BY ANDY TAYLOR
It was deemed the largest military movement in the history of the world.
Yet a single bullet was never fired. No bombs were dropped. And, a peace treaty was not needed.
It was the homecoming of the U.S. troops from Europe and the Pacific Theatre following the conclusion of World War II. Under President Harry Truman’s wish, all U.S. servicemen and servicewomen whose term of duty was set to expire would return to the U.S. mainland in time for Christmas 1945.
What better Christmas gift to give to the victorious United States than to bring home the men and women who had been embroiled in a global fight since December 7, 1941?
However, getting the more than 3 million soldiers, sailors and airmen back to the continental United States would prove to be a logistical nightmare that tested every mode of transportation and every military commander’s wisdom to the fullest extent. The defeat of tyranny and fascism in two hemispheres over the span of almost four years was one thing; the movement of those heroic veterans to their native shores in the span of two short months was quite another.
That’s why the homecoming ceremonies that took place across the nation 70 years ago this week were the culmination of the largest movement of military personnel ever known. The end result? Millions of families were reunited with their sons and daughters under the crisp Christmas air . . . while tens of thousands of others mourned silently and quietly as they dealt with the loss of their loved ones.
Many others would be caught in the snarl of trains, buses, and cabs across the nation in the final two weeks of Christmas 1945 — 70 years ago.
By the time autumn colors had reached the United States in late 1945, the smoke had literally cleared from both sides of the world.
A bombed-out European continent was starting to rebuild . . . while also coming to realize the shameful atrocities committed by Hitler’s Third Reich.
In the Pacific, weary U.S. sailors who were accustomed to island hopping were now mopping up the carnage of the Japanese empire — incinerated by two atomic bombs that forever scorched the Land of the Rising Sun.
In leading a triumphant United States in its victories over the Axis powers, President Harry Truman held true to his goal to return servicemen and servicewomen to the United States for Christmas. Such a measure required a massive military endeavor. It was called Operation Santa Claus and Operation Magic Carpet — a mass movement of military personnel whose collective compasses were pointing toward the U.S. ports.
In his 2010 book “Christmas 1945,” Matthew Litt wrote about the Army and Navy’s valiant attempt to rush men and women to the U.S. shores — and ultimately to their families — before Christmas. On the weekend that began on Saturday, Dec. 22, there were 200,000 servicemen who made it back to the United States soil but had yet to reach their homes and families. Some 150,000 of those servicemen were holed up on U.S. ports on the West Coast. Likewise, 50,000 troops were in the East Coast ports.
Rail lines were inundated with requests to get troops to mainland bases for the eventual discharge of the soldiers and sailors. Bus services were overwhelmed. Telegram and postal services had to operate with additional help to handle the sheer avalanche of messages.
To compound the influx of servicemen and servicewomen, Mother Nature flexed her muscle by delivering snow storms through much of the nation, thereby bringing the movement of traffic to a near standstill.
“By Sunday afternoon, December 23rd, it had become clear to the nation’s port cities that they would become temporary homes to thousands of servicemen and servicewomen unable to make it to their destinations,” wrote Litt.
To those transportation services that were able to move the troops, the sheer volume of passengers in uniform was overwhelming.
“Three of four travelers were active service people on furlough, or fully separated veterans,” wrote Litt. “Airlines, railroads and bus companies pressed additional trains, buses and planes into service, but their action failed to alleviate the jams.”
So, for many service personnel, a Christmas homecoming was either held in the comforts of their family homes . . . or found in the waiting rooms of bus stations and train depots across the nation.
Burle Neely, who has lived in Coffeyville since 1948, knows well the feeling of euphoria when returning home from war. When he was discharged as a tech sergeant in the U.S. Army Air Corps in December 1945, he had his fill of the military lifestyle — and the perils of warfare.
Neely was one of four mechanical crewmen who flew aboard C-46 and C-47 cargo airplanes for the U.S. Army Air Corps in the China-India-Burma theatre.
“We flew the ‘Hump’,” Neely said this week. “That was a nickname for the Himalayan Mountains. The best maps we had at that time showed the mountains at about 5,000 feet. They were actually 20,000 feet. So, our airplanes had to fly through the mountains. We never flew over them.”
As a low-ranking crewman, Neely never had advanced knowledge of their missions. Nor did he know the destination of those missions. In many cases, he never knew where the cargo planes were going — or even where they were going to land.
“I just took my seat in the cargo area and didn’t ask questions,” said Neely. “My job was to worry about the aircraft itself. We made sure it could fly. The destination was the pilot’s concern, not mine.”
When the war ended in the Pacific in August 1945, Neely made the jaunt back to U.S. bases in the Pacific. Hopes were high that he could make a flight to the U.S. mainland. However, plans changed, and he joined a troop ship that made the slow trek from Japan to San Francisco in 19 days.
“Once we got back to the U.S. mainland, we took a troop train to Fort Logan in Colorado,” he said. “I was discharged on December 15, 1945, and I got home to my parents’ farm near Edna on December 16, 1945. I got home the day after my dad’s birthday. So, my family was in the middle of celebrating it. When I arrived, we celebrated some more. Then, Christmas came the next week. And, we celebrated. In all, I think my family celebrated for about six weeks. There was nothing like it.”
Direct communication in late 1945 focused on postcards, letters, and telegrams. Telephone calls were still a novelty item, especially in rural Labette County, where the Neely family phone was part of a rural line that was unreliable.
“I remember postcards were a penny, and a first-class letter was 3 cents,” he said.
“When we got back to our home base in Colorado, we were allowed one free phone call. My parents got my notes in the mail that I would be coming home before Christmas. So, they were expecting me.”
Seventy years later, tears still stream down the wrinkled face of Burle Neely in recalling his homecoming experience. Neely is symbolic of the millions of soldiers and sailors who put in their time to fight tyranny and fascism. They returned to the United States as heroic victors — albeit battle scared and hardened. They married, raised families, worked hard and quietly, and asked for little — except to live in a country that proved it could respond to when the rest of the world faced imminent danger.
For Neely, a stint in the United States Army Air Corps was followed by a career with the Southwestern Bell Telephone Company.
“When I see what we went through during the war and seeing what our country is facing today, I think it would do us some good if our young men and women had to provide one year of military service after high school,” he said. “I think we would be a stronger nation as a result.”
* * * *
In Caney, seven brothers gathered around the family table, prayed for blessings, and then engorged themselves on homemade fare. They were the Kannard brothers — seven of whom who had served in the U.S. military and had made it back it their parents’ home in time for the Christmas meal.
In Litt’s “Christmas 1945” book, the author writes that the Kannard gathering was one of the more unusual homecomings in the United States because all seven brothers survived the war . . . and made it back to Caney in time to celebrate Christmas.
The seven Kannard brothers in the U.S. military were Captain Verle, Staff Sergeants Kenneth, Donald, Leslie and Richard, Private First Class Robert, and Technician Fifth Grade Glen.
Likely bumping into her uncles around that crowded table was Karen Taylor, a niece of the seven brothers who still resides in Caney. Taylor was only age 4 at the time of that Kannard brothers’ reunion and has no memories of it — other than it was an occasion that her family would talk about for many years.
“I was much too young to remember it, but I know my family talked about my uncles’ service to their country,” she said. “It seemed unusual because seven brothers who joined the service.”
* * * *
Charles Harrington of Coffeyville knew of no other town than his native South Coffeyville when he joined the U.S. Army. Imagine his shock when Harrington, upon joining the military, found himself amid total strangers — albeit fellow Army soldiers — in England and later in France and Germany.
“When the war was over, I wanted desperately to come back home,” he said. “I sustained a non-combat injury when the truck I was on in France went off the side of a road because someone cut us off on a road. I got thrown off the truck. So, I was able to take a troop ship back to New York City.
“However, some of the people aboard the ship were the first U.S. prisoners of war to be released. They obviously got the first-class treatment. While playing cards with some of my buddies on that troop ship, I looked across the room and saw another of my South Coffeyville friends, Grayson Davis. He had been a prisoner of war in a German camp. Think of it: I didn’t know a soul in Europe, got on the ship with thousands of other soldiers for a voyage home, and there was someone from my hometown of South Coffeyville sitting right across from me.”
Elder years have taken a toll on some of Harrington’s memories of his return home to Kansas.
However, he recalls fondly the joyous thrill of returning to the United States.
“The military packed those troop ships full of goodies,” he said. “We could go to the ship canteen and get anything we wanted: pop, ice cream, candy bars, magazines . . . just everything. We had been fighting on European soil for so many months that we simply took advantage of every piece of candy and bottle of soda pop. It was a thrill.”
* * * *
Ethan Temple of Independence was among the several million GIs in Europe who were battle weary and hungry by fall 1945. Already having experienced the end of European conflict in April 1945, GIs like Temple were awaiting their orders to return to the United States in the fall.
For Staff Sgt. Ethan Temple, it meant going home to his hometown of Marion, Ohio.
“I honestly don’t recall much about the trip home except I was able to get home right before Christmas,” said Temple, who spent most of his adulthood in Independence. “I do remember mustered out of service in Indian Point, Pennsylvania.”
While many soldiers and sailors were able to enjoy Christmas 1945 in the warmth of their hometowns, other servicemen were stuck in train depots, bus stations or even on troop ships.
Such was the case of R.J. Osborn of Independence, whose return home was delayed until March. An ensign in the U.S. Navy, Osborn was stuck outside of San Francisco aboard a troop ship, awaiting his final discharge.
“We were down to eating our K rations,” said Osborn, laughing at the memory of the sailors munching on canned food for sustenance.
Osborn didn’t climb out of the ship until March 1946, long after much of the fanfare and welcome home celebrations had ended just several months prior.
Bud Baden of Independence also recalls a belated homecoming in his hometown. A member of the U.S. Army Air Corps in the Pacific Theatre, Baden was a sergeant on an air-sea rescue team that was responsible for fishing out downed pilots and their crews in the shark-infested waters of the Pacific.
However, when the war officially ended in September 1945, he thought his career in the military had finally come to an end.
It did not.
Baden and his fellow Army Air Corps servicemen took up quarters at the Atsugi Air Base in Japan. Their dormitory was formerly occupied by Japanese aviation trainees.
However, on their first days inside the dormitory, fire consumed the facility, destroying everything that belonged to Baden and his fellow servicemen.
“We lost everything except what we had on our backs,” he said. “So, we had to rebuild our lives, which meant rebuilding our documentation and records. That took quite a bit of time, because our discharge was based on how long we had served. So, we were among the last to come home. I personally didn’t get home until January 1946.”
Baden said he recalls docking in Tacoma, Wash., staying three days on a ship but getting daily passes to see Tacoma. He was shipped by train to Colorado, where he was mustered out of service at Fort Logan.
“We then took the train to Kansas City and stopped at Union Station,” he said. “I was a kid from a small town in Kansas. That Union Station appeared to me like a massive structure. It was something to behold.”
Euary Smith of Coffeyville was another war veteran whose Christmas 1945 experience was spent aboard a ship anchored in a foreign harbor.
Smith was a helmsman for a landing craft ship, known as an LCS, for the U.S. Navy in the Pacific. He was a late comer to the war, having served in the military for the final two years of the war. That meant he was going to have to fulfill his minimum time requirement for Uncle Sam, thereby forcing him to spend Christmas away from his home.
Home was Checotah, Okla., and Smith would not see his hometown until May 1946.
“I spent Christmas 1945 anchored in a harbor in Sasebo, Japan,” remembered Smith. “We were able to get passes to go ashore, but I think we spent much of it on the ship.”
Smith had to spend several months aboard naval ships while they made the agonizingly slow trek back to the U.S. mainland.
“I was on a LCS that traveled no faster than 16 knots,” he said. “So, it took two months and one day to get from Japan to San Francisco. Of course, we stopped at every island between Japan and California, including three days in Hawaii.”
Once anchored outside Los Angeles, Smith was depressed to find out that his ship would have to take another route home — via Portland, Oregon.
“We went up the coast and eventually caught a train from Portland to Oklahoma City,” said Smith. “From there, I was able to get home by May 1946.”
In Montgomery County, the first peacetime Christmas since 1940 proved to be a boom for local businesses.
And, by the appearances of the advertisements that appeared in local newspapers, it appeared that vehicle tires were at the top of everyone’s Christmas list.
The Cherryvale Daily Republican of December 1945 shows numerous advertisements for tires — a luxury item by 1945 as several years of rationed rubber forced residents to patch older tires, drive on bald ones, or do away with them entirely.
An Otasco store in Cherryvale had a large supply of tires available for the Christmas season, and local gasoline stations filled the Daily Republican with ads promoting available tires.
In Independence, the Independence Army Air Field was at a near standstill. Training for fighter pilots had all but ended. And, the air field hosted its final public “field day” in early December to showcase the last remaining warbirds to the public. This include B-24 and B-17 bombers, and the P-59 fighter and the P-61 night fighter. AT-6 and C-47 airplanes also were on display. So many surplus airplanes were on display that they stretched from wing tip to wing tip and filled the entire tarmac and runway, according to newspaper accounts.
The airplanes would eventually be scrapped — and the air field itself would become the present-day Independence Airport.
In Coffeyville, local officials were clamoring to adjust to the surge of war veterans to the community. In mid-December, officials stated that the community needed as many as 300 new houses over the course of 1946 to accommodate the veteran influx.
The problem confronting Coffeyville was a lack of building materials — most of which had been speedily provided to the war effort from 1941 through 1945.
And, in Caney, the editor of the local newspaper, H.K. “Skeet” George, provided daily coverage of the homecoming celebrations befalling numerous homes across the community. “Our Boys” was a daily column on page 1 of each four-page edition of the Caney Daily Chronicle. “Our Boys” contained stories of servicemen and servicewomen who were either home on honorable discharge or making a brief stop for the holidays.
On Dec. 24, 1945, George wrote an editorial that talked about the spirit of a peaceful Christmas — something that the United States had not experienced since 1940. In many other countries, war and hostility had ravaged an entire generation of the human race, making Christmas 1945 a rare moment in modern civilization whereby the world’s citizenry could peacefully coexist — albeit amid rubble and ruin.
The continental United States was fortunate to have been spared the catastrophe of war, George said. However, the country literally sacrificed its youngest and bravest men to take the cause of universal freedom, he said.
That’s why Christmas Eve 1945 proved to be such a strong time for mankind, he wrote. George wrote, “The spirit of Christmas has a strong hold upon the human race — a hold that seemingly becomes stronger as the years go by. No other event as the birth of Christ is so universally celebrated, no other holiday is looked forward to with the mingled feeling of reverence and exuberance as is Christmas.
“Christianity has its scoffers today as it had through the ages — weak, frail human beings who blossom, perhaps, for a day to cast ridicule and mockery, only to sink forgotten into the dust. But Christianity, and the spirit of Christmas, lives on and on, as only divine things can.
“Most of us come far short of reaching into sublime heights of Christian living that is possible if only we would follow the simple teachings of the One whose birth we celebrate tomorrow. But we do know that His teachings and the example He set during his 33 years upon earth have caused many millions of people to try to be better men and women, and have brought hope and comfort to a world that today certainly would be in blackest agony were it not for the spirit He has instilled into the hearts of man.
“True, Christmas is desecrated by commercialism and wickedness. But equally true is the fact that most deeds of human kindness are done during the Christmas season than at any other time. The joy that reigned on the day of Christ’s birth still prevails. In millions of homes throughout the world, it is multiplied joy this year, because loved ones who have faced death on the field of battle are home . . . and peace reigns supreme for the first time in many years.”