FreightWaves Classics: Red Ball Express trucks hauled critical supplies for American troops – FreightWaves

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 article is the first 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.  

According to the Army Transportation Museum, “Transportation is the most frequently encountered limiting factor in military logistics, which is the science of planning and executing the movement and support of forces. It provides the bridge over which the nation’s resources reach our combat troops and is the key to victory, which requires that ‘we get there first with the most.’”

Since the time of Alexander the Great, large armies have crossed the world’s military landscapes with great difficulty, their lines of animal-drawn carts and wagons trailing the warriors. And while armies “lived off the land” for centuries, the need for provisions of all kinds has become a huge part of modern warfare. 

From the American Revolution until World War II, the U.S. Army command structure realized the critical role of war-time transportation and formed a temporary management organization that was later disbanded post-war. However, in 1950, the Transportation Corps that proved so effective during World War II was made a permanent branch of the U.S. Army. For over 70 years since, the Corps has sought to meet or exceed the accomplishments of predecessor units, working closely with civilian industry as well as its counterparts in the other military branches, in both war and peace.

The heritage of the Transportation Corps – the “Spearhead of Logistics”

The United States Army Transportation Corps was established in 1942, making it one of the Army’s newest service branches. However, its role goes back to the Revolutionary War. General George Washington ordered the use of animal-driven carts and wagons to move American and French forces from the Hudson Valley to Yorktown, a distance of more than 450 miles. Transportation was so critical during the American Revolution that Washington advised the Continental Congress to establish the position of Wagonmaster General to provide needed mobility for the army.

Washington, LaFayette and Continental Army soldiers at Valley Forge. From a painting by Alonzo Chappel.

In the history of warfare, armies have either developed new ways to move troops and materiel, or taken advantage of the latest technologies. For example, during the Civil War, railroads were used extensively for the first time to move troops to nearby battlefields. The U.S. Army Transport Service was rebuilt to assist the Army during the Spanish-American War. During World War I the Transportation Service was created. It was responsible for moving 2 million men and their supplies to France across 3,000 miles of ocean.

When the United States was drawn into World War II, the key role of transportation became clear. The war would be fought on two fronts – the Pacific Theater of Operations and the European Theater of Operations – and both were thousands of miles from the continental U.S.

In March 1942, three months after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, military transportation functions were transferred from the Quartermaster Corps and assigned to the Transportation Service of the newly created Services of Supply.

The insignia of the U.S. Army Transportation Corps

On July 31, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt established the Transportation Corps to assist with the largest mobilization in U.S. history. Responsibility for railway operations and maintenance was transferred from the Corps of Engineers to the Transportation Corps in November 1942. 

Ultimately, the Transportation Corps conducted operations in the deserts of North Africa, the jungles of many Pacific Ocean islands, the mountains and valleys of Italy and Asia, and over the beaches of Normandy. During the war, the Transportation Corps moved over 30 million soldiers within the United States. More importantly, it moved 7 million soldiers and 126 million tons of supplies overseas. These logistical achievements played a decisive role in the Allied victory. 

Because of the exceptional work done by the Transportation Corps during World War II, the U.S. Congress recognized its importance by making it a permanent branch of the Army on June 28, 1950. Since then, the Transportation Corps has provided support services during each conflict, from the Korean War to Afghanistan and Iraq. The Transportation Corps’ accomplishments are a testimony to the professionalism, dedication and pride that has made the Transportation Corps the “Spearhead of Logistics.”

A hand-drawn map of the Red Ball Express route. (Image courtesy of National World War II Museum)

An overview of the Red Ball Express

The term “red ball” to define express cargo service began near the end of the 19th century. The Santa Fe Railroad (now part of BNSF Railway) began using “red ball” to refer to express shipping for priority freight and perishables in 1892. Such trains and the tracks cleared for their use were marked with red balls. The term grew in popularity and was commonly used by the 1920s.

In World War II it was first used in Great Britain to mark the movement of men and materiel from their bases around England, Scotland and Wales to invasion staging areas in southeastern England (the area closest to the English Channel and therefore to France).

A sign marking the Red Ball Express route and its use for those trucks only. (Photo courtesy of 53rd Regiment Archives)

The Red Ball term was used again for the truck convoy system that supplied Allied forces moving quickly through France and western Europe. For nearly two months after D-Day (June 6, 1944), the Allies fought the Germans in the hedgerows of Normandy and often measured progress in feet rather than miles. However, in late July the German lines ruptured and they began to retreat rapidly. The Allies “broke out” of the hedgerows – and soon they were not simply marching from the beachheads of Normandy into occupied France – they were sprinting.

To expedite cargo shipment to the front, trucks emblazoned with red balls followed a similarly marked route that was closed to civilian traffic. The trucks also had priority on regular roads.

The Red Ball Express convoy system was conceived in a 36-hour meeting of U.S. Army field commanders and U.S. Army Transport Corps staff. After the Allied armies were in more open countryside, they were making rapid progress and soon began to outrun their supply lines. Hence the need for the Red Ball Express.

The convoy system began operating on August 25, 1944. It was staffed primarily by Black soldiers (about 75% of the total number of drivers and mechanics). At its peak, the Red Ball Express operated 5,958 vehicles that carried about 12,500 tons of supplies daily. The Red Ball Express operated 24/7 for 83 days – until November 16, 1944. 

Members of the Red Ball Express. (Photo courtesy of Logistics Officers Association)

The Red Ball Express was terminated for several reasons. By mid-November, the port facilities at Antwerp, Belgium, had been captured, repaired and opened by the Allies. Supply ships could anchor in the port of Antwerp and discharge gasoline through portable gasoline pipelines to nearby depots. In addition, enough of the French railway system’s rail lines had been repaired, which allowed larger shipments of supplies to be transported. The third reason that the Express was ended was that the American armies had moved so far from the Normandy beachhead that the supply line had become too long. The law of diminishing returns kicked in – the Red Ball Express was using huge quantities of gasoline to move gasoline (and other critical supplies) much further than when it started!

However, without the work of those who commanded the Red Ball Express and drove its trucks, the struggle against the German army would have taken much longer and the Allies would have suffered many more casualties.

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