Truck Tech

Remembering the Red Ball Express

African-American soldiers risked their lives to keep the U.S. Army supplied during World War II and became legends in the process. Blog commentary by Senior Editor Jack Roberts

February 9, 2018

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The Red Ball Express kept Allied troops supplied with food, ammunition and other vital supplies, and helped hasten the fall of Nazi Germany. Photo: U.S. Army
The Red Ball Express kept Allied troops supplied with food, ammunition and other vital supplies, and helped hasten the fall of Nazi Germany. Photo: U.S. Army

The German Army was a military wonder at the beginning of World War II, thanks to visionary generals who grasped the concept of mechanized warfare early on and perfected techniques for hitting their enemies hard and fast. And the effectiveness of this new type of warfare became apparent as soon as the war began, with the Wehrmacht rolling over France, Belgium, Norway, The Low Countries and Russia with apparent ease.

But there was a fatal flaw with the Germans’ approach to motorized war, as genius and powerful as it was: logistics.

It seems hard to believe, given the modern, motorized hardware at the front of the German columns driving deep into enemy territory, but even well into the war, the logistics train following those tanks, trucks and scout cars, carrying vital food, ammunition and supplies, were largely horse-drawn wagons.

This was the case all throughout the war. Once air superiority over Europe was achieved, American fighter pilots would shoot up columns of horses and wagons moving on the roads.

The American Army, on the other hand, had a far different view of logistics. This was due to a number of factors. The United States was already the leading automotive manufacturer in the world before World War II. And the vast distances across North America meant there was already an embryonic, mostly regional, trucking industry in operation by the time the war began. So there was simply a lot more experience among the American population with trucks and motorized logistics than there was on the German side.

Another advantage the Americans had was Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, who, as a young lieutenant in 1919, had been tasked with leading an experimental convoy of trucks across the United States to determine how reliable motor vehicles were and how long such an exercise would take.

It was a grueling affair. But it left a lasting impression on Eisenhower. He had faith in the reliability of trucks and understood how they could be used to keep an army in the field supplied while it was on the move.

Due to institutionalized racism prevalent at the time, African-American soldiers were given few opportunities during the war to serve in front-line combat units. They were mostly relegated to support roles in the Armed Forces. But one vital area they were allowed to serve in was in the Army’s Quartermaster Corps as truck drivers – and it was a job they took seriously and excelled at.

Once the U.S. Army broke out of Normandy following the D-Day landings in France, it was these African-American truck drivers, lurching around on hard seats in bare-bone, unheated Studebaker, General Motors, Ford, White, and Dodge trucks, who ran hard on the heels of the Army as they chased the Germans out of France and back into Germany.

They were known as the Red Ball Express. And these convoys of trucks, working in unbelievably harsh conditions, drove around the clock, with drivers getting little or no rest, to get supplies to the front-line troops. While it wasn’t technically a “combat” assignment, the reality was that Red Ball drivers were constantly exposed to enemy air, infantry and artillery attacks – not to mention the dangers of running as fast as possible on slick, bumpy roads, even at night with minimized “blackout” headlights providing barely enough forward visibility to see.

The Red Ball Express was trucking's great contribution to the Allied Victory in World War II. And it wouldn’t have been possible without the sacrifice and dedication of brave African-American soldiers risking their lives daily.

Comments

  1. 1. John Baxter [ February 12, 2018 @ 04:31AM ]

    They still called a special, rapid delivery parts service Red Ball in Vietnam.

  2. 2. Davonna Moore [ February 13, 2018 @ 07:58AM ]

    Great story! Thank you for the history lesson.

  3. 3. Chad Hoy [ February 14, 2018 @ 09:00AM ]

    "Due to institutionalized racism prevalent at the time" sort of rubbed me the wrong way. I'm not sure if this was the intention, but it sure sounded like the writer was insinuating that institutionalized racism no longer affects African-Americans, which I find pretty contemptuous.

  4. 4. Maurice Harden [ February 18, 2018 @ 05:24PM ]

    Agreed Chad, There is still institutionalized racism in the US. Private Prison and the school to prison pipeline. Police officers shooting blacks to death for no apparent reason or misjudgment. Discrimination in the workplace and redlining in neighborhoods. Elimination of trade schools in black neighborhoods. The 13th amendment of the US CONSTITUTION still allows slavery as long as a person is incarcerated. Who do you believe that was meant for?

 

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Author Bio

Jack Roberts

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Senior Editor

As a licensed commercial driver, HDT senior editor Jack Roberts often reports on ground-breaking technical developments and trends in an industry being transformed by technology. With more than two decades covering trucking, in Truck Tech he offers his insights on everything from the latest equipment, systems and components, to telematics and autonomous vehicle technologies.

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