Range Magazine: “The Big Lift”
head of Special Collections, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries
The long winter of 1948-1949 was the worst in the western United States since 1889. In northern Nevada, sheep in the hundreds of thousands and cattle in the tens of thousands were stranded in snowdrifts without feed on their winter ranges. Ranch houses were snowed in. The governor declared a state of emergency and federal aid was appropriated to try to save the livestock. The U.S. Air Force deployed its pilots and C-82 cargo planes, the “flying boxcars,” for a project called Operation Haylift to drop over 1,700 tons of feed to the desperate animals. Although a significant number were lost to the storms, Operation Haylift and truck convoys saved the livestock industry in Nevada from total destruction.
Choices that were made during the emergency response were not without controversy. Nevadans were not accustomed to receiving federal emergency relief and some felt that it would lead to socialism. But capitalism stayed strong as prices for hay skyrocketed. There was an occasional mishap during the operation.
Clel Georgetta wrote in his book, “Golden Fleece in Nevada,” that, “a flying boxcar with four tons of baled hay on board flew over Tom Thurnal’s place and tried to drop eight bales of hay in his corral. On the plane’s first pass, some bales took off the porch of the house. On the next pass the heavy bales falling out of the sky smashed the washhouse with his wife’s new washer in it. Tom got on a saddle horse, rode to McGill, called Operation Haylift and said, ‘Please! Do not drop any more hay on my place. My wife will divorce me.’ ”
U.S. Air Force officers and enlisted men planned and carried out the operation. Most of them had recently fought in World War II, and some of them had participated in the Berlin Airlift, a humanitarian initiative conducted by western allies in response to the Berlin blockade, a postwar political situation that isolated Germans in West Berlin from the supplies they needed. During a year that began in April 1949, more than 200,000 flights of military planes brought an average of 8,893 tons of fuel and food per day to West Berliners.
Dropping hay to livestock scattered across vast deserts was a different kind of operation, but the pilots quickly adjusted to the new conditions. The planes took off from Fallon Air Force Base, the headquarters of the operation.
Operation Haylift had a public relations arm. Nevada journalists and photojournalists were invited to fly along in the cargo planes and document their observations. Edward Olsen, a reporter and photographer for the Associated Press, based in Reno, was one of them.
A feature-length film, “Operation Haylift,” filmed entirely in the Ely area featuring locals as cast members was released in May 1950, with its world premiere in Ely. The Air Force loaned some planes and personnel for the movie. (The film is available commercially as part of a DVD compilation entitled “Darn Good Westerns Volume I.”)
This second military operation, referred to as Operation Breakthrough, used “Cats and ’dozers” as well as cargo planes to rescue stranded people and livestock.
Honorary Nevada citizenship was granted to all Operation Haylift personnel, who referred to the campaign as Operation Hayride. The livestock relief efforts must have been a welcome sequel to warfare and the potential danger of challenging the Soviet Union in post-war Europe.
–Reprinted with permission from Range Magazine