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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Army's Red Ball Express: Unsung Soldiers

I wrote extensively about the Port Chicago Naval Magazine Explosion and the Port Chicago Mutiny, involving the mostly African American sailors who loaded munitions bound for the Pacific Theater. The explosion was the worst homeland disaster of World War II and the Port Chicago Mutiny was the largest naval mutiny at the time. July 14, 2014 is the 70th anniversary of the explosion; ceremonies will pay respect to the fallen seaman and civilians. Here is another story of unsung African American soldiers...

The European Theater was the location of the United States Army's Red Ball Express, where again, African American soldiers comprise the majority of the personnel. Allied troops in Europe desperately needed ammunition. But in this case the ammunition was transported strictly by land; rations, medical supplies, and fuel also needed to be rapidly distributed.

The Operation was given the code name Red Ball Express. Red Ball Express was a truck convoy transportation system that traveled across Northern France. The supply line was essential after the largest amphibious landing in military history. Red Ball Express was created on August 25, 1944 in Normandy, France. Its name was borrowed from an old fashioned term for fast freight trains that contained perishable food.

Did you know that 75% of its drivers were African American?* They were members of the Army's Quartermasters Corps. Again, the belief system at this time maintained that Blacks did not have the guts necessary for being a soldier of combat. African American males were considered "intellectually inferior."As a result, the ranks of World War II military, with notable exceptions, swelled with Blacks in support positions.

However, in order to survive the Red Ball Express supply line, you had to have guts.

Army's Red Ball Express:  Unsung Soldiers

If you originally thought that Red Ball Express drivers were affable Negros, mindlessly shuttling around a military base, you are incorrect. Now some may think that being a driver in the war is not glorious, but these drivers took their work seriously. Travel by motor vehicles was necessary as the French railroad system was completely destroyed. This was done to thwart the Germans. The operation commenced shortly after the D Day invasion. D Day, or the Normandy Invasion, marked a turning point in World War II. (D Day warrants separate, future posts due to the enormity and vast scope of this historical invasion)

I asked my father about the Red Ball Express and he had a great deal of respect in his voice. He said that they had a dangerous job because they had to avoid the Wehrmacht, the German military. "You remember that?," I asked. "Yeah, he bragged, "I know a lot about the war," was his reply.

He did not personally know any drivers but I explained that the father of the late singer Whitney Houston was a Red Ball Express Driver. According to US Army Transportation, John Huston stated:

“We ran [the trucks] through summer, fall and winter, through snow, ice and rain.  Guys were falling asleep all the time.  You couldn’t get enough rest.”
Also, in viewing the aftermath of war torn French towns, Houston recalled:
"Each town was a monument to hell itself."

b/w photo of Blackwell and Houston
John Rockwell (l) and John R. Huston
Source: US Army Transportation Museum

 Driving for extended periods of times, the men faced sleep deprivation yet they had to stay alert. Veteran James Rookard recalled drivers and relief drivers learning to switch positions while the vehicles were in motion. German bombs and gunfire attacks were always a possibility on those trecherous roads. The roads had signs, traffic signals and military police directing traffic. At nighttime, truck headlights had special "cat eye covers", in order to diminish detection by the German Army. If a truck was no longer working, the truck had to be abandoned and left on the side of the road. Mobile pit crews would come along and repair the trucks (Source:

 Over fifteen hundred Army vehicles were repaired each day (Source: DOT).   Red Ball Express soldiers had to deal with debris in the road from shrapnel. They also had to deal with inclement weather, starving people begging for food, dead bodies, and bombs, remembered James Rookard.  Drivers obviously had to persevere under time constraints and the constant fear of being attacked. There was also added pressure to succeed because news reporters covered their stories back home.

The entire Red Ball Express operation was a massive initiative launched by General George S. Patton, Jr.; it lasted 82 Days according to Department of Defense. What good is having strategic, tactical plans towards the Allied victory if your troops are unequipped?  This particular operation provided forward momentum for the Allied troops after the D Day invasion.


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]

In closing, Red Ball Express was a major convoy system that supplied Allied soldiers fighting on the French front line. It was a top secret plan that was launched after D Day. The mostly Black drivers, mechanics, minesweepers and others of the Red Ball Express ultimately helped the Allies gain victory in World War II. Please share the incredible story of the Army's Red Ball Express and its Unsung Soldiers.

Some readers may say, "I see no color when fighting along my comrades." This may be true. But the question is, is it now possible to represent color when describing American military history, instead of omitting groups? When percentages are as high as 75%, such as the Red Ball Express' African American drivers, can a more accurate representation be granted? What do you think?

*US Department of Defense

Personal Stories: Red Ball Express

Notes: Hollywood had its own version of the Red Ball Express, simply named Red Ball Express. The titular film was released in 1952 and featured a predominately White cast. A young pre-Academy Award winning Sidney Portier appeared in this movie. The script had some rewrites after issues raised by the Black press.
CBS had a TV show called Roll Out in 1973-74. Roll Out aired for only twelve episodes, and was produced by the same team as M.A.S.H. There was also a 1994 US Postage Stamp dedicated to the Red Ball Express. ( Source: DOT)
See also: powerlines/robert k chester

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