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NEWS | Feb. 3, 2016

Red Ball Express: Keeping the Wheels of War Turning

By JENNIFER FRIEND United States Army Reserve Command

“It was dusk, somewhere in France in the autumn of 1944. A jeep carrying a first lieutenant in charge of a platoon of trucks crested a hill. Instinctively, the young officer scanned the horizon for enemy aircraft that sometimes swooped in low for strafing runs. The skies were empty. But as far as the eye could see, ahead and to the rear, the descending night was pierced by specks of white and red light–cat eyes, the blackout running lights of hundreds of trucks that snaked along the highway.”— David P. Colley from the book “On the Road To Victory: The Red Ball Express”

The convoy described above is that of the famous Red Ball Express trucking operation in the European Theater of Operation during World War II in the late summer and fall of 1944.

Army General George S. Patton’s advance across France in 1944 is credited historically as a significant contribution to the Allied victory in Europe in World War II. The impasse that ensued shortly after the Normandy invasion became critical, launching Operation Cobra into action on July 21, 1944 to break the stalemate.

The operation called for a massive aerial bombardment along a small stretch of the Germany defensive lines.Although the results had the intended effect on the enemy, it also created significant and unforeseen consequences for the Allies.

The German Army retreated so rapidly, the Allies were forced to scramble after them. The breakout from Normandy and parts of France started a race to Paris and points north and east. With the railroads damaged from Allied efforts and the port of Cherbourg almost unusable because of German sabotage, Patton stretched his supply line to near-collapse.

Temporary harbors were established, and 24-hour trucking operations began. The Red Ball Express was born! The term “Red Ball” originated with the railroad. It was used to describe express cargo service dated at least to the end of the 19th century.

Around 1892, the Santa Fe railroad began using it to refer to express shipping for priority freight and perishables. The trains and tracks cleared for their use were marked with red balls. The term grew in popularity and was extensively used by the 1920s.

In the beginning, there were not enough trucks or drivers so the Army raided units that had trucks and formed provisional truck units for the Red Ball. Soldiers whose duties were not critical to the war effort were asked, or tasked, to become drivers.

Because African-Americans were still primarily relegated to non-combat roles at this time, the majority of these drivers were young African-Americans – approximately 75 per-cent. When the Red Ball Express ended Nov. 16, 1944, truckers had delivered 412,193 tons of gas, oil, lubricants, ammunition, food, and other essentials.

By then, 210,209 African-Americans were serving in Europe and 93,292 of them were in the Quartermaster Corps. Many of which, were all-black companies as well as Organized Reserve, such as the 513th and 514th Quartermaster Truck Regiments.

They were given a few hours of instruction and told they were qualified. Phillip A. Dick, a scout corporal with Battery A, 380th Field Artillery, 102nd Division, one of the few white Soldiers who volunteered for the Red Ball, recalls, “Everybody was stripping gears, but by the time we got back to the company area we could make the trucks go.”The Army established a priority route to alleviate heavy traffic delays that consisted of two parallel highways between the beachhead and the city of Chartres, just outside Paris.

The northern route was designated one-way for traffic outbound from the beaches. The southern route was for return traffic. As the war 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 men drove night and day, regardless of the weather or enemy coming at them, making sleep deprivation a normal, but dan-gerous routine. Each truck con-tained a two-man team and even though they would not see combat on route, they were armed with carbines and machine guns, just in case; ambushes and low flying ene-my aircraft were daily occurrences.

Lack of sleep and nighttime were the driver’s worst enemy.James Rookard, 84, a Red Ball driver with the 514th Quar-termaster Regiment (Organized Reserve), remembered how the truck headlights were masked to narrow “cat’s eye” slits so convoys couldn’t be spotted by their lights and attacked – it also added to the dangers of the night runs.

The drivers were frightened and with good reason; the loads they were carrying contained ammunition and jerry cans filled with gasoline turning the trucks into motorized bombs just waiting for a spark.

In some places, the front was only five miles away. Rookard recalled, “My worst memories of the Red Ball Express were seeing trucks get blown up. There were dead bodies and dead horses on the highways after bombs dropped.”Additional hazards and delays consisted of wandering livestock, theft, and starving civilians who would stand in the trucks’ path to beg for food, and the trucks took terrible abuse.

Batteries dried up, engines overheated, motors burned out for lack of grease and oil, transmissions were overstressed, bolts came loose, and drive shafts fell off.In the first month of oper-ation, Red Ball trucks wore out 40,000 tires. Although, after three months, the continuous use of both drivers and trucks took its toll, but the Red Ball Express was a military success.

According to the Army Transportation Museum, the Red Ball Express was conceived in a 36-hour brain-storming session. It lasted only three months from August to November 1944, but without it, the campaign in the European Theater could have dragged on for years.Many of the Soldiers in these truck companies left the Army af-ter the war to continue their lives as civilians.

However, without their sacrifices and willingness to serve their country, during a time of civil unrest, the war may have turned out very differently