Celebrating 40 Years of Humanitarian Aid

It all started with a simple idea: In 1979, Richard Walden realized the potential to leverage partnerships and strategic timing to help thousands of Vietnamese refugees stranded off the coast of Malaysia. A few phone calls and one major airlift later, Operation USA (then called Operation California) was born.


Today, Operation USA remains committed to helping the world’s most overlooked and under-served communities in the wake of disasters. With the support of corporations, foundations and individuals who believe in our mission, we’ve delivered $400 million in aid to 100 countries.


Now, as we celebrate 40 years of humanitarian aid, we’re looking to the future and thinking about how we can scale up to help even more people in the years to come–especially in the face of pervasive obstacles during a time of unprecedented need. Will you join us? Click here to give now.


Founding board member Julie Andrews once said: “Operation USA is the little ship that gets into the harbor where the big ships cannot go.” We remain committed to that principle, and are proud of our consistently low overhead, our approach to working with community-based partners who can quickly and efficiently facilitate the distribution of aid, and our belief that investing in youths today leads to stronger communities tomorrow.


This month, in celebration of 40 years of relief and recovery work worldwide, we’ll be sharing a look back at each year of Operation USA’s history. We hope you’ll join us on this journey, and consider a one-time or monthly recurring gift of any amount to help us reach our goal of raising $40,000 in 40 days to invest in the future of our programs.


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On July 12, 1979—just 29 days after Operation California was first conceptualized by President & CEO Richard Walden—our very first relief flight took off for Malaysia, carrying supplies for the thousands of displaced Vietnamese “Boat People” who were stranded off the coast. In partnership with McDonnell Douglas, Flying Tiger Airlines and other generous corporate donors, Operation California delivered much-needed food supplements, clean water, medical supplies and shelter materials to vulnerable refugees. This airlift—along with another to Thailand just two months later—launched Operation USA’s in-kind material aid program and established a lasting commitment to partnering with corporations who support our mission.





When Operation California was just getting started, actress Julie Andrews and her husband Blake Edwards signed on as founding board members with an enthusiastic commitment to our mission. Late in 1979, the couple sponsored a relief airlift to Cambodia—one of the first allowed into the country after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. Furthering their commitment to Cambodian Relief, Julie in 1980 hosted a 2-hour television special on CBS called “Because We Care” alongside a slew of other celebrities including Jane Fonda, Frank Sinatra and more. This major event (the first of several Julie went on to host for Operation USA) raised life-changing funds for Cambodia’s children, and established Operation California’s credibility as a trustworthy and highly efficient relief agency. This year, we had the footage of that television special digitized and find ourselves marveling at the scale of the event given what a young organization we were at the time.



Watch “Because We Care” Now:
Part 1
Part 2



In the wake of El Salvador’s deadly civil war, Operation California partnered with Oxfam America to send a shipment of relief materials to Honduras in support of war refugees. Since our earliest days, we have been proud to partner with other aid agencies in order to more quickly and efficiently deliver and distribute aid where needed most. Later this same year, Operation California arranged shipments to Somalia in support of the United Nations’ refugee programs, helping nearly 1.5 million people displaced by the Ethiopia-Somalia war. We are so grateful to all partner organizations who have made our work possible over the years.




By the time Operation California was in its fourth year, we had already sent seven shipments of relief materials to areas in desperate need around the world. In 1982, two airlifts of relief supplies left the US, one to Beirut, after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and one to Poland, after martial law was declared. Though Operation USA has long focused on providing relief in the wake of natural disasters, since our earliest days we’ve also been committed to helping those impacted by man-made disasters including war, violence and endemic poverty. Today, we remain committed to these efforts.