In early 1942, during the opening months of WWII in the Asia-Pacific theater, the Allies were reeling from a series of setbacks when a small Dutch minesweeper found herself cut off in the Java Sea. Alone in hostile waters that were infested with enemy ships and airplanes, the tiny vessel’s crew hit upon the ingenious solution of camouflaging their ship as an island, while wending their way towards safety. The result was one of the more intrepid – and harrowing – WWII survival stories. Following are forty things about that and other fascinating but lesser-known episodes from WWII.
40. Taking Ship Camouflage to Extremes
Attempts at camouflaging ships were widespread during World War I and WWII. In the 1914-1918 conflict, painting vessels grey helped reduce visibility, but it did not always work in ever-changing environments and sea conditions. The British ended up pioneering “Dazzle” camouflage paint schemes, using bold stripes and bright colors. The patterns did not hide the ship but disrupted its outline to make it more difficult to judge its size, speed, and heading. That made it more difficult for the enemy to accurately target it.
Dazzle and other camouflage schemes were also employed in WWII, but their use declined as the war progressed. Steady advances in radar and range finding technology steadily reduced ship camouflage’s effectiveness. However, early in the Pacific War, one Dutch warship, the HNLMS Abraham Crijnssen, pulled off one of history’s most successful ship camouflages: it disguised itself as a tropical island. That allowed the Crijnssen to sail undetected for hundreds of miles through Japanese-controlled waters, until it reached safety in Australia.
The Abraham Crijnssen was a Royal Netherlands Navy minesweeper that was built in 1936. She ended up stationed in the Dutch East Indies, today’s Indonesia, which is where WWII in the Pacific found her when Japan commenced hostilities in 1941. By warship standards, the Crijnssen was a minnow. Displacing a mere 525 tons, crewed by only 45 men, and armed with a single 76mm gun plus a pair of 20mm cannons, she was wholly incapable of duking it out with the powerful Imperial Japanese Navy ships that descended upon the Dutch East Indies.
Her weak punch was complemented by low speed: her engines could propel her at a maximum speed of 15 knots. In short, the Abraham Crijnssen could neither fight nor flee if the Japanese caught sight of her. When you can neither fight nor flee, your best bet is to hide. So the Crijnssen put all her eggs in the basket of avoiding detection at all costs.
When the Japanese kicked off WWII in the Pacific, the Abraham Crijnssen was based in Surabaya. Things started off bad for the Dutch and the Allies, and soon went from bad to worse. By February, 1942, following Allied naval defeats in the battles of the Java Sea and the Sunda Strait, all Dutch and Allied ships were ordered to evacuate the now-inhospitable region and withdraw to Australia.
The Crijnssen was originally supposed to sail to Australia as part of a four-ship Dutch convoy, but the Japanese Navy sank the other three vessels, leaving the minesweeper to make her to safety as best she could, alone. Too weak to fight off Japanese warships or Japanese airplanes, the Crijnssen’s sole hope for survival lay in figuring out a way to sneak past the enemy without being spotted. The lush Dutch East Indies were dotted with tropical islands, so the ship set out to camouflage itself as a tropical island.
The Abraham Crijnssen’s plan to camouflage itself as a tropical island was not as crazy as it seems at first glance. The Java Sea, through which the ship had to wend its way to safety, has over 18,000 islands of varying sizes, many of them mere specks with just a few trees growing on them.
Measuring only 185 feet in length, the Crijnssen was not a huge ship, but it was still big enough to pass itself off as a tiny island if properly camouflaged. So the minesweeper stopped off at the nearest island, and its 45-man crew began cutting down vegetation with a will.
The main detection threat faced by the Abraham Crijnssen was getting spotted from the air by Japanese planes. So to effectively camouflage the ship, its crew needed to cover its entire surface area with tropical vegetation and foliage. The result was one of the more fascinating WWII survival stories.
It was hard and backbreaking work, but where there is a will, there is a way. With their lives on the line, if the Japanese spotted them, the Dutch crew had all the incentive in the world to do whatever it took to avoid detection. The Crijnssen’s deck was totally covered with vegetation, which was arranged in such a way so as to imitate a jungle canopy.
The hard work of the Abraham Crijnssen’s crew paid off. Between covering the entire deck with foliage, and painting any exposed metal in shades of gray to imitate rock formations, the Dutch minesweeper managed to pull off a decent job of resembling an island. At least from a distance.
A key difference between a ship and an island, however, is that the former moves, while the latter is stationary. The camouflage was intended for the daytime, during which the Crijnssen remained stationary, anchored as close as possible to actual islands. Once darkness fell, the small ship would raise steam and carefully wend her way through the dangerous waters of the Java Sea, headed for the safety of Australia.
The Abraham Crijnssen’s flight was an agonizingly slow and terrifying ordeal. The crew spent the daylight hours at anchor, hoping and praying that their ship’s camouflage would hold up, and avert detection by the numerous Japanese ships and airplanes crisscrossing the Java Sea. Once the sun went down and the tropical night descended, the small vessel pulled anchor and resumed her journey to safety.
As the ship inched her way towards Australia, the crew prayed that the sounds of the Crijnssen’s engines would not attract the attention of nearby enemy ships or watchers. Luck was with the plucky Dutch minesweeper. After one of the more hair-raising journeys of WWII, which lasted for eight frightful days, she finally reached safety. On March 20th, 1942, the Crijnssen arrived in Freemantle, Western Australia.
The Abraham Crijnssen was the last Allied vessel to successfully escape the disastrous defeat in the Java Sea and the Dutch East Indies, and the only ship of her class to survive the debacle. Once in Australia, she underwent a refit, which included the installation of underwater detection equipment. In September, 1942, she was commissioned into the Australian Navy as an anti-submarine escort, and served in that capacity, with a mixed Dutch and Australian crew, for the remainder of WWII.
At the end of WWII, the Crijnssen was returned to the Royal Netherlands Navy, and patrolled the Dutch East Indies until they gained their independence. She then returned to Europe, and continued in service with the RNN until she was decommissioned in 1960. Over the next few decades, she served as a training ship, then as a storage hull, before she was finally donated to the Dutch Navy Museum in 1995. She was restored to her WWII configuration, and can be visited today at anchor in Den Helder, in Northern Holland.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was not the first time in history – nor even the first time in WWII – that a fleet at anchor was devastated by a surprise attack from carrier-launched airplanes. A year earlier, on the night of November 11-12, 1940, the British Royal Navy launched 21 obsolescent Swordfish biplane torpedo bombers from the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious against the Italian fleet anchored at Taranto. It was history’s first naval engagement that relied upon carrier aircraft to attack heavily defended warships and was a defining moment of the Royal Navy’s Fleet air arm.
Plans for attacking the Italian fleet in Taranto, which was well-positioned to sortie out and interdict British lines across the Mediterranean, had been mulled by the Royal Navy for years before the outbreak of WWII. The most promising plan, codenamed Operation Judgment, called for an attack by torpedo bombers launched from an aircraft carrier.
31. The First Surprise Attack From Carrier-Launched Planes Against an Anchored Fleet
The Italian ships anchored in Taranto were protected by torpedo nets, surrounded by barrage balloons and antiaircraft guns, and thought that they were immune. They were not. In the days preceding the attack, RAF photoreconnaissance confirmed the presence of the Italian fleet in Taranto, and identified the various ships’ locations, especially the battleships. Final plans were then formed, and a strike force was prepared.
A first wave of a dozen Swordfish biplanes, half armed with torpedoes and the other half with bombs and flares, were launched from the Illustrious at 9 PM, November 11th. 90 minutes later, they were followed by a second wave of nine more Swordfish.
Upon reaching Taranto, the leading Swordfish dropped illumination flares, then bombed the port’s oil storage facilities. In the meantime, other Swordfish launched torpedoes at anchored battleships. The second wave arrived shortly before midnight, dropped flares, and launched more torpedoes. In less than two hours, the biplanes struck three battleships and several cruisers, and severely damaged the port’s installations, for the loss of two planes and four crewmen.
It was one of the most successful raids of WWII. The Italians lost half their capital ships that night, and the following day, transferred their surviving ships to the greater safety of Naples. The raid revolutionized warfare, and changed the course of history by ushering in the ascendancy of naval aviation and the aircraft carrier over battleships. Other navies took a keen interest in what the British had done at Taranto, and Japanese observers of the Imperial fleet, in particular, paid close attention. US Navy observers did not, to America’s detriment a year later at Pearl Harbor.
29. The First Installment on the Payback for Pearl Harbor
It was the morning of April 12th, 1942, five months after America was thrust into WWII. As the sun chased away the Pacific night, seamen aboard the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise and her escorting task force, which had just linked up with the carrier Hornet north of Hawaii, were startled to see the Hornet’s flight deck crammed with strange airplanes. They were bigger than anything seen before on the deck of a US Navy aircraft carrier. The planes were B-25 Mitchell medium bombers, and the daring raid they carried out a few days later was to be their first major combat operation.
The raid resulted from President Roosevelt’s desire, expressed soon after the Pearl Harbor attack, that Japan be bombed as soon as possible to boost public morale. At that stage in WWII, America had no airbases close enough to bomb Japan. So a plan was hatched to bring an improvised airbase, an aircraft carrier, close enough for modified B-25 bombers to strike the Japanese homeland. The result was the Doolittle Raid.
Execution of America’s first raid against Japan was entrusted to US Army Air Force lieutenant colonel James “Jimmy” Doolittle, who began training select aircrews on short takeoffs. Taking off from aircraft carriers was a stretch for the medium bombers, and landing back on their flight desks was an impossibility. The plan was for the bombers to drop their munitions on targets in Japan, then continue on westward to land in China.
On the morning of April 18th, 1942, the task force was sighted by an enemy picket boat, 750 miles from Japan. The picket boat was quickly sunk, but not before sending a radio message. Fearing loss of the element of the surprise, it was decided to launch the bombers immediately, 10 hours earlier and 170 miles further from Japan than initially planned.
Sixteen B-25s, armed with a mix of 500lb bombs and incendiaries, lumbered off the Hornet and, flying low to avoid detection, winged their way to Tokyo. They arrived around noon, and bombed military and industrial targets. 15 bombers made it to China, where they crash-landed, while another made its way to Vladivostok, where it and its crew were interred by the Soviets.
Of eighty B-25 crewmen, three were killed, and eight were captured by the Japanese. Of the captives, three were executed, and another died while a POW. The raid inflicted little physical damage, but the psychological impact was huge on both sides of the Pacific – enough to alter the course of WWII. Doolittle’s raid caused the Japanese high command considerable loss of face. They sought to regain it by setting in motion plans to seize Midway Island, which led to a catastrophic Japanese defeat at the Battle of Midway a few weeks later.
Vidkun Quisling (1887 – 1945) was a Norwegian army officer and right-wing politician who led a fascist party in the 1930s that met with little success. He betrayed his country to the Nazis during WWII and collaborated with its German conquerors. After initially rejecting him early in their occupation as too seedy even for them, the Nazis finally relented to Quisling’s entreaties and placed him in charge of a puppet government.
Born to a pastor, Quisling’s life had a promising start that give little hint of coming ignominy. He did well in school, and graduated from the Norwegian Military College with the highest ever score since its inception. He was sent to the USSR as a military attache in 1918, and became Norway’s military expert on all things Russian. In 1922, he worked on League of Nations humanitarian relief efforts in the Ukraine, and exhibited considerable administrative talent and skill. While there, he also met and married two Russian women in quick succession, the second marriage, which lasted until his death, either bigamous or unofficial.
Discharged from the army during a period of cutbacks, Quisling traveled throughout Europe for much of the 1920s. Returning to Norway in 1929, he launched a political career marked by anti-Semitic, anticommunist, and anti-liberal positions. Joining a movement called “Rise of the Nordic People“, he became Norway’s defense minister from 1931-1933. In 1933, inspired by the Nazis’ victory in Germany, he launched a fascist party, appointing himself its Fuhrer.
Unlike Germany’s Nazis, however, Quisling’s party never won more than 2% of the vote in Norway. That left him increasingly bitter and frustrated with his countrymen. In late 1939, he flew to Berlin, met with Hitler, and offered to assist the Germans if they tried to seize Norway. The Nazis, aware of his lack of support in Norway, were noncommittal. When Germany dragged Norway into WWII by invading in 1940, the Norwegian government fled into exile. Quisling, opportunistically, tried to set up a collaborationist government. However, he was initially ignored by all, including the German occupiers.
24. Struggling to Get Taken Seriously as a Traitor
It took two years of wheedling before the Nazis finally recognized Quisling in 1942 as Norway’s “Minister-President” of a puppet regime. In that position, he did all he could to please his masters, including eager cooperation in their deportation of Norway’s Jews to death camps. Captured after the end of WWII, Quisling was tried by the Norwegians. Convicted of treason, murder, and embezzlement, he was executed in October, 1945.
Quisling’s name became synonymous with collaboration and treason. To this day, a “Quisling” is routinely used as an epithet to denote not a run-of-the-mill traitor, such as, e.g.; calling somebody a “Benedict Arnold”, but a traitor of the lowest, grubbiest, and most despicable kind. The type of traitor who lords it over and represses his own people on behalf of a conquering enemy, ever eager to please the foreign occupier with shameless displays of boot licking obsequiousness.
Wang Zhaoming, better known by his pen name, Wang Jingwei (1883 – 1944), was a Chinese politician who had been an associate of the revolutionary nationalist leader Sun Yat-sen. After Sun Yat-sen’s death, Jingwei became a prominent leader in the left-wing of the Chinese ruling party, the Kuomintang (KMT), from which flank he contested the leadership of the KMT with its leader, Chiang Kai-shek.
A failed collaboration with the communists weakened Jingwei politically and embittered him so much that he abandoned the left altogether. He became a rabid right-winger, turned traitor, and during WWII, collaborated with the invading Japanese against his own people.
Wang Jingwei had been among the bright Chinese students sent by the dying Qing dynasty to study abroad, and he attended university in Japan. There, he joined radical nationalist Chinese student circles, self-identified as an anarchist, and became a disciple of Sun Yat-sen. Returning to China, he became a prominent speaker on behalf of Chinese nationalism, and was jailed for plotting to assassinate the Qing regent. Freed in the Chinese Revolution of 1911, which did away with the Qing dynasty, he emerged from jail a national hero.
The 1911 Revolution and overthrow of the imperial system led to a chaotic period of warlord rule. A nationalist party, the Kuomintang, was formed to restore order, and in 1925 sent what was known as the Great Northern Expedition to bring the warlords to heel and restore the central government’s authority. Jingwei became chairman of the national government, but Chiang Kai-shek, the successful general who led the campaign against the warlords, formed a rival government in southern China.
21. Falling In With the Communists, Then With the Japanese
Wang Jingwei formed a government in northern China in collaboration with the communists. However, he eventually fell out with the communists and purged them, at which point his government collapsed and his supporters flocked to Chiang Kai-shek. Bitter, Jingwei became an extreme right-winger. When the Japanese invaded China in 1937, he flew to meet their representatives in Hanoi, and issued a declaration calling for peaceful negotiation with the invaders.
In 1939, he flew to Japan for negotiations, and while there, betrayed China and negotiated a deal on his own behalf. In 1940, he defected and was appointed by the Japanese to head a puppet regime, based in Japanese-occupied Nanking, that nominally “governed” the Japanese-conquered territories in China. During WWII, he remained Japan’s Chinese puppet ruler until his death in 1944.
Mihajlo Pejic, who would later anglicize his name to Mitchell Paige, was born in Pennsylvania in 1918, to Serb immigrant parents who hailed from what had been the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As Paige would later recount, his mother had raised him and his brother as proud Americans, while keeping them aware of and in touch with their Serb ethnic roots.
From early childhood, as he recalled, he grew up with stories of Serbian feats of heroism and resistance, dating from as far back as the 1389 Battle of Kosovo. Consuming such martial lore as steady fare at home, it was no surprise that Paige grew up with a desire to join the military. As a young boy, he watched a parade that featured proudly marching US Marines. Then and there, he made up his mind to join the Corps as soon as he was old enough.
Mitchell Paige graduated high school in 1936, and later that summer, he walked about 200 miles from his Pennsylvania hometown to the Marine recruiting center in Baltimore, Maryland, where he enlisted. It was the start of a journey that would lead him to a WWII Medal of Honor. After boot camp in Parris Island, SC, and further training, he ended up as a gunner aboard the battleship USS Wyoming, which eventually took him to the West Coast and the Pacific.
Paige’s stint aboard the Wyoming was followed by a series of onshore duty assignments, that took him from San Francisco to the Philippines and eventually to China. During that period, he played for the Navy-Marine baseball team, which gained some renown in the second half of the 1930s, and also tried his hand at boxing. In 1939, he took part in American disaster relief efforts in China, following catastrophic flooding that devastated the Tianjin region.
1940 saw Mitchell Paige back in the US, where he served in the Navy Yards at Brooklyn and Philadelphia. He then joined the 5th Marine Regiment, and took part in training exercises and maneuvers in Cuba and Puerto Rico. Paige was transferred back to the US in 1941, as part of the initial cadre that set up a new training base for the Marines at Camp Lejune, North Carolina.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor later that December thrust America into WWII, Paige was returned to overseas duty, this time with the 7th Marine Regiment. By 1942, Paige had been promoted to sergeant, in charge of his own platoon. In September of that year, he and his unit headed for Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. There, within a few weeks of arrival, USMC Sergeant Mitchell Paige would earn his place in history.
1942 had been a generally grim year for America and her allies in the Asia-Pacific Theater, relieved only by the naval victory at the Battle of Midway that June. The rampaging Japanese kicked off WWII in the theater by running riot, capturing the Philippines, the Malay Peninsula, Singapore, Hong Kong, Burma, Wake plus sundry other Pacific islands, much of New Guinea, and were threatening India and Australia. Things began looking even grimmer when news arrived that the Japanese were busy building an air base in Guadalcanal, one of the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific.
In peacetime, there was nothing significant about the Solomons, but in wartime, they became vitally important. Japanese long-range aircraft operating out of Guadalcanal could disrupt communications and supply lines between America and Australia, and that was unacceptable. So it was decided to seize the island before the Japanese airfield became operational. Rushed planning was followed by a rushed Marine invasion in August, 1942, that caught the enemy off guard and seized the nearly completed airfield. It was hurriedly completed by its new owners, and opened up for business as Henderson Field, named in honor of a Marine aviator.
The invasion of Guadalcanal started off well, but things soon took turn for the worse. Setbacks at sea made the waters around the island too dangerous for the US Navy, which hurriedly decamped. That left the Marines – who had not yet landed all their munitions and supplies from transport ships – stranded, just as the Japanese were rushing in reinforcements for a counterattack to regain control of the island. What followed next were weeks of sheer hell on earth. Desperate Marines, supported by a collection of plucky airmen flying off of Henderson Field, short of just about everything, fought off attacks by an enemy equally desperate to kick them off Guadalcanal.
In September, 1942, Mitchell Paige arrived with the 7th Marine Regiment, under the command of legendary leatherneck Chesty Puller, to reinforce their hard-pressed brethren in Guadalcanal. During the night of October 25-26, Paige and his platoon were dug into their foxholes, when he heard and noticed signs of heavy enemy activity and preparations somewhere out in the pitch dark of the jungle.
Correctly judging that a Japanese night attack was in the works, Mitchell Paige did what he could to ready his men for the coming storm. It broke in the early morning hours. At 2 AM, October 26th, 1942, the jungle night’s quiet was shattered by the din of battle. Thousands of Japanese from the 16th and 29th Infantry Divisions made a desperate bid to overrun the 7th Marines, in order to capture Henderson Field. Their main route went straight through the position occupied by Sergeant Paige’s platoon.
The ensuing desperate fight was the culmination of the Battle For Henderson Field, October 23rd to 26th, 1942. It was the third major offensive that sought to recapture Guadalcanal, as the Japanese 17th Army made a desperate bid to burst through Marine and Army forces guarding the Lunga Perimeter, which protected Henderson Field. Over three days and nights, the Japanese launched a series of assaults around the American perimeter, all of them beaten back with heavy losses.
The most dramatic of those assaults was probably the one that took place on the final night of the battle, directly through Mitchell Paige’s platoon. When the charging Japanese drew within a few hundred yards of his position, Paige ordered his men to open fire. Machine gun and rifle bullets mowed down rows upon rows of the enemy, but they ignored their losses, and pressed their attack to Paige’s position. The fighting soon descended into hand-to-hand combat, as Marines and Japanese infantrymen grappled with each other in the dark, stabbing, clubbing, bayoneting, and sometimes literally fighting tooth and nail by biting and clawing one another.
The first Japanese charge was repulsed, but the respite was only temporary. The first attack was followed by more waves of fanatical attackers. As the desperate night dragged on, the unit to Paige’s left was overrun, and his men ended up isolated. They fell one after the other, killed or wounded. Eventually, Paige ended up as the sole survivor in his company still on the battle line and capable of fighting. So he fought on, alone.
Mitchell Paige found himself manning a machine gun position by himself, which was surrounded by an entire Japanese regiment. He kept pouring fire into the enemy, until his machine gun was shot up and put out of action. So he braved heavy fire and broke through enemy lines to a neighboring company, commandeered one of their machine guns, and ordered some riflemen to fix bayonets and follow him.
Over the next few hours, Paige made a desperate last stand that saw him alternating between four machine guns, as each overheated or was otherwise put out of action. During that stretch, he single-handedly broke a Japanese attack that threatened his battalion’s command post.
After beating off one wave of attackers, Paige grabbed a machine gun, and firing it from the waist like a Greatest Generation Arnold Schwarzenegger, charged down a hill to disrupt a Japanese attempt at regrouping. During that charge, a Japanese officer emptied a pistol trying to shoot Paige, but missed.
The Japanese officer then drew his samurai sword, but Paige mowed him down before he got close enough to take a swing. All in all, through a series of personal heroics, Paige held his position for ten hours, before reinforcements finally arrived to stabilize the line.
Mitchell Paige’s exploits earned him the highest award for valor, and his Medal of Honor citation read: “For extraordinary heroism and conspicuous gallantry in action above and beyond the call of duty while serving with the Second Battalion, Seventh Marines, First Marine Division, in combat against enemy Japanese forces in the Solomon Islands Area on October 26, 1942. When the enemy broke through the line directly in front of his position, Platoon Sergeant Paige, commanding a machine-gun section with fearless determination, continued to direct the fire of his gunners until all his men were either killed or wounded.
Alone, against the deadly hail of Japanese shells, he manned his gun, and when it was destroyed, took over another, moving from gun to gun, never ceasing his withering fire against the advancing hordes until reinforcements finally arrived. Then, forming a new line, he dauntlessly and aggressively led a bayonet charge, driving the enemy back and preventing a breakthrough in our lines. His great personal valor and unyielding devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service“.
When the guns finally fell silent and WWII came to an end, over eight million American servicemen were stationed overseas, scattered all over the globe. The fighting was over, and it was time to bring our heroes back home – heroes whose eagerness to return to civilian life was matched by the eagerness of their loved ones to see, touch, and embrace them once again.
To that end, Operation Magic Carpet was conducted to repatriate America’s boys to American soil. The massive logistical effort was entrusted to the War Shipping Administration (WSA). It was an agency created during the emergency of WWII to coordinate, oversee, and operate America’s civilian shipping in support of the war effort.
Planning for Magic Carpet began in 1943. Even as transports crossed the Atlantic, laden with the troops who would help free a continent from the Nazi yoke, the WSA and the War Department drew plans for their eventual return. Priority for repatriation at the end of WWII was determined by the Advanced Service Rating Score. It was a pecking order based upon the principle that: “those who had fought longest and hardest should be returned home for discharge first”. Points were awarded for months of service, months of service overseas, combat awards, and for dependent children. The more points scored, the greater the priority for shipping home and discharge.
In preparation, the WSA converted over 300 cargo ships into troop transports. Beginning in June, 1945, within a month of Germany’s surrender, the WSA began shipping American servicemen from Europe to the US. Following Japan’s surrender, the agency’s remit was extended to repatriate servicemen from the Asia-Pacific Theater as well.
Magic Carpet began in earnest when the first ships set sail in June, 1945, from the European Theater and crossed the Atlantic, laden with returning servicemen. The American buildup in Europe had averaged about 150,000 troops shipped across the Atlantic per month. After the war ended, Magic Carpet reversed the tide, returning American servicemen at an astonishing rate that averaged 435,000 men per month during a 14-month stretch. A peak was reached in December, 1945, when over 700,000 personnel were repatriated from the Pacific Theater alone.
To maintain the pace, the number of ships employed steadily grew from the initial 300 requisitioned by the WSA at the start of the operation. The motley fleet ranged in size from small vessels with a carrying capacity of only 300 troops, to behemoths such as the luxury liners Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary, converted during WWII into troop transports capable of carrying up to 15,000 servicemen. Among the vessels utilized were 48 hospital ships, to transport over half a million American wounded. There were also 29 specially commissioned transports, to ship the half-million war brides – European women married by American servicemen – to their new homes in the New World.
Passage times back home 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, 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. Then the sudden capitulation of Japan in August, 1945 threw a monkey’s wrench into the works: WWII 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. The war against Japan 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.
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. There, American and Allied captives had languished for years, often starved, brutalized, and otherwise barbarically mistreated by their captors.
Once the ceasefire was declared in the Pacific on August 15th, 1945, aerial reconnaissance missions were flown from US aircraft carriers to try and pinpoint POW camps in Japanese territory. Once located, airdrops of supplies, especially food and medicine, sometimes accompanied by courageous medics and doctors who volunteered to parachute in, were conducted to succor the malnourished and ill captives. As soon as the Japanese surrender was officially signed, and sometimes even before, American POWs were retrieved from Japanese captivity and, given a high priority, started off on their long journey home.
Magic Carpet in the Pacific Theater of Operation was concluded by September, 1946. The War Shipping Administration, created as an emergency measure during the crucible of WWII, was finally stood down, and its functions were returned to the civilian Maritime Commission. A subset of Magic Carpet, termed Operation Santa Claus, aimed to bring home as many eligible troops as possible in time for Christmas, 1945. December, 1945, was the peak month of the entire sealift, with the number of returning personnel spiking from the monthly average of 435,000 to 700,000 from just the Pacific alone.
Unfortunately, as many as 250,000 returning servicemen were stranded on the East and West Coasts, unable to reach their homes home due to the mother of all rail jams – back when railways were the primary mode of long-distance travel. Fortunately, thousands of civilians opened their hearts and homes, welcoming servicemen to join them for Christmas. They might not have enjoyed the warmth of their own families, but they enjoyed the warmth of strangers who made them a part of their family that day.
2. Bringing Our Boys Home While Sending Their Boys Back
Examples of generosity at Christmastime, 1945, abounded, including a trucker who took 35 troops from Denver to Dallas and points between. A Los Angeles cabbie drove 6 servicemen all the way to Chicago, while another LA cabbie did him one better, and transported 6 returning heroes to New York City. Even for those who spent Christmas stranded in barracks, the reaction of one returning private best captured the mood, noting that simply touching America’s soil once again was: “the best Christmas present a man could have“.
The movement of personnel during Magic Carpet was bi-directional. Not only were Americans being shipped from around the world back to the US at the end of WWII, but German, Italian, and Japanese POWs were also being shipped back to their homes from captivity in the US. In one round trip, the USS Wasp transported 1200 Italian POWs from the US to Naples, and the following day sailed back to the US, carrying 4000 American servicemen.
American occupation forces were also ferried to Germany, Japan, Korea, and China. Simultaneously, Chinese troops were sealifted from southern to northern China to disarm the Japanese, as well as to oppose Chinese communists in the region. Simultaneously, hundreds of thousands of disarmed Japanese were shipped from all over eastern and southern Asia, as well as numerous Pacific islands, back to the Japanese home islands.
It had taken nearly four years for America to deploy over eight million servicemen overseas during WWII. It would take only 14 months to reverse the torrent, and return most of them back home. In short, Operation Magic Carpet was an enormous, and enormously successful, feat of logistics, planning, and execution – a fitting end to America’s experience in WWII.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading