In the days before Christmas in 1945, naval vessels loaded with thousands of American sons and daughters battled hurricane-force winds and eighty-foot waves in the stormy Atlantic, aiming to deliver the troops home in time for the holidays. Sailors shored up buckling bulkheads with timber supports to keep their ships afloat. Converted aircraft carriers carrying thousands of veterans cut speed to ride out furious storms. Half a world away, more ships moved in calmer seas but they carried an even larger force – 179,000 in all – from Pacific battle zones to ports on the West Coast from Seattle to San Diego. On a single day, December 24, forty thousand men and women returned to the United States from duty overseas. The crush of military travelers overwhelmed ports and railroads, creating a situation that most regarded as the worst traffic jam in the nation’s history. Fifty-three thousand servicemen were stuck in San Francisco, where local residents invited them home for Christmas dinner. In Los Angeles, the president of the Union Pacific Railroad turned over his private car to twelve Army nurses bound for home in the East. Five sailors in San Pedro, California, convinced a taxi driver to take them to Dallas, then another to drive four of them on to Atlanta.
In Chicago, where rail lines converged from east and west, fifteen thousand impatient passengers stampeded at Dearborn Station, police descended, and the New York Central System temporarily refused to sell tickets on eastbound trains, an action with repercussions across the nation. The governors of Illinois and Indiana called out the state militia to drive veterans home. On the East Coast, trains filled to capacity and civilians waited in lines at airline terminals for the rare seat not already taken. A strike affecting Greyhound buses in eighteen states compounded the gridlock. Fifteen thousand troops spent Christmas Day in New York City, marooned but relieved by the sight of the familiar Manhattan skyline after days at risk in rough seas. “When I saw the New York skyline again and knew that I was really back in the States and close to my family, nothing else counted,” said a veteran of nearly two years in the Army Counter-Intelligence Corps in India. “My Christmas is going to be all right.” Only partway home for Christmas, stranded servicemen and women gratefully settled for long-distance telephone calls to their families. After two or three years at war overseas, the reunions could wait another day or two.
Among the hundreds of thousands of people in motion, on December 22 the Mayor of San Francisco began his long journey home from London after nearly a month of courting the United Nations. As representative for one of the many cities seeking to become the UN’s permanent home — the Capital of the World — Roger Lapham had stayed longer than any other American civic booster to circulate among the delegates and remind them of the warm welcome they already had experienced in San Francisco. Through the first two weeks of December, Lapham had listened to lengthy debates over whether to place the headquarters in the United States or in Europe, and he had been gratified to hear San Francisco mentioned frequently as a possible location. By December 20, when the UN Preparatory Commission determined that the site question needed further study by an interim committee, Lapham decided he had done all he could for the moment. The interim committee had been instructed to select up to six well-qualified locations for the General Assembly to consider, and Lapham felt confident that San Francisco would be among them. He knew that a final decision had been deferred until the first meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in January.
On Saturday, December 22, the weary but optimistic Mayor of San Francisco boarded a train for the Hurn airport to join the mass migration of Americans out of Europe. There, as he waited for his flight, he heard stunning news: San Francisco was out of the running. For San Francisco, and for a new pack of competitors for the title of Capital of the World, the holiday season of 1945 became a time for reaching out to the world as for reuniting families at home.