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The Red Ball Operation, the vital train of supplies improvised by American troops during the invasion of Europe, was one of the GIs' bravest exploits, without which World War II would have dragged on at a terrible cost of Allied lives. Yet it has been overlooked due to the fact that it was mostly manned by African-Americans. Now the story is told in full in this first book-length study. It is a book not only about the war between the Yanks and their Nazi enemy, but also of war with an enemy closer to ...
The Red Ball Operation, the vital train of supplies improvised by American troops during the invasion of Europe, was one of the GIs' bravest exploits, without which World War II would have dragged on at a terrible cost of Allied lives. Yet it has been overlooked due to the fact that it was mostly manned by African-Americans. Now the story is told in full in this first book-length study. It is a book not only about the war between the Yanks and their Nazi enemy, but also of war with an enemy closer to home—-racism.
Fall 1944 -- somewhere in eastern France at dusk, a jeep carrying a first lieutenant in charge of a platoon of trucks hauling supplies to the front crested a hill. The young officer instinctively scanned the horizon for German aircraft that sometimes swooped in low on strafing runs. The sky was empty, and as far as the eye could see ahead and to the rear, the descending night was hauntingly pierced by the headlights of hundreds of trucks snaking along the highway.
The lengthy convoy, stretching away to the horizons, was part of the Red Ball Express, the legendary military trucking operation in the European Theater of Operations (ETO) in World War II that operated around the clock and supplied the rapidly advancing American armies as they streamed toward Germany. The Red Ball was a critical part of the tidal wave of arms, men, and machines that overwhelmed the German armies. Today, it goes largely unheralded by a postwar generation, but veterans of the ETO remember the Red Ball with pride, respect, and some amusement as they recall the trucks racing to the front with essential supplies, particularly gasoline.
Without the Red Ball and the sister military express trucking lines that it spawned later in the war, World War II in the ETO undoubtedly would have been prolonged and the extraordinary mobility of the American Army drastically limited. Certainly, the Red Ball contributed significantly to the defeat of the German Army in France during the summer and fall of 1944.
The Army organized the Red Ball Express on 25 August 1944, to rush supplies to the rapidly advancing First and Third American Armies when the German Seventh and FifthPanzer Armies began to disintegrate and retreat eastward toward the German frontier. The French rail system west of Paris had been bombed to shambles, and the Germans held most of the French ports. The only method of supply for the Americans was to transport materiel by truck from the invasion beaches to the front.
So desperate were the Americans to catch and destroy the enemy after the breakout from the Normandy bridgehead two months after D-Day that only the most critical supplies -- ammunition, rations, medical supplies, and gasoline -- were being hauled. The materiel was transported largely by thousands of six-by-six, 2 1/2-ton General Motors trucks, affectionately nicknamed "Jimmies." The spearheading armored divisions, with their tanks, half-tracks, trucks, and jeeps, couldn't run without fuel. The infantry needed rations, ammunition, and transport into battle, and the artillery needed shells.
The Red Ball Express lasted eighty-one days, from 25 August through 16 November 1944. By the end of those three months, the Red Ball had established itself firmly in the mythology of World War II. More than six thousand trucks and trailers and some twenty-three thousand men transported 412,193 tons of supplies to the advancing American armies from Normandy to the German frontier.
Red Ball became the "tail" of an American Army that was the most highly mechanized and mobile combat force the world had ever seen. The Red Ball route ran from the beaches of Normandy and the ports of the Cotentin Peninsula, principally Cherbourg, to Paris, 270 miles to the east. From Paris, it branched to Verdun and Metz in the southeast, and to Hirson in northeast France on the frontier with Belgium.
Even the Germans, who had developed the blitzkrieg in their lightning invasions of Poland, the Low Countries, and France in 1939 and 1940, were astonished by the speed and mobility of the American advance, particularly that led by Gen. George S. Patton, and by the unimaginable number of vehicles and trucks that supplied the American forces.
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.
The Red Ball formed the basis of several later express routes with different designations, some for specific tasks, that operated through the rest of the war. The largest of these was the XYZ line that transported supplies to U.S. forces advancing across Germany during the spring of 1945.
The Red Ball was retired on 16 November 1944, when its usefulness declined because the Allied armies were stalled by tenacious enemy forces at the German frontier. But Red Ball never really died. Its name and mystique were so embedded in the mythology of World War II that, even after its termination, most of the men who drove the trucks until the end of the war believed that they were part of the Red Ball. Welby Frantz, a trucking company commander who later became president of the American Trucking Association and whose unit did not arrive in France from Iran until February 1945, still believed, a half century after the war, that his unit was on the Red Ball. "That's what we were all told."
Some of the confusion came about because the Transportation Corps shoulder patch, issued to the men in the trucking companies in 1945, carried a red sphere centered on a yellow background shield. Most soldiers who wore the patch assumed that it meant they were on the Red Ball.
The average GI, then and now, often refers to all trucking operations in the ETO -- indeed, the entire motorized transport system -- as the Red Ball Express. Frank Buergler, a sergeant with an engineering battalion in the 94th Division, remembered a section of autobahn, deep inside Germany toward the end of the war, being marked with splotches of red paint to direct traffic forward. "Oh, it was the Red Ball," he says. To the Americans in the ETO, there was only one trucking line to the front -- the Red Ball Express.
The Red Ball was so much a part of World War II in the ETO that it was the subject of a movie, The Red Ball Express, starring Jeff Chandler and Sidney Poitier, in 1952. Even though the film bore little resemblance to the real Red Ball, it acclaimed the express line for its role in winning the war.
A Broadway revue, Call Me Mister, starring Melvin Douglas and staged in 1946, literally sang the praises of the Red Ball Express:
There are songs of infantry, of the air corps and the sea,
Of the coast guard and Marines in battle dress.
We sing August forty-four and the Normandy shore,
Just the story of the old RED BALL EXPRESS.
Driving truck loads night and day, thirty-six hours on the way,
They supplied our hungry armies from the shore.
Steam was hissing from our hoods, when they showed up with the goods,
But they turned around and went right back for more.
In a never-ending chain, thru the mud and thru the rain,
Closing up the gaps the shells left in their file,
They kept driving, holding tight, sometimes stopped to dig and fight.
They high-balled on, a song for every mile.
Oh, the way their trucks did hop, would have killed a traffic cop.
There was driving out of this world on those runs.
Sometimes one truck would detour, draw the fire -- to make sure
That the other loads got safely by the guns.
So we sing this ballad for the old quartermaster corps,
Just a small part of the team of victory.
Tho you may not know the name, there are plenty all the same,
Never will forget that job in Normandy.
To this very day they say, when the night is dull and gray,
Norman farmers hear a strange hullabaloo,
And they peep outside and yell, French for "shut my mouth; do tell,"
As a ghostly car-a-van comes bouncing thru!
It's the RED BALL EXPRESS roaring by!
It's the RED BALL EXPRESS roaring by--
With one man at the wheel and one man at the gun
And a pride in the job to be done.
With the clash of gears and the clanking of chains,
And a song ringing clear to the sky.
It's the RED BALL EXPRESS roaring by, roaring by....
This book focuses on the "official" Red Ball Express that ran from August to November 1944 and, in so doing, relates the critical role played by the operation's trucks and drivers in winning the war.
A generation after World War II, Col. John D. Eisenhower, a veteran of the European war and son of Supreme Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower, paid as much tribute to the men who drove the Red Ball trucks as to those who drove the tanks. Eisenhower wrote in his history, The Bitter Woods: "Without it [Red Ball] the advance across France could not have been made."
Copyright © 2000 by David P. Colley