It was one of the most, if not the most, massive operations associated with World War II. It involved over 7 million American service members, utilized some 800 ocean-going vessels of all types, and encompassed the two biggest oceans on earth.
Depending on whose official start and stop dates you use, it spanned a full year, maybe more. Some have referred to it as the “largest mass movement of humanity” in all of history.
Operation Magic Carpet
Operation Magic Carpet was the official name given to the colossal and sprawling effort to return American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines to their homes, following the surrender of first Germany and then Japan in 1945. In November of that year, 75 years ago this month, the average American serviceman or woman had been overseas, fighting deadly enemies, for almost a year and a half, many for much longer.
Now that the war was over and the peace had been won, the desire to return to wives, children, parents, former jobs, hometowns, and just to America itself was almost unbearable. Across the oceans, anxious family members and communities longed to embrace their loved ones again, as soon as possible.
Members of Congress were bombarded by their constituents with one urgent demand, get our sons and daughters home now. The pressures on American governmental and military leaders to make this happen were simply overwhelming, while the obstacles that they faced complex and daunting.
For one thing, sizable occupation forces were needed in both Germany and Japan, to ensure that the hard fought for peace was maintained. In the early months, the combined total of those occupation forces in both parts of the world numbered nearly three quarters of a million American troops. These would have to stay overseas for a while longer, their homecomings delayed even further.
But, the biggest obstacle to getting millions of Americans home, and then getting them processed out of the military and back into civilian life, was the sheer enormity of the undertaking. Logistically, it simply defied the imagination. Some 7 million, mostly homesick, Americans wanted to get on with their lives. Their hopes and dreams, however, were thousands of miles away, across great ocean expanses.
Back in 1943, with the ultimate outcome of the war still somewhat uncertain, U.S. leadership had, nevertheless, wisely anticipated the need to formulate plans for bringing millions home at war’s end. With the military’s obvious need to focus on what turned out to be two more years of costly fighting, the War Shipping Administration was delegated the task.
When Germany surrendered and the war in Europe ended, in May of 1945, over three million U.S. service members were scattered across Europe. Plans were to shift about a million of them to the Pacific, to participate in the dreaded invasion of the Japanese homeland, which never happened. Some were needed for occupation duty.
For the rest, Magic Carpet rides home began very quickly.
Since the Navy needed all of its warships for the anticipated final push into Japan, those in Europe sailed home initially on merchant ships. The legendary Liberty and Victory cargo ships, that many say saved the war for the Allies, were retrofitted to carry large numbers of personnel. Some even crossed the Atlantic on the luxury liner QUEEN MARY, on loan from Great Britain. She could carry a whopping 15,000 soldiers per trip.
Once the war with Japan was officially over, in September 1945, the Navy began to employ its warships in Magic Carpet. Aircraft carriers, with their spacious hangar decks now clear of planes, became a favorite means of transportation for returning GIs. Big battleships, cruisers, personnel transports, hospital ships, and various other types of naval vessels participated in the homecoming parade. Some Navy ships, proud warriors of many sea battles, were now scheduled to be decommissioned. Many of these made one last trip across the ocean, loaded with returning veterans. Once they deposited their precious cargoes on American soil, they left the active fleet, most eventually finding their way to the scrap yard.
Although there were some instances of overseas American troops protesting what they perceived to be unnecessary delays in getting them home, Operation Magic Carpet undertook a daunting task and was a huge success. On average, 435,000 servicemen and women returned home each month. In an effort to get as many as possible back to their families by Christmas, December of 1945 was by far the busiest single month of the whole affair. Almost 700,000 made it home during that hectic thirty day period alone. The moving story of Christmas in America in 1945 will be the subject of an upcoming article in this series.
The saga of Operation Magic Carpet is a fascinating and heartwarming tale of American ingenuity and compassion. Thousands of European war brides of American servicemen, sometimes with their children, were brought to the U.S. on special transport ships, including the liner QUEEN MARY. Forty-eight hospital ships were utilized to ferry the wounded home. The legendary carrier USS SARATOGA (CV-3) established the record for returning the most troops overall, with a total of 29,204.
A spectacular success
“Home Alive by 45” became a rallying cry for Magic Carpet. Although many did not make it home in 1945, the operation officially ended, a spectacular success by any standard, in September 1946.
Not counting those who remained in Germany and Japan as occupation soldiers, some 7 million Americans were brought home during Operation Magic Carpet, from May 1945 to September 1946. Although the horrors of war would linger in the memories of many for the rest of their lives, they came back, raised their families, and made the United States of America a better place.
Those who returned would always remember the 405,399 of their fellow countrymen, their buddies, that did not return with them, most fallen on far away battlefields or on the seas. So should we also remember them today. In fact, this week of Veterans Day 2020 ought to stir every American, in a special way, to reflect on all the veterans of WWII. They have now, for the most part, departed from among us. Only a few remain. They gave so much in the cause of freedom, for us and for the world, 75 years ago.