To commemorate Black History Month, FreightWaves Classics profiles the Red Ball Express, which was manned primarily by Black soldiers.
FreightWaves thanks each man and woman, of all races and creeds, who has served in and is serving in the armed forces of the United States of America.
This is the third article in a series about the fabled Red Ball Express, which supplied the American armies racing through France to fight and/or capture the retreating German armies.
How the Red Ball Express worked
The French “highways” used by the Red Ball Express were similar to two-lane country roads in the United States (although most were not as wide as their American counterparts). The rapidly advancing Allied armies needed vast supplies; therefore the roads needed to be kept open and functioning. To ease this strain, main roads leading to the front were designated as one-way roads and all civilian and local military traffic were prohibited. Tens of thousands of truckloads of supplies were pushed forward over these one-way roads in a constant stream of traffic.
To keep the supply chain moving, two routes were opened from the beachhead (and later from Cherbourg, the main port used to supply the Allied troops) to supply depots along the route as well as the forward logistics base at Chartres. The northern route was used to deliver supplies, while the southern route was used solely for returning trucks.
Military police (MPs) were often stationed at the routes’ major junctions to ensure the convoys stayed on course. The MPs often directed traffic at bridges that were damaged, around other obstacles or through the narrow streets of the French villages on the route. Large rectangular signs with red balls painted on them kept the convoys on the right roads when MPs were not present.
The 793rd Military Police Battalion, which was activated in December 1942, was attached to the Red Ball Express from August through December 1944 to provide security for the route and control the traffic along it. This service with the Express is commemorated on the 793rd’s unit insignia. It features two red balls on a diagonal line of yellow, with a field of green in the background (green and gold are the colors of the U.S. Army Military Police).
Reaching supply dumps in forward areas, the Red Ball Express trucks unloaded and returned empty to the primary supply depots, the port at Cherbourg and the lesser landing places. After the French railways were repaired, loaded trains ran parallel operations.
What kind of trucks were used?
General George Patton pushed hard for a more robust resupply operation for his Third Army (which led to the formation of the Red Ball Express). He and his supply master, Major General John C.H. Lee, had 12-inch bright red circles painted on the supply trucks.
MP units assigned to the Third Army were ordered to ensure that Red Ball Express trucks were cleared to use any road and were never to be slowed or stopped. Literally, the Red Ball trucks were the lifeline for the Third Army, transporting fuel, ammunition and food to the front lines as Patton’s tanks and troops raced across France.
General Lee believed that the Army should be integrated; he influenced the decision to use the rear echelon Black troops to staff the Red Ball Express. Colonel Loren Albert Ayers, nicknamed by his men as “Little Patton,” was in charge of requisitioning two drivers for each truck, obtaining special equipment as needed, and establishing the training of the personnel as drivers for the Express’ long hauls.
In the early 1940s, Dodge trucks were known for their ability to run for thousands of miles with few repairs. Their reliability was due primarily to their flat-headed engines. Some Dodge trucks used by the U.S. Army lasted the entire war without an engine rebuild.
It has been written that Patton specifically preferred the tough 6×6 Dodge trucks for the Express, because they could run at top speeds over rough terrain to deliver the necessary war materiel. (Note, however, that the top speed of the Dodge 230-cubic inch flat-head V-6 with a two speed transfer case was about 55 mph.)
Despite his wishes, however, there weren’t enough Dodge trucks that Patton’s staff could requisition, and GMC and Chevrolet 6×6 trucks were also used. Ultimately, the Red Ball Express fleet consisted primarily of the two types of GM trucks. According to the Army Quartermaster Corps, nearly 30,000 GMC or Chevrolet 2.5-ton trucks were sidelined/cannibalized for parts to keep the other trucks running – a 5:1 ratio of parts to trucks.
Drivers routinely removed the speed governors on the carburetors to raise their trucks’ speed over 50 mph. The governors slowed the overloaded vehicles on grades and kept them from maintaining a steady and much higher speed. The governors were then replaced when it was time for the trucks to be inspected or repaired.
The hazards of driving the route
All the Express drivers were pushed as hard as the trucks they drove. They often did without regular food and rest, and their bodies were punished by the constant jolting of the harsh terrain they drove.
Engineers patrolled the roads designated for the Red Ball Express, repairing as much damage as possible – without slowing down the Express… Ordnance troops were standing by along the route with wreckers. One wrecker model used was the Diamond T Prime Mover, which had enough power to tow a disabled tank to a repair depot. As for Red Ball drivers, if their trucks were broken down, they were ordered to pull off the road and wait for a wrecker. The roving mechanics worked on Red Ball trucks on the roadside; if a truck could not be repaired there, the trucks would be towed to a maintenance depot when a wrecker was available. If a truck was too damaged or worn out to be repaired, it was cannibalized for parts.
The Red Ball trucks took a tremendous beating and many simply wore out. Among the common issues were: dried-up batteries; overheated engines; burned-out motors due to insufficient grease and oil; worn-out shocks and struts; and stripped transmissions. In addition, bolts came loose and some drive shafts simply fell off.
However, the key part of the trucks that had to be constantly repaired or changed were the tires. In its first month, Red Ball Express trucks wore out 40,000 tires! General wear and loads that were too heavy for the trucks and their tires were the biggest reasons for this. Most of the tires were retreaded and re-used. Tire treads routinely shredded and came loose, and a rear inside dual tire would blow-out and catch fire from friction as the truck was in motion.
The trucks were being operated on roads that had been bombed, were in disrepair and/or were washed out. The Express also drove on dirt roads, which could become mud traps when it rained. At other times the trucks did not travel on roads at all – cutting across open fields to reach depots or troops in need of supplies.
Tires went flat or were shredded due to road debris – shell fragments, barbed wire remnants and empty C-ration cans – that littered the roads. Hundreds of thousands of ration tins were thrown away along the roads by troops who walked and ate at the same time, and the sharp metal edges of the tins tore the tires.
Red Ball trucks also broke down due to water in the gas or gas lines. Proper maintenance called for the gas line filter on the firewall between the engine and truck cab to be purged of water at regular intervals, but the trucks received little “proper maintenance.” Condensation was the main reason that there was water in the gas, but sabotage also took place.
German prisoners of war knew that the American trucks could be stopped (at least for a time) by water in the gas, and POWs were frequently used to load supplies into the trucks in rear areas and to fill their gas tanks. POWs would take the caps off of gas cans and rain and snow would contaminate the gas.
The Red Ball trucks rarely ran empty. In addition to carrying POWs on return trips from forward area depots, the trucks carried expended artillery casings, empty gas cans, and sometimes the bodies of American soldiers…
There was some downtime, even if the idea of hours of service was unheard of. Red Ball convoys stopped at rest areas where trucks were serviced, coffee and doughnuts were available, and some even had cots – if another team of drivers were available and could drive the trucks to the next stop. Some rest areas also had food, but because the drivers were in their trucks so much, they were used to eating C-rations while driving. Drivers who wanted a hot meal wired C-ration tins to the trucks’ exhaust manifolds to heat the rations.
A dangerous job
Red Ball truckers were rarely involved in direct combat, but convoys were a primary target of the German Luftwaffe (air force). Luckily for the Express, there were so few German aircraft by late 1944 that the convoys were not attacked very often. The biggest problems facing the Express were truck maintenance, finding enough drivers, and the overworked truckers’ lack of sleep.
While a few trucks were outfitted with .50-caliber machine guns (see photo above), most truck drivers were armed only with carbines or machine guns. Although Red Ball Express personnel were ordered to wear helmets and carry rifles, they were normally stowed on the truck floor. There was a greater danger from German mines. Some of the Red Ball truckers put sandbags on the floors of their cabs to absorb mine blasts.
Another danger was piano wire strung across roadways. Therefore, angle-iron hooks designed to snag the wire before it decapitated jeep or truck occupants were attached to some of the Red Ball jeeps. The hooks were necessary because the jeeps and trucks were often driven with their windshields down. This was particularly true in combat areas, where a reflection from windshield glass could attract German artillery fire. Windshields were also down because they were coated with road dust, making it difficult for drivers to see.
Other hazards included wandering livestock and hungry civilians, who would stand in the trucks’ path to beg for food.
Just like soldiers in the line, drivers were pushed to the limit. Some fell asleep at the wheel and ended up in ditches (or worse); some switched seats with relief drivers without even pulling over.
At night, the truckers drove with “cat eyes” (narrow slits masked onto truck headlights that reduced light to a dim beam so convoys couldn’t be spotted and attacked). “With those cat eyes you could hardly see,” said James Rookard, a trucker with Company C, 514th Quartermaster Regiment, who was drafted in March 1943. Nonetheless, drivers drove almost as fast at night as they did during the day. Rookard also said that driving in blackout conditions was the most dangerous part of the Express.
“My worst memories of being in the Red Ball Express were seeing trucks get blown up and being afraid that I might get killed,” Rookard recalled when he was interviewed in the 1990s. “There were dead bodies and dead horses on the roads after bombs dropped. I was scared, but I did my job, hoping for the best.”
In summary, Rookard said, “We hauled anything Gen. Patton needed. We took supplies all the way to the front line, back and forth, back and forth.”
The trucks were driven fully loaded (and usually badly overloaded) as fast as possible over bad roads and sometimes across open fields. They were then unloaded, turned around and driven bacj to pick up more supplies. Drivers often made two or three trips daily, up to 80 miles one way, as fast as possible.
The trucks rolled 24 hours a day, seven days a week for 83 days, with drivers rushing supplies 400 miles to the First Army and 350 miles to Patton’s Third Army.
Information for this series of articles came from a number of sources and articles written over the decades about the Red Ball Express. Quotes attributed to members of the Red Ball Express and other World War II service members were taken from an article on HistoryNet written by David P. Colley.
In addition to the numerous in-depth articles about the Red Ball Express, there are hundreds of photos available online. Explore these, and learn more about the brave men and women who served our nation in World War II. In addition, museums like the National World War II Museum and the Army Transportation Museum (to name just two) have fascinating exhibits about the Red Ball Express and other military operations.