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FreightWaves Classics: Red Ball Express supplied American troops fighting the Nazis (Part 2)

FreightWaves Classics: Red Ball Express supplied American troops fighting the Nazis (Part 2)

Red Ball Express trucks backed up to a train for supplies. (Photo courtesy of First Army Museum)

To commemorate Black History Month, FreightWaves Classics profiles the Red Ball Express, which was manned primarily by Black soldiers.

FreightWaves thanks each man and woman, of all races and creeds, who has served in and is serving in the armed forces of the United States of America.

This is the second article in a series about the fabled Red Ball Express, which supplied the American armies racing through France to fight and/or capture the retreating German armies. 

The Red Ball was primarily Black

Unfortunately, most people under 60 don’t know much about World War II. While they may know the Allies defeated the Axis (Germany, Italy and Japan), they don’t know much about the specifics of the war that now seems so long ago. Of those who served in the war, more than 1,000 U.S. World War II veterans die daily, and most that are still alive are in their 90s. 

Also, most Americans do not realize that the U.S. Armed Forces were segregated in World War II. They were not integrated until 1948, when President Truman mandated that change. And most Americans haven’t heard of, or know about, the Red Ball Express. Of those that have, most do not realize that about 75% of all the soldiers who served as truckers or mechanics in the Red Ball Express were Black. Generally, segregated Black troops were assigned to rear echelon support and service units; most served in the Quartermaster Corps rather than as front-line troops. They were assigned to port battalions, drove trucks, worked as mechanics, and served as “humpers” who loaded and unloaded ammunition and supplies. 

A U.S. Army sergeant assigned to the Red Ball Express
A U.S. Army sergeant assigned to the Red Ball Express

Since 75% of those who served in the Red Ball Express were Black, that means about 25% were white. Whites and Blacks were urged not to mingle during off-duty hours. “You accepted discrimination,” recalled Washington Rector of the 3916th Quartermaster Truck Company. “We were warned not to fraternize with whites for fear problems would arise.” The races were so efficiently separated that some white veterans of the Express were unaware that most of the Red Ball drivers were Blacks. A white driver recalled telling a soldier that he was a Red Ball driver. The soldier looked at him and asked why he was not Black.

Of those assigned to the Red Ball Express (white and Black), many did not know how to drive a truck and were taught by the Army Transportation Corps. (This training consisted of a few hours of the most rudimentary instruction.) They went from rear-action responsibilities (or soldiers who had not seen combat yet) to the front lines. As truckers, they carried critical supplies inland from the Normandy beachhead and near St. Lô, France, to the 28 American divisions that had landed on the beaches of Normandy, through its hedgerows and were racing across western Europe in pursuit of the retreating German forces.

During its short but illustrious history, both whites and Blacks made it successful. But it was Black troops who kept the Express rolling. 

Reality overwhelmed planning

Before the invasion, the Army’s Transportation Corps estimated that 240 truck companies were necessary to sustain an advance across France. The Transportation Corps also recommended that the majority of these units be equipped with 10-ton flatbed semi-trailers. But there were too few of the flatbeds available. When the Normandy invasion began on June 6, 1944, the Army had authorized only 160 truck companies for the operation (instead of the 240 recommended), and most of those would be supplied with GMC 21/2-ton trucks, also known as the 6×6.

Simply put, the existing Quartermaster truck companies did not have enough trucks or drivers to supply the advancing Allied armies. Following the break-out from the hedgerows of Normandy, the Allies (particularly the American forces) moved much faster than the pre-invasion planning believed was possible. This made the lack of trucks and qualified drivers more serious than ever.

In the first few weeks after the D-Day (June 6, 1944) invasion of Nazi-held France, the Allies made little headway against the disciplined German Wehrmacht (army). Some military leaders even feared a repeat of the trench warfare of World War I as the Germans continued to slow the Allies attempts to break out of their Normandy beachhead.

The hedgerows of Normandy slowed the advancing Allied armies for weeks after D-Day. (Photo: Public domain)
The hedgerows of Normandy slowed the advancing Allied armies for weeks after D-Day. (Photo: Public domain)

However, the German front lines began to crack in late July. The Americans moved quickly toward the Seine River pursuing the German Seventh Army. However, the Allied commanders had not anticipated a rapid German retreat. Instead, they had expected (and planned for) the battles in France to be a slow, steady advance and defeat of the enemy.

Among the Allies’ pre-invasion plans was that Lt. Gen. George Patton, Jr.’s Third Army would turn westward after the breakout to clear the French ports in Brittany. Meanwhile, Lt. Gen. Omar Bradley and British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery were to use their troops to push the Germans eastward across the River Seine. 

Due to the speed of the German retreat, however, a new plan took shape. If Patton and Bradley could outrun the Germans, the Americans could trap the bulk of the German forces between Normandy and the Seine. In the Falaise pocket northwest of Paris, approximately 100,000 German soldiers were surrounded, 10,000 were killed and 50,000 were captured. This action demonstrated the vulnerability of the Germans at that time.

In any war, there are two tremendous tasks. That of the combat troops is to fight the enemy. That of the supply troops is to furnish all the material to ensure victory. The faster and farther the combat troops advance against the foe, the greater becomes the battle of supply.

Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower
October 1945

Why and how the Red Ball Express began

In order to pursue the Germans quickly, Bradley’s and Patton’s forces needed sufficient supplies and an effective supply chain. For their forces (both tanks and men) to be effective, huge quantities of gasoline, ammunition and other supplies were needed. The hard-charging U.S. forces began to run out of needed war materiel.

The Allies, ironically, fell victim to their own military strategy and successes. For months prior to the D-Day invasion, Allied air forces had bombed the French rail system to prevent Germany’s Field Marshal Erwin Rommel from resupplying his coastal forces after the invasion. But the ruined railroads were now of no immediate help to the Allies. Moreover, the Germans still held the key English Channel ports of northern France and Belgium (particularly Le Havre and Antwerp), so most of the supplies needed by the Allies armies were delivered to the invasion beaches on the Normandy coast instead of to a working port.

(L to R): generals George S. Patton, Jr., Dwight D. Eisenhower and Omar N. Bradley (Photo: wikipedia.commons.org)
(L to R): generals George S. Patton, Jr., Dwight D. Eisenhower and Omar N. Bradley (Photo: wikipedia.commons.org)

“On both fronts an acute shortage of supplies – that dull subject again! – governed all our operations,” General Bradley wrote in his autobiography. “Some 28 divisions were advancing across France and Belgium. Each division ordinarily required 700-750 tons a day – a total daily consumption of about 20,000 tons.”

By late August, Patton’s tanks were having to stop the pursuit, not because of the German forces, but because they were running out of fuel. On an average day, Patton’s Third Army and Lt. Gen. Courtney Hodges’ First Army needed 800,000 gallons of gasoline. But there was no supply chain or logistical system in place to deliver sufficient quantities of gasoline, artillery shells and other ammunition, food and water.

It was these circumstances in late August 1944 that created the Red Ball Express during a 36-hour brainstorming session among American commanders. Of all involved, it was Patton that pushed the hardest for a resupply effort. 

The effort’s name came from a railroad phrase – to “red ball” something was to ship it express – and from an earlier Red Ball Express in Britain that rushed supplies to the English ports during the early days of the invasion. 

The second Red Ball operation didn’t even last three months (August 25 through November 16, 1944), but by the end of those critical months the Express had established itself firmly in the annals of World War II. 

In an effort to find more trucks and drivers, infantry, artillery and anti-aircraft units were “raided,” and many of their vehicles became provisional truck units for the Red Ball Express.

A Red Ball Express convoy. (Photo courtesy of African American Registry.org)
A Red Ball Express convoy. (Photo courtesy of African American Registry.org)

Moreover, any soldier whose duties were not critical to the immediate war effort was asked to become a driver. After the beachhead had been expanded to the surrounding countryside, Normandy became a staging area for arriving infantry divisions. Until these divisions were moved to the front, they bivouacked (camped) for as long as several weeks. Many infantrymen (including many who had never driven a truck) signed up for temporary duty (which lasted about two weeks) on the Red Ball Express, rather than deal with the mud and boredom of their encampments. Most of those temporary troops were white.

One example of a volunteer was Phillip A. Dick, a scout corporal with Battery A, 380th Field Artillery, 102nd Division. Dick had never previously driven a truck. But like many others, Dick was given a few hours of instruction and told he had qualified.

Dick recalled, “Everybody was stripping gears, but by the time we got back to the company area we could make the trucks go.” The motto of the Red Ball was “tout de suite” (immediately), which likely came from a French phrase adopted by Americans as they sought to defeat the Germans. According to John O’Leary of the 3628th Truck Company, “Patton wanted us to eat, sleep and drive, but mostly drive.” 

In any war, there are two tremendous tasks. That of the combat troops is to fight the enemy. That of the supply troops is to furnish all the material to ensure victory. The faster and farther the combat troops advance against the foe, the greater becomes the battle of supply. Dwight D. Eisenhower October 1945

The Red Ball Express in action

The desperate need for supplies was so important that the Red Ball Express reached its peak performance within the first five days of operation. On August 29, some 132 truck companies, operating 5,958 vehicles, carried 12,342 tons of supplies to forward depots – a record that went unmatched during the next 14 weeks of the operation’s existence. The Express was an example of the American “can-do” attitude. 

However, the first Red Ball convoys were quickly overwhelmed by the congestion of civilian and military traffic in the area. (The civilian traffic was mostly foot traffic as the French moved toward the Allied lines.) In response to the traffic jams, the Army established a priority route of two parallel “highways” (two-lane roads) between the Normandy beachhead and Chartres, a city just outside Paris. The northern road carried one-way traffic outbound from the beaches. The southern route was designated for return traffic. 

A sign printed in French warning that the Red Ball Express route was closed to all civilian traffic. 
(Photo courtesy of the First Division Museum)
A sign printed in French warning that the Red Ball Express route was closed to all civilian traffic.
(Photo courtesy of the First Division Museum)

All civilian and unrelated military traffic was forbidden on the Red Ball route, and military police (MPs) and Red Ball drivers rigidly enforced that rule. Generally, the Red Ball convoys drove in the middle of the road to avoid mines planted by the retreating Germans, and would stop for nothing. 

As the front moved past the Seine and Paris, the two-way loop route was extended to Soissons, northeast of Paris, and to Sommesous and Arcis-sur-Aube, east of Paris toward Verdun.

The “rules” and the reality of the Red Ball Express

As outlined above, the Army sought to establish control over the newly formed Red Ball route.  “Rules of the road” were drawn up to govern the Express. According to David Cassels, a warrant officer junior grade with the 103rd Quartermaster Battalion, “trucks were to travel in convoys of at least five trucks; each truck was to carry a number to mark its position in the convoy; each convoy was to have a lead jeep carrying a blue flag; a ‘clean-up jeep’ at the end of the convoy had a green flag; the speed limit was 25 mph; and trucks were to maintain 60-yard intervals.” That was the “perfect world” plan.

Red Ball Express trucks with fuel cans lined up in front of them.
 (Photo courtesy of American Battle Monuments Commission)
Red Ball Express trucks with fuel cans lined up in front of them.
(Photo courtesy of American Battle Monuments Commission)

However, the fast-moving Allied armies made those regulations obsolete for all but the most regulation-happy bureaucrats. In reality, it was common for individual trucks to depart from supply depots as soon as they were loaded. According to those who participated, the real story of the Red Ball Express was more like a stock car race (at slower speeds and with more crashes).

“Oh boy, do I remember that Red Ball gang!” said Fred Reese, a former mechanic in an ambulance unit. “They were a helluva crew. They used to carry ammunition boxes twice as high as the top of the truck and when they went down the highway they swayed back and forth. They had no fear. Those guys were crazy, like they were getting paid for every run.”

Delays could occur at any time, but the longest delays primarily took place when trucks were being loaded at the beachhead or at depots. If the truckers followed the regulations and waited for a convoy to assemble, they could be delayed for hours. Therefore, knowing that the supplies they were carrying literally meant life or death for American soldiers, many truckers went out alone or in small groups without an attending officer in order to keep the vast supply line going. 

The men of the Red Ball drove night and day, week after week. Drivers and assistant drivers were constantly exhausted. One veteran of the Red Ball remembered being so exhausted at one point that he simply could not keep driving. However, the convoy could not stop. He and his assistant driver switched seats as the truck kept moving at speed. Whenever the convoys were stopped for one reason or another, the drivers dozed in their seats; their heads slumped over the steering wheel. 

There were times when the front line was moving so quickly that Red Ball drivers never found the supply depot they were looking for. When that happened, the drivers gave their loads to any soldiers who needed the ammunition, fuel or rations.

Most often, trucks carried supplies from one depot to the next, dropped them and returned. From the advanced depots more trucks picked up the supplies and carried them farther or to the front lines. Shortly after the breakout from Normandy, it was not uncommon for Red Ball trucks to drop ammunition at artillery positions within a few miles of the front line. One Red Ball veteran remembers encountering a Sherman tank that had run out of gas. He passed cans of gasoline to the crew while the Germans were within shouting distance.

Another Red Ball trucker remembered kicking ration boxes off his truck to a group of MPs who had not been relieved for days and had no rations. 

Click here to read Part 1 of the story of the Red Ball Express. Also, there are many in-depth articles about the Red Ball Express and hundreds of photos available online. Learn more about the brave men who served our nation in World War II.


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11 February 2021, 20:00