‘Red Ball Express’ Supplied Patton’s Drive Toward Germany
By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Feb. 1, 2007 Gen. George S. Patton, famed commander of the U.S. 3rd Army during World War II, was indebted to the courageous efforts of African-American truck drivers who kept tankers and infantry supplied during Patton’s push toward Germany in the fall of 1944.
In July 1944, a month after the D-Day landings in Normandy, France, American, British and other allied troops were still battling entrenched German units that were trying to contain them.
Then, in August, Patton’s tank units broke through enemy lines and began streaking across France toward the border with Germany. Patton’s forces, as well as other U.S. units, soon outran their supply lines. A method had to be found to provide food, fuel, ammunition and other supplies to the fast-moving U.S. Army as it pushed the Germans eastward.
The solution, the “Red Ball Express,” was formed on Aug. 25, 1944. The express was a truck convoy supply operation that ran 24 hours a day from the Normandy beaches to the front lines. The majority of the drivers who drove for the express were African-Americans.
“Redball” is an old railroad term meaning priority freight. In the first month, the express delivered 290,000 tons of supplies to the front. At its peak, the operation used almost 6,000 vehicles and transported a total of 412,193 tons of supplies.
The “Red Ball Express” was ended in November 1944, as German resistance stiffened and winter began to set in.
The German military suffered irreplaceable losses in manpower and materiel during its retreat from France, which hastened the end of the war in Europe. The Germans launched one last offensive in December 1944, known as “the Battle of the Bulge,” but it failed. The war in Europe would end the next spring; after Soviet troops entered Berlin, Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler committed suicide. The German government unconditionally surrendered to allied forces on May 7, 1945.
African-Americans made up 75 percent of the truck drivers who kept the “Red Ball” rolling. They also served as vehicle mechanics. The drivers and mechanics often tinkered with the trucks’ carburetors to enable them to exceed the vehicles’ factory-set speed limit.
“When General Patton said for you to be there, you were there if you had to drive all day and all night. If those trucks broke down, we’d fix them and they’d run again,” U.S. Army veteran Tech. Sgt. James D. Rookard once recalled.
Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower complimented “Red Ball Express” drivers in an October 1944 message to the troops.
“The ‘Red Ball’ line is the lifeline between combat and supply,” Eisenhower wrote. “To it falls the tremendous task of getting vital supplies from ports and depots to the combat troops, when and where such supplies are needed, material without which the armies might fail.
“To you drivers and mechanics and your officers, who keep the ‘Red Ball’ vehicles constantly moving, I wish to express my deep appreciation. You are doing an excellent job.”
Years after World War II ended, Eisenhower’s son, John S.D. Eisenhower, also paid tribute to the “Red Ball Express” and the African-Americans who had made it possible.
“Without it, the advance across France could not have been made,” John Eisenhower observed in his history of the Battle of the Bulge titled, “The Bitter Woods.”
(Information for this article was compiled from a variety of military and civilian sources.)