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The Magic Carpet That Brought Everybody Home – WWII

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(Courtesy of our Vietnam War combat vet, Mike Collins, this is how my Dad got home in ’45.)

The U.S. military experienced an unimaginable increase during World War II. In 1939, there were 334,000
servicemen, not counting the Coast Guard. In 1945, there
were over 12 million, including the Coast Guard. At the
end of the war, over 8 million of these men and women
were scattered overseas in Europe, the Pacific and Asia.
Shipping them out wasn’t a particular problem but
getting them home was a massive logistical headache. The
problem didn’t come as a surprise, as Army Chief of
Staff General George C. Marshall had already established
committees to address the issue in 1943.

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Soldiers
returning home on the USS General Harry
Taylor
 in August 1945

When Germany fell in May 1945, the U.S. Navy was still busy
fighting in the Pacific and couldn’t assist. The job of
transporting 3 million men home fell to the Army and the
Merchant Marine. 300 Victory and Liberty cargo ships
were converted to troop transports for the task. During
the war, 148,000 troops crossed the Atlantic west to
east each month; the rush home ramped this up to 435,000
a month over 14 months.

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Hammocks
crammed into available spaces aboard the USS
Intrepid

In October 1945, with the war in Asia also over, the Navy
started chipping in, converting all available vessels to
transport duty. On smaller ships like destroyers,
capable of carrying perhaps 300 men, soldiers were told
to hang their hammocks in whatever nook and cranny they
could find. Carriers were particularly useful, as their
large open hangar decks could house 3,000 or more troops
in relative comfort, with bunks, sometimes in stacks of
five welded or bolted in place.

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Bunks
aboard the Army transport SS
Pennant

The Navy wasn’t picky, though: cruisers, battleships,
hospital ships, even LSTs (Landing Ship, Tank) were
packed full of men yearning for home. Two British ocean
liners under American control, the RMS Queen
Mary
 and Queen Elizabeth, had
already served as troop transports before and continued
to do so during the operation, each capable of carrying
up to 15,000 people at a time, though their normal,
peacetime capacity was less than 2,200. Twenty-nine
ships were dedicated to transporting war brides: women
married to American soldiers during the war.

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Troops
performing a lifeboat drill onboard the Queen
Mary
 in December 1944, before Operation
Magic Carpet

The Japanese surrender in August 1945 came none too soon,
but it put an extra burden on Operation Magic
Carpet
. The war in Asia had been expected to go well
into 1946 and the Navy and the War Shipping
Administration were hard-pressed to bring home all the
soldiers who now had to get home earlier than
anticipated. The transports carrying them also had to
collect numerous POWs from recently liberated Japanese
camps, many of whom suffered from malnutrition and
illness.

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U.S.
soldiers recently liberated from Japanese POW
camps

The time to get home depended a lot on the
circumstances. USS Lake Champlain, a brand
new Essex-class carrier that arrived too
late for the war, could cross the Atlantic and take
3,300 troops home a little under 4 days and 8 hours.
Meanwhile, troops going home from Australia or India
would sometimes spend months on slower
vessels.

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Hangar
of the USS Wasp during the
operation

There was enormous pressure on the operation to bring home as
many men as possible by Christmas 1945. Therefore, a
sub-operation, Operation Santa Claus, was
dedicated to the purpose. Due to storms at sea and an
overabundance of soldiers eligible for return home,
however, Santa Claus could only return a fraction in
time and still not quite home but at least to American
soil. The nation’s transportation network was
overloaded: trains heading west from the East Coast were
on average 6 hours behind schedule and trains heading
east from the West Coast were twice that
late.

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The
crowded flight deck of the USS Saratoga. The
ship transported home a total of 29,204 servicemen
during Operation Magic Carpet, more than any
other ship.

Many freshly discharged men found themselves stuck in
separation centers but faced an outpouring of love and
friendliness from the locals. Many townsfolk took in
freshly arrived troops and invited them to Christmas
dinner in their homes. Others gave their train tickets
to soldiers and still others organized quick parties at
local train stations for men on layover. A Los Angeles
taxi driver took six soldiers all the way to Chicago;
another took another carload of men to Manhattan, the
Bronx, Pittsburgh, Long Island, Buffalo and New
Hampshire. Neither of the drivers accepted a fare beyond
the cost of gas.

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Overjoyed
troops returning home on the battleship USS
Texas

All in all, though, the Christmas deadline proved untenable.
The last 29 troop transports, carrying some 200,000 men
from the China-India-Burma theater, arrived to America
in April 1946, bringingOperation Magic
Carpet
 to an end, though an additional 127,000
soldiers still took until September to return home and
finally lay down the burden of war.

4

About the Author:

Vietnam era Army JAG, Asia, 17-yr Cold Warrior in Soviet-China Bloc green zone, Been shot at and hit, but in crime, not war; twice-broken nose for lying (same fellow) hence good law school candidate; Could have been Somebody in Corporate world and politics, but at every crossroad chose to be a man with a tawdry past instead. Gave up law and am now a redeemed American.
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Comments

  1. Jim Gardner  October 29, 2018

    Just an uneducated hillbilly philosopher, but i have a theory. Is it possible that the length and comraderie of these trips home were therapudic for the returning veterans? Instead of being flown out of a combat zone and returned to the real world in hours, these men had time to reflect and relate their experiences with fellow veterans, not try to explain all of what happened to them to family that had no way of understanding what they had been through. I’m sure everyone wanted to get home as quickly as possible, but maybe the fastest way isn’t always the best route. My deepest gratitude for all that have served.

    reply
    • Vassar  October 29, 2018

      You’re not a bad hillbilly therapist, either. My dad, would agree, as for him, and probably millions more, it was the greatest adventure they’d ever know, and that tripo home a month-long good bye.

      reply
  2. Allen  November 15, 2018

    Hillbilly philosophers are my favorite kind! I have no doubt you are absolutely right but nobody’s spent millions of dollars on a govt sponsored study, alas, we’ll never know. My son-in-law just spent a week or ten days in Kuwait getting classes on re-integration, adaptation and other assorted bullshit. The boys in WWII were getting home as fast as they could, our boy’s today should expect no less.

    reply

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