Christmas in America had been anxious and somber during the four years of World War II. The peril and sacrifice of war was hard to reconcile with memories of the joyfulness of pre-War holidays, and by 1944 many American servicemen and women shared one particular Christmas wish: to be “Home Alive by ’45.”
That year, as war drew to a close in both Europe and the Pacific, it seemed possible that the wish might come true. But the war’s end hardly meant that the 2,000,000 men and women eligible for separation—those who could be done with active duty—were home in their civvies by the time the holiday rolled around. With all resources dedicated to winning the war, neither the Army nor the Navy had spent much time thinking through the logistics of bringing everyone home until after the fighting was finished. And so it was without too much preparation that Operation Magic Carpet began in September 1945 to bring the troops back home to the United States.
As Christmas approached, the Army and Navy launched Operation Santa Claus to expedite Operation Magic Carpet, with the goal of rushing as many eligible men and women home for the holiday as possible. But violent storms at sea and the volume of eligible servicemen conspired to thwart the high ambitions of these operations. And so throngs of American military personnel—some 250,000 in all, some with brand new discharge papers and some just a day or two away from separation—found themselves back on American soil for Christmas 1945, but not quite home. Instead, they faced the worst air, rail and automobile traffic jams in history. The rule of thumb in the days immediately preceding Christmas 1945 was that a westbound train would be about 6 hours late, and an eastbound train about 12 hours.