On December 16 and 17, a blizzard from Canada dropped heavy snow that blocked roads and isolated ranches and livestock in southeastern Montana. Temperatures dropped as low as 40 degrees below zero, killing thousands of cattle and sheep. Thick snow cover threatened to starve hundreds of thousands more.
On Friday, December 18, Governor Tim Babcock appealed for federal and military assistance. That same day President Johnson declared eight southeastern Montana counties a disaster area. Within hours, four AF Res C–119 aircraft—one each from the 938th Troop Carrier Group at Hamilton AFB, California; the 940th Troop Carrier Group at McClellan AFB, California; the 941st Troop Carrier Group at Paine AFB, Washington; and the 945th Troop Carrier Group at Hill AFB, Utah—flew to Malmstrom AFB in Montana for an emergency airlift of hay and livestock feed to the starving herds.
The 349th Troop Carrier Wing at Hamilton AFB supervised Operation Haylift along with the Department of Agriculture, which purchased feed from Fairfield and Great Falls in central Montana for distribution by air from Malmstrom. Between December 18 and 20, the four C–119s delivered at least 40 tons of hay in the region centered about 225 miles southeast of Great Falls, dropping most of the feed directly over the stranded herds from an altitude of 50 feet and a speed of about 150 mph. Each C–119 carried an average of 5.5 tons per flight. One C–119 dropped 5 tons of hay over a herd of 800 cattle at a ranch about 30 miles from Miles City on the Tongue River. The cattle had been without feed for four days. Montana ANG L–19 aircraft helped to guide the Flying Boxcars to the ranches most in need.
On Sunday, December 20, another blizzard dropped several inches of new snow on southern Montana, grounding the four cargo planes. The 349th and 452d Troop Carrier Wings dispatched five more C–119s from California to Malmstrom AFB, three from Hamilton AFB and two from March AFB. By December 21, nine C–119s were airdropping livestock feed. Between December 18 and 21, C–119s distributed 65 tons of livestock food in 17 sorties over southeastern Montana. By Tuesday, December 22, highway workers had cleared major roads in the region, allowing ground vehicles to take over feed deliveries.