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Highway History

The Road to Civil Rights

World War II - The Red Ball Express

In addition to construction jobs in engineering units, African-American troops often were confined to service units, including trucking units, as journalist David P. Colley explained:

Although some trucking units consisted of all whites, 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 ETO [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]

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:

To supply mechanized forces, particularly with gasoline, in a fast-moving war became a seemingly impossible task . . . . The bulk of the German army marched on foot and was supplied by horse and wagon. These slow-moving infantry and supply formations used the same roads as the trucks that supplied the forward mechanized units. The highways became congested by the marching troops and horse-drawn wagons. [Victory , p. 44-45]

In 1944, this lesson was not lost on General Dwight D. Eisenhower and other allied leaders as they planned the D-Day invasion along a 50-mile stretch of German-fortified beach at Normandy in northern France on June 6, 1944. After airlifting 24,000 troops into the area, the Allies launched the largest amphibious invasion ever, with 175,000 troops stepping foot on the beach under German attack.

Supplying such a large force as it moved off the beach would not be easy under any circumstances. In this case, the difficulty was compounded because the Allies had been bombing the rail network in northern France to slow Germany's supply efforts in the captured country. The Allies knew they would have to establish a supply line, and quickly, to support the plan to chase the Germans across northern France into Germany. Gasoline, necessarily, was at the heart of the Allied battle plan:

Gasoline was the most critical commodity after the breakout. The Shermans [tanks] alone guzzled fuel at a rate of one gallon per 1-2 miles during combat. In the logistical calculations for the armies, a quarter of all supplies needed to sustain the drive into Germany was in the form of petroleum products, mostly gasoline. [Victory , p. 47]

As the First and Third American Armies pressured the German Seventh and Fifth Panzer Armies, trucks supplied huge amounts of gasoline to fuel the advance:

"With thirty-six divisions in action we were faced with the problem of delivering from beaches and ports to the front lines some 20,000 tons of supplies every day," Eisenhower wrote in Crusade in Europe . As more divisions poured into Europe, the need for supplies would only add to the strain of delivering them to the front. "When battling in a fixed position, most of this tonnage is represented in ammunition; on the march the bulk is devoted to gasoline and lubricants, called in the language of the supply office, POL (petroleum, oil, lubricants)," Eisenhower wrote. [Victory , p. 43]

Trucks struggled to keep up with the advancing army's need for POL, particularly after Eisenhower authorized the American Army to advance beyond the Seine River. In late July, the Allies finally broke the Germany lines and began forcing them back. By August, Command Zone headquarters, which was responsible for maintaining lines of communication and logistics, was searching for a solution to the supply problem.

The answer came from the Transportation Corps' Motor Transport Brigade (MTB), which had overall command of the trucking companies. The MTB Chief, Lieutenant Colonel Loren A. Ayers, and Major Gordon K. Gravelle came up with the Red Ball Express. The term had been in common use among railroads for express shipping, and it had been used for other operations during the war. However, the Red Ball Express following the Normandy invasion would earn a special claim to the name.

The plan was to gather nonessential trucks from throughout the European Theater. Although General Eisenhower had wanted tractor-trailers for the Red Ball Express, the primary vehicle was the versatile 2½ ton six-wheel-drive General Motors truck nicknamed the "Jimmy" and "deuce-and-a-half." They would operate 24 hours a day on two designated two-lane, one-way roads, reserved almost exclusively for the trucks, totaling around 600 miles at the peak of service. The northern route was closed to all traffic except convoys delivering supplies, while the southern route was closed to all but returning trucks.

The Red Ball Express began operating on August 25, 1944, with 67 truck companies, 3,358 trucks, mostly Jimmies, carrying 4,482 tons of supplies on a 125-mile run from Cherbourg to the forward logistics base at Chartres. Just 4 days later, the Red Ball Express included 132 truck companies and 5,958 vehicles. [Victory , p. 49]

This massive supply initiative required drivers, and that meant African-Americans:

What is most often overlooked about the Red Ball operation, as well as the war in Europe, is the contribution made by the African American soldiers assigned to Quartermaster and Transportation Corps units. Although three-fourths of Red Ball drivers were black, and the majority of the quartermaster truck companies in the ETO were manned by blacks, African American troops represented less than 10 percent of all military personnel in World War II. When the call went out to form the Red Ball Express, African American troops, in large measure, kept the supply lines rolling. [Victory , p. xv]

On average, as many as 900 vehicles operated around the clock. They usually operated in convoys consisting of at least five trucks with Jeep escorts in front and back, although individual trucks sometimes made the run.

Drivers in convoy were instructed to maintain 60-yard intervals to present less of a target to German bombers and a top speed of 25 miles per hour for safe operation. Passing was not allowed. During night runs, drivers had to operate without lights, using "cat-eye" headlight covers more to mark their presence than to see the road. The trucks were stopped for 10 minutes each hour to give the drivers a break.

As Colley pointed out, such a large-scale motorized supply operation was unprecedented:

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, all 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 Red Ball drivers were the first true road warriors . . . . [Victory , p. 205]

Updated: 10/17/2013
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