The Bugler

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The Red Ball Express

First Day Cover, 1944 WWII Red Ball Express. Image courtesy of United States Postal Service. Public domain.

After the historic landing on the beaches of Normandy in June 1944, the Allied troops fought to establish a beachhead and by the end of June over 850,000 troops and over 150,000 vehicles had landed in France. The breakout from the beaches and the hedgerows had occurred faster than planned and the push across France and Belgium to Germany began. However, getting supplies - fuel, ordnance and food - to this number of rapidly moving troops quickly became a huge challenge. In the months before D-Day, the Allies had bombed large parts of the French railroad to hinder German troop movement and reinforcement. There really was only one solution for movement of supplies, and this was by truck. Without supplies, pursuing the Germans would grind to a standstill.

During World War II, the United States armed forces were still segregated. The job of truck drivers quickly became a job that was given to African Americans. Over 75% of the drivers were black. Some didn't have driver's licenses, few had ever driven large trucks, but like the duties others were called to do, the drivers of the Red Ball Express rose to the challenge and became heroes. Roads were quickly turned into military only passages, and parallel roads were designated one way. On one side were loaded trucks, on the other only empty trucks returning for more cargo. The trucks ran 24 hours a day.

The amount of fuel needed was unbelievable. According to the U.S. Army Transportation Museum, "An American infantry division required 150 tons of gasoline per day, and an armored division 350 tons per day." At its peak the Red Ball Express was running almost 6,000 vehicles a day and supplying 12,500 tons of goods a day.

Red Ball Express drivers were not only men. In our last issue, we learned about the African American Museum in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. One of the heroes of Hattiesburg is Ruth Bailey Earl who drove an Army truck on the Red Ball Express.

Be sure and read more about the Red Ball Express on the U.S. Army Transportation Museum website. The website has great pictures and maps depicting the route and the drivers and conditions they faced. It also has a letter that General Dwight Eisenhower wrote to those that worked on the Red Ball:

October 1944
TO: The Officers and Men of the Red Ball Highway

  1. In any war, there are two tremendous tasks. That of the combat troops is to fight the enemy. That of the supply troops is to furnish all the material to insure victory. The faster and farther the combat troops advance against the foe, the greater becomes the battle of supply.
  2. Supplies are reaching the continent in increasing streams. But the battle to get those supplies to the front becomes daily of mounting importance.
  3. The Red Ball Line is the lifeline between combat and supply. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. But the struggle is not yet won. So the Red Ball Line must continue the battle it is waging so well, with the knowledge that each truckload which goes through to the combat forces cannot help but bring victory closer.

DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER
General, U.S. Army

A Red Ball Express truck gets stuck in the mud during World War II, 1944. Photo courtesy of United States Army. Public domain.

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