the commercial airlines in Beirut. To save time, airport authorities relaxed passport and security restrictions for the Air Force flights. Because of the large number of pilgrims needing rapid transportation, the State Department increased the original goal of moving 1,500 pilgrims by August 27 to 3,500 by August 29. To gather additional passengers, four flights went through Baghdad, Iraq, and Marfaq, Jordan. Because of insufficient aircraft, however, the Air Force was unable to satisfy a request to airlift pilgrims from Tehran, Iran, to Saudi Arabia.

Operation Hajji Baba succeeded, airlifting 3,763 Muslim pilgrims from Beirut to Jidda on 75 trips in six days. Two aircraft aborted for engine changes, but there were no accidents. Muslims throughout the Middle East responded favorably. Ayatollah Kashani, the religious leader of Iran, flew on one of the Air Force flights. A Lebanese religious leader hailed the airlift as a turning point in U.S. relations with the Arab world. Saudi Arabia’s King Ibn Saud presented 86 ornate Arab costumes to U.S. airlift participants to express his appreciation. Operation Hajji Baba demonstrated the ability of MATS to serve U.S. humanitarian and diplomatic interests and to improve the image of the United States in the eyes of the Islamic world.

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I was a Flight Engineer in the 41st ATS based out of Tripoli on C-54D 34555 and we flew with an augmented crew and did not stop for 4 days.

The actual request for assistance was passed to the State Department by the U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Harold B Minor on Aug. 21 when he sent a “night action” telegram to the State Department in Washington apprising them of this opportunity to do something humanitarian that would help the U.S. at a time when their relations with the Arab world were strained. The then King of Saudi Arabia extended the deadline and made available buses to transport the pilgrims from Jidda to Mecca.

The problem was that the airlines had sold more tickets than they were capable of serving and nearly 4,000 pilgrims were left stranded at the airport in Beirut with no hope of getting to Mecca on time.

The Ambassador was my father and I was there at the airport with him as young boy.