Operation Magic Carpet: Bringing Home the Heroes of WWII

Stacked bunks aboard Army transport SS Penant. National Archives

Passage times varied, depending on the servicemen’s location, as well as the luck of the draw in the ships to which they were assigned. For example, the USS Lake Champlain set an Atlantic crossing record in a mere 4 days and 8 hours. By contrast, others returning from posts farther away, such as India or Australia, could spend weeks or months at sea aboard slower vessels.

Daunting and complex as it was, Magic Carpet was completed relatively quickly. By September, 1945, 1.4 million servicemen, nearly all of them from the European Theater, had been repatriated. By December 1st, 1945, the WSA had successfully repatriated over 3.5 million personnel. By February of 1946, repatriation from the ETO had, by and large, been completed.

Repatriation from the European theater began relatively smoothly: by 1945, both the US Army and the WSA were experienced in the rapid transporting of massive numbers of troops from bases on America’s East Coast to Europe. Reversing the process was relatively simple. Until the sudden capitulation of Japan in August of 1945 threw a monkey’s wrench into the works.

The war in the Pacific had been expected to last well into 1946. As such, repatriation of American forces from the Pacific had been unanticipated in 1945. Thus, when that war ended only three months after hostilities had concluded in Europe, just as the WSA was in the midst of what by then was an already massive repatriation effort from the ETO back to America, the authorities were caught flat footed: there was not enough readily available sealift capacity to simultaneously repatriate millions of servicemen from both the European and Pacific theaters.

Not nearly as quickly as the servicemen wanted to return home, nor as quickly as their loved ones and the American public demanded that they be returned. When the WSA’s supply of readily convertible cargo ships could not keep up with the demand, the US Navy chipped in. Improvising, naval combat ships were designated as troop transports.

Thus, by administrative fiat, the Navy diverted for use in Magic Carpet battleships such as the Washington, West Virginia, and Maryland, and aircraft carriers such as the Enterprise, Saratoga, and the newly commissioned Lake Champlain. Aircraft carriers, with their massive and open hangar decks, proved well suited for the task. Such naval giants were joined by sundry smaller vessels, ranging from cruisers to Landing Ship Tanks (LSTs) to destroyers.

Some combat ships were hurriedly retrofitted to serve as transports, as was the case with aircraft carriers, in whose hangars were bolted or welded massive bunk beds. Other Navy vessels, particularly smaller ones such as destroyers, were frequently impressed to serve as transports as they were, with returning servicemen invited to shift for themselves, deploying hammocks wherever possible, and making do by squeezing into whatever nooks and crannies and free space were available aboard ship.

Returning personnel on hammocks aboard the USS Intrepid. Time Magazine

The Pacific portion of Magic Carpet entailed extra layers of complexity, and, especially at the beginning, required greater dispatch than had been necessary in Europe. Aside from the Pacific’s vast distances compared to the European theater, there was the urgent need to rescue American POWs from the scattered Japanese camps in which they had languished for years, often starved, brutalized, and otherwise barbarically mistreated by their captors.