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