The Red Ball Express: Manned by Afro-Americans

Edited by Roy Cook

Black Heritage month is a fine time to honor the WW II African-American troops. Too often they were confined to service units, including trucking units, as journalist David P. Colley explained: All recognize that they excelled as the drivers on the Red Ball Express.

Although some trucking units were all white, about 70 percent of the transportation companies were manned by African Americans because most blacks were relegated to service units. It had been the Army's attitude for years, dating back to the eighteenth century, that blacks lacked the intellectual capacity and the fortitude to fight in integrated combat units. Of course, African Americans did more than drive trucks. They manned engineer units that kept open the supply routes, they served in ordnance companies that maintained trucks and depots, and they comprised 77 percent of the soldier-stevedores in port battalions who unloaded the ships bringing in supplies to the European Theater of Operations from Britain and America.

Blacks also served in a few segregated combat units. The largest of these were the 92d Infantry Division, which fought in Italy, and the 93d Infantry Division, which served in the South Pacific. The most famous of the black combat units was the 332d Fighter Group, better known as the "Tuskegee Airmen," which consisted of the 99th, 100th, 31st, and 302d Fighter Squadrons.
[Colley, David P. The Road to Victory: The Untold Story of World War II's Red Ball Express , Brassey's, 2000, p. 6-7]

The Battle of the Bulge was a victory and valediction for the truck, and, indirectly, for the drivers of the old Red Ball Express who played major and equally decisive roles in the battle. While many of his fellow commanders snickered at his boastfulness, Patton, at Eisenhower's request, turned around a large portion of the Third Army in Eastern France. He transported three divisions, largely by truck, north to the Ardennes, where they helped stem the German advance and relieve the 101st Airborne Division at Bastogne, Belgium. Patton moved an entire corps -- some 60 thousand men -- more than 100 miles northwest, then northeast to the left flank of the bulge. Without Patton's quick response, the Battle of the Bulge could have been an even more serious reversal for the Allies.

Hundreds of trucks were also used to evacuate the huge stores of gasoline from the main reserve dumps located between Spa and Stavelot in Belgium and prevented them from falling into German hands. In one depot near Malmedy, Belgium, directly in the path of the German drive, trucks evacuated 1,115,000 gallons of gasoline and the operation was completed in forty-eight hours. The old Red Ball provided an established organization and framework that enabled commanders to call for thousands of trucks to transport entire divisions into action within a matter of hours.

All armies depend on their service units for food and supplies. Adolph Hitler had learned this lesson by failing to heed it early in the war when Germany, severely lacking in trucks, could barely service its blitzkrieg forces. The German blitzkrieg or "lightning war," involved the use of overwhelming force via tanks, infantry, artillery, and air support moving at high speed to break through enemy lines. After the initial breakthrough, the blitzkrieg forces continued forward without pausing to establish supply lines. In the early stages of the war, Germany employed the blitzkrieg to defeat Poland (1939), the Low Countries (Belgium, Luxembourg, and The Netherlands) and France (1940), and the Red Army (1941 and 1942), all of them unprepared for this tactic.

The problem with racing beyond your supply lines was that the troops needed those supplies, as Colley described:

The Red Ball Express was a seat-of-the-pants operation, organized in extreme haste, with frequent administrative and operational breakdowns. Problems were most apparent at the beginning but continued throughout its existence. Truck drivers often avoided the Red Ball Highway to take side roads, bypassed regulating stations, ignored speed limits and maintenance, and cursed at MPs who tried to bring them in line . . . .

MTB officers immediately established traffic-control points (TCPs) that operated around the clock at principal intersections and in towns. The job of TCP personnel was to regulate convoys or any other vehicles, civilian or military, that used the dedicated highway and to ensure that Red Ball convoys had the right-of-way in all cases. TCP troops kept daily records of the arrival times of passing convoys and logged their destinations, weights, and the classes of supplies that they carried. TCP personnel also were required to have maps of alternate routes for non-Red Ball vehicles, as well as maps of the Red Ball route that showed the location of refueling points and maintenance shops for legitimate convoys and vehicles. [Victory , p. 87]

Military police were posted along the roads, with control of drivers intent on their mission:

The job of the MPs in traffic control on the Red Ball was critical to the success of the operation. There were thousands of vehicles on the highway, always in a hurry and all expecting priority treatment, but there were never enough MPs and those assigned to the Red Ball had too many other responsibilities . . . . There were hundreds of miles of Red Ball Highway to patrol, intersections to manage, detours to point out, and bridges to guard . . . . [Victory , p. 91]

The way was marked by colorful signs to keep the drivers on the route. An oft-reprinted photograph shows a sign reading:


Maintenance vehicles were posted along the route to repair disabled trucks. The Army opened bivouac rest areas where exhausted drivers could rest and get a hot meal.

Allied reconstruction of the French railroad system brought the Red Ball Express to an end on November 16, 1944:

The reconstruction of the French rail system and the creation of truck-to-rail transfer points meant that some materiel once sent by truck across France now could be transported by rail. Trucks no longer had to make the long journey back to the invasion beaches. The need for the Red Ball diminished daily.

From its peak performance when it transported 12,342 tons of supplies on 29 August, the Red Ball settled down to haul an average of 5,088 tons per day until 25 October when the loads dipped to an average of 2,711 tons daily. From then on, to the last day of the operation, tonnages declined. On 1 November, total tons carried on the Red Ball declined to 1,644 daily and seldom went above 2,000 tons thereafter.

From a high-water mark when some 132 truck companies served on the Red Ball during the first week of September, only 5 companies were left by mid-November, Red Ball's last week. On average, some 83 truck companies served on the Red Ball during its eighty-one days of operation, with an average of 899 trucks operating on the highway on any given day. [Victory , p. 183]

The Red Ball Express was a conveyor belt on wheels carrying supplies until the rail network could carry the load. During its brief existence, African-American drivers performed a vital mission that was dull, hard work. General Eisenhower acknowledged the value in an October 1 message to the officers and men of the Red Ball Express. After explaining the importance of supplying the fighting troops, he said:

On the continent, the Red Ball Line is the lifeline between combat and supply. To it falls the tremendous task of getting vital supplies from ports and depots to the combat troops, when and where vital supplies are needed, materiel without which the Armies might fail.

To you the drivers and the mechanics and your officers, who keep the Red Ball vehicles constantly moving, I wish to express my deep appreciation. You are doing an excellent job.

But the struggle is not yet won, for the enemy still fights. So the Red Ball must continue the battle it is waging so well, with the knowledge that each truckload which goes through to the combat forces cannot help but bring victory.
[Victory , p. 186-187]

The contribution of African-Americans to the Red Ball Express has not been forgotten. The 1952 film Red Ball Express featured some African-Americans, including Sidney Poitier. In 1973, CBS aired a situation comedy called Roll Out! about the adventures of a largely African-American trucking company on the Red Ball Express. Following in the footsteps of the iconoclastic Korean War comedy M*A*S*H (1972-1983), Roll Out! used World War II for a commentary on segregated race relations. The show lasted 12 episodes.

In 2003, the rock group, Scott Miller and the Commonwealth, included a song called "Red Ball Express" on their Upside/Downside album. The song told the story from the perspective of an African-American soldier looking back on his experience as a Red Ball driver. He recalls the day-to-day experience:

All we do is keep it rolling on
Trading bodies for petroleum
Heating rations on the manifold
And never sleep enough to dream about home.

Looking back, he thinks about:

Looking through cat eyes
Of a deuce and a half and a days supply
Of jerry cans in back . . .
Even now I've never felt that cold
Because fifty years later and you don't forget
Being eighteen and scared to death
In a world that's changing fast.

On June 6, 1994, the United States Postal Service issued a 29-cent stamp honoring the Red Ball Express as part of a 50th anniversary commemoration of the Normandy D-Day invasion called "The 1944: Road to Victory."

The phrase Red Ball Express would be revived in subsequent wars for express supply routes, but Colley summed up the reason why the Red Ball Express following the D-Day invasion made an impression that is recalled today:

The operation is remembered, in part, because it fits so well into American folklore. Americans have had a long love affair with the road and the truck. The speeding Red Ball drivers, thumbing their noses at military authority and the enemy to speed supplies to the front and to victory, symbolized American individualism and embodied the spirit of the frontiersmen and cowboys who had tamed the American continent. The Afro-American Red Ball drivers were the first true road warriors.