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It was dusk, somewhere in France in the autumn of 1944. A jeep carrying a first lieutenant in charge of a platoon of trucks crested a hill. Instinctively, the young officer scanned the horizon for enemy aircraft that sometimes swooped in low for strafing runs. The skies were empty. But as far as the eye could see, ahead and to the rear, the descending night was pierced by specks of white and red light–cat eyes, the blackout running lights of hundreds of trucks that snaked along the highway.

The huge convoy stretching from horizon to horizon was part of the Red Ball Express, the famed trucking operation in the European Theater of Operations (ETO) in the late summer and fall of 1944 that supplied the rapidly advancing American armies as they streamed toward the German frontier. Chances are that most Americans have never heard of the Red Ball Express. In the hundreds of films about World War II and in all the books about the conflict, it gets little mention. Yet the Red Ball may have contributed as much to the defeat of Germany as any other land operation. Certainly without the Red Ball, and its sister express lines that went into operation later in the war, World War II in Europe might have dragged on even longer, and the extraordinary mobility of the U.S. Army would have been drastically limited.

The Red Ball was created to supply the American combat units that were pushing the Germans back to their homeland. In the first few weeks after the Normandy invasion, the Allies made little progress against the disciplined and stubborn enemy. Some in the military even feared a return of trench warfare as the Germans continued to blunt each thrust the Allies launched while attempting to break out of their Normandy beachhead.

Then, in late July, the German front cracked. American forces rushed toward the Seine River in pursuit of the German Seventh Army. But the Allied high command had not anticipated the rapid German retreat. They had expected the battle for France to be a slow, steady roll-up of the enemy’s divisions.

The original plans called for Lt. Gen. George Patton, Jr.’s newly formed Third Army to turn westward to clear the Brittany ports while Lt. Gen. Omar Bradley and British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery pushed the Germans eastward across the Seine. Because of the precipitous German retreat, however, Bradley gave Patton permission to wheel some of his forces eastward toward Paris.

If Patton and Bradley could outrun the Germans, the American Twelfth Army Group could trap the enemy between Normandy and the Seine. The reduction of the Falaise pocket northwest of Paris, in which some 100,000 German soldiers were surrounded, 10,000 killed and 50,000 captured, demonstrated how vulnerable the Germans were.

The key to the pursuit, however, was supplies. Modern armies guzzle gas and expend ammunition in vast amounts. As the charging Americans pummeled the Germans, U.S. forces began to run out of needed materiel.

“On both fronts an acute shortage of supplies–that dull subject again!–governed all our operations,” General Bradley wrote in his autobiography, A General’s Life. “Some twenty-eight divisions were advancing across France and Belgium. Each division ordinarily required 700-750 tons a day–a total daily consumption of about 20,000 tons.”

Ironically, the Allies were victims of their own military successes and strategy. For months before the D-Day assault on June 6, Allied air forces had roamed the skies across northern France destroying the French rail system to prevent Field Marshal Erwin Rommel from supplying his forces on the coast after the Allied invasion came. But if the railroads were made useless for the Germans, they would be equally useless for the Allies. To add to the problem, the Germans still held the Channel ports of northern France and Belgium, notably Le Havre and Antwerp, so most of the supplies to the advancing American armies came over the invasion beaches on the Normandy coast.

Soon, Patton’s tanks were grinding to a halt, not from enemy action, but because there was no gasoline. On an average day, Patton’s Third Army and Lt. Gen. Courtney Hodges’ First Army consumed a total of 800,000 gallons of gas. But there was no logistical system in place to deliver sufficient quantities.

It was in these desperate days of late August 1944 that the Red Ball Express was conceived during a 36-hour brainstorming session among American commanders. Its name came from a railroad phrase–to “red ball” something was to ship it express–and from an earlier Red Ball Express in Britain that rushed supplies to the English ports during the early days of the invasion. The second Red Ball operation lasted barely three months, from August 25 through November 16, 1944, but by the end of those critical months the express line had established itself firmly in the mythology of World War II. More than 6,000 trucks and their trailers transported 412,193 tons of supplies to the advancing American armies from Normandy to the German border.

What is most often overlooked about the Red Ball Express is that three-quarters of all Red Ball soldiers were African American. The U.S. Army was segregated during World War II, and black troops were most often relegated to service units–many served in the Quartermaster Corps. They served in port battalions, drove trucks, worked as mechanics, and served as “humpers” who loaded and unloaded ammunition and supplies. When the Red Ball was formed, it was the African-American troops in large measure who performed admirably and kept the express line rolling.

The need for supplies was so great that the Red Ball reached its peak performance within the first five days of operation. On August 29, some 132 truck companies, operating 5,958 vehicles, carried 12,342 tons of supplies to forward depots–a record that went unmatched during the next 14 weeks of the operation’s existence. The Red Ball Express was a classic American “can-do” response to a problem that might have proved insurmountable in another army.

There were not enough trucks or drivers in the established Quartermaster truck companies to supply the advancing armies. Before the invasion, the Army’s Transportation Corps estimated a need for 240 truck companies to sustain an advance across France. It also requested that the bulk of these units be equipped with
10-ton flatbed semitrailers. But there weren’t enough of the flatbeds. When the Normandy assault was made, the Army had authorized only 160 truck companies for the operation, and most of those would be supplied with trusty 6-by-6s, GMC 21/2-ton trucks.

The Army had to find more trucks and drivers. Infantry units, artillery units, anti-aircraft units–any units that had trucks–were raided, and many of their vehicles were formed into provisional truck units for the Red Ball.

Any soldier whose duties were not critical to the immediate war effort was asked to become a driver. Normandy was a staging area where arriving infantry divisions bivouacked for several weeks before being sent to the front. Their ranks were combed for drivers, and many infantrymen signed up for temporary duty (normally about two weeks) on the Red Ball, rather than endure the mud and boredom of their encampments. Most of those temporary troops were white.

One of the volunteers, Phillip A. Dick, a scout corporal with Battery A, 380th Field Artillery, 102nd Division, had never driven a truck before. But that did not present a problem for the Army. Dick, like so many others, was given a few hours of instruction and told he had qualified.

“Everybody was stripping gears, but by the time we got back to the company area we could make the trucks go,” Dick recalls. The motto of the Red Ball, “tout de suite” (immediately), could have come from a French phrase adopted by the Americans as they rushed to defeat the Germans. “Patton wanted us to eat, sleep and drive, but mostly drive,” remembers John O’Leary of the 3628th Truck Company.

The first Red Ball convoys, however, quickly bogged down in the congestion of civilian and military traffic. In response, the Army established a priority route that consisted of two parallel highways between the beachhead and the city of Chartres, just outside Paris. The northern route was designated one-way for traffic outbound from the beaches. The southern route was for return traffic. As the war moved past the Seine and Paris, the two-way loop route was extended to Soissons, northeast of Paris, and to Sommesous and Arcis-sur-Aube, east of Paris toward Verdun.

Staff Sergeant Chester Jones with the 3418th Trucking Company remembers the story of one soldier who was missing for several days with a jeep. His excuse for being AWOL was that he had gotten on the Red Ball priority route, had been sandwiched between two 6-by-6 trucks, and could not get off the highway for 100 miles.

The story is undoubtedly apocryphal, but it contains elements of reality. All civilian and unrelated military traffic was forbidden on the Red Ball route, and the military police (MPs) and the drivers rigidly enforced that rule. The Red Ball convoys often gunned down the middle of the highway to avoid mines on the shoulders, and would stop for nothing. One Red Ball veteran recalls a small French car sneaking onto the Red Ball highway and getting trapped between two barreling trucks. The lead truck suddenly braked for a rest area, and the car was smashed when the following truck failed to stop in time.

The Army went to great lengths to establish control over the newly formed Red Ball highway. The mimeographed sheets of rules of the road are some of the most enduring artifacts of the operation. David Cassels, a warrant officer junior grade with the 103rd Quartermaster Battalion, recalls, for example, that trucks were to travel in convoys; each truck was to carry a number to mark its position in the convoy; each convoy was to have a lead jeep carrying a blue flag; a “cleanup” jeep at the end bore a green one; the speed limit was 25 mph; and trucks were to maintain 60-yard intervals.

Nevertheless, the exigencies of a fast-moving war turned everything upside down. The real story of the Red Ball Express was often more like a free-for-all at a stock car race.

“Oh boy, do I remember that Red Ball gang!” laughs Fred Reese, a former mechanic in an ETO ambulance unit. “They were a helluva crew. They used to carry ammunition boxes twice as high as the top of the truck and when they went down the highway they swayed back and forth. They had no fear. Those guys were crazy, like they were getting paid for every run.”

Drivers quickly learned to strip the trucks of their governors, which sapped the overloaded vehicles of power on grades and prevented them from maintaining a steady and much higher speed. The governors were slapped back on for inspections.

The longest delays on the Red Ball usually occurred when trucks were loaded at the beachhead or at depots. If they waited for a convoy to assemble, they could be delayed for hours. Many trucks went out alone or in small groups without an attending officer to keep the vast supply line going. The men drove night and day, week after week. Exhaustion was a companion closer than the assistant driver, who most likely was asleep, awaiting his turn at the wheel. One Red Ball veteran recalls once being so exhausted he could not keep driving. But the convoy could not stop. He and his assistant driver switched seats as the truck rolled along.

Falling asleep was a major problem on the Red Ball. When trucks drifted out of the convoy, it usually meant a driver had fallen asleep at the wheel. Robert Emerick with the 3580th Quartermaster Truck Company was barreling along in a convoy when suddenly he felt a bump and heard blaring horns. He had nodded off and was careening off the roadway aimed right at a concrete electrical pole. He swerved back onto the road just in time.

At night, trucks drove with their cat eyes–white in front, red in back–to avoid detection. “You’d be watching those damned little blackout lights. It drove you blind. It was like hypnosis,” recalls Emerick.

When convoys were stalled for short periods, the drivers dozed, their heads slumped over the steering wheel. A jolt from the truck in front, backing up to tap the front bumper of the truck behind, was the signal that the convoy was once again on the move.

There were commanders who went by the book. A 21/2-ton truck would carry no more than a 5-ton load and that was that. Prior to the Normandy invasion, the Transportation Corps authorized trucks to carry twice their normal load. That helped compensate for the lack of trucking, but one layer of 105mm and 155mm artillery shells put the truck over the weight limit. “People would laugh when they saw us driving with so few shells,” Emerick recalls. Most Quartermaster officers, however, ignored weight restrictions and sent the trucks out overloaded.

The armies were so desperate for gasoline and ammunition that they sometimes sent out raiding parties to commandeer Red Ball trucks and “liberate” their supplies before the trucks got to a depot. Charles Stevenson, a lieutenant in the 3858th Quartermaster Gas Supply Company, remembers being stopped by a colonel on the Third Army front who demanded he turn over his truckloads of jerrycans full of gas.

“You don’t move until we get those cans,” the colonel barked.

“We fussed, jumped up and down and cussed that colonel and raised hell and damned everybody around,” Stevenson says, but the colonel was unmoved. Ultimately, the convoy was left with only enough gas to get back to the company area.

Often the front was moving so fast that Red Ball drivers never found their destination. It was not uncommon for drivers to hawk their loads to anyone interested. They always found takers.

Most often, trucks carried supplies from one depot to the next, dropped them and returned. From the advanced depots more trucks picked up the supplies and carried them farther or to the front lines. Shortly after the breakout from Normandy, it was not uncommon for Red Ball trucks to drop ammunition at artillery positions within a few miles of the front line. One Red Ball veteran remembers driving right up to a stranded Sherman tank and passing jerrycans of gas to the crew while the Germans were within shouting distance.

If gasoline was gold, cigarettes, rations and sugar were jewels to the French. Black marketeering was rampant as some drivers delivered whole loads to anyone willing to buy. Convoys always posted guards around the trucks to prevent the war-weary French and profit-minded American troops from taking anything not tied down.

Even drivers not involved in theft took what they wanted from the loads. They sometimes took a jerrycan here and there to sell to the French. A 5-gallon jerrycan brought $100 on the French black market.

One Red Ball veteran recalls kicking ration boxes off the truck to feed demoralized MPs who had not been relieved for days and had no rations. But the MPs were always watching for pilferage. Usually they were stationed at intersections to ensure the convoys stayed on course, or they directed traffic at blown bridges or through the narrow streets of villages such as Houdan, where medieval timbered houses crowded the main, winding thoroughfare. Large, rectangular signs with huge red balls in the center kept the convoys rolling on the right roads when the MPs were not around. And convoy directors always carried maps to their destinations.

Engineers constantly patrolled the roads to repair damage. Ordnance troops manned wreckers such as the Diamond T Prime Mover, strong enough to wrestle even a disabled tank back to a repair depot. Red Ball drivers were instructed to pull over and wait for the wreckers when their trucks broke down. If the mechanics could not make repairs on the spot, they pushed or pulled the trucks to a maintenance depot.

The Red Ball trucks took tremendous beatings. Batteries dried up, engines overheated, motors burned out for lack of grease and oil, transmissions were overstressed, bolts came loose, and drive shafts fell off. In the first month of operation, Red Ball trucks wore out 40,000 tires. General wear and overloaded trucks were the biggest reasons for the heaps of truck tires awaiting rehabilitation at repair depots. Most of the tires were retreaded and recycled, and they often came back from the repair depots glued and taped together. Treads also came loose, and sometimes the inside dual tire in the rear blew out and caught fire from friction as the truck rolled on. One major cause of the damage done to tires was the hundreds of thousands of ration tins carelessly disposed of along the highways–the sharp metal edges tore into the rubber.

Red Ball trucks were often brought to a standstill by water in their gas. Proper maintenance required that the gas line filter on the fire wall between the engine and cab be purged of water at regular intervals, but few drivers paid attention to that regulation. Condensation was the principal cause of water in the gas, but sabotage was also a factor.

German prisoners of war were aware that the Achilles’ heel of the 6-by-6 was water in the gas, and POWs were frequently used to load supplies in the rear areas and to gas up the trucks. More than one veteran remembers watching POWs dragging jerrycans, with caps wide open, through snow and rain in a deliberate effort to contaminate the gas.

POWs often were loaded into the backs of the trucks on the return trip from forward area depots. So, too, were expended artillery casings, jerrycans, and sometimes the bodies of American soldiers killed in action. Transporting the dead was a particularly dreadful task. Red Ball drivers remember the pervasive odor of death that took days to dissipate. The truck beds had to be hosed down, but even a thorough cleansing often failed to wash away the blood and grime that oozed down through the cracks in the wooden truck beds.

Convoys made regular stops in rest areas where trucks could be serviced, Red Cross girls served coffee and doughnuts, and cots were sometimes available for a few hours’ rest, particularly if another team of drivers continued on with the trucks. The rest areas also served food, but the drivers became proficient at eating C rations on the road. Robert Emerick remembers the same bland diet of hash, stew or beans–always cold. He craved a good hot meal. Drivers sometimes wired C-ration tins to the exhaust manifolds of their trucks to heat the rations. Emerick tried this once and forgot to remove the tin–which eventually exploded. “What the hell have you been doing under this hood,” roared the motor pool sergeant when Emerick returned the truck for maintenance.

Red Ball drivers seldom were involved in combat, but there was the ever-present danger of being strafed by Luftwaffe fighters that occasionally streaked overhead. First Lieutenant Charles Weko remembers being in a convoy caught by German fighters. Weko at first believed the brittle clatter of machine guns was someone flinging stones at corrugated metal. Suddenly realizing the danger, he bailed out of his vehicle and scattered with hundreds of other startled truckers. Many of the trucks had a cab emplacement for a .50-caliber machine gun, and some were equipped with the weapons. Merle Guthrie, an infantryman from the 102nd Division who drove for several weeks, was in a convoy that was strafed. The men jumped to the machine gun and brought down one German.

There were many tales of close encounters with the enemy–some rather far-fetched. One report told of 13 Red Ball gasoline tankers barging through a burning French village to get their loads to Patton’s tanks, ignoring the possibility that their cargoes might explode. Another was of a nocturnal convoy slowing for MPs ahead in the road only to discover they had gone too far–the MPs were German.

The drivers were expected to wear helmets and carry rifles, but the helmets generally wound up on the floor next to the rifles. Some drivers also sandbagged the floors of their cabs to absorb mine blasts. The Germans were said to be sneaking in at night, planting mines and stringing piano wire across the roadways. Many Red Ball jeeps were equipped with angle-iron hooks designed to snag the wire before it decapitated the occupants. These hooks were needed because the jeeps and trucks sometimes drove with their windshields down, particularly near combat areas, where a fleeting glint off windshield glass could bring down a hail of German artillery fire. Also, dust was often so thick it coated windshields.

The U.S. Army tried to keep troops segregated, but there were moments of friction. One veteran remembers an African-American unit barreling down the highway and trying to pass a convoy of white drivers. A game of chicken ensued, and the white drivers whiplashed their trucks and trailers into the center of the roadway to prevent the African Americans from getting by.

Whites and African Americans were urged not to mingle during off-duty hours. “You accepted discrimination,” recalls Washington Rector of the 3916th Quartermaster Truck Company. “We were warned not to fraternize with whites for fear problems would arise.” The races were sufficiently separated that even today some white veterans of the Express are unaware that most of the drivers on the Red Ball were African Americans. Emerick recalls informing a soldier that he was a Red Ball driver. The soldier looked at him incredulously and asked why he was not black.

The Red Ball Express was officially terminated on November 16, 1944, when it had completed its mission. New express lines with different designations were being formed, some for specific tasks. The White Ball Express, for example, was established in early October 1944, with routes extending from Le Havre and Rouen to the Paris area.

Other routes included the Little Red Ball, which carried priority supplies from Normandy to Paris; the Green Diamond Express, which moved supplies from Normandy to railheads 100 miles inland; the Red Lion Express, which supplied the 21st Army Group in Belgium; the ABC Express Route (Antwerp­Brussels­Charleroi), which carried supplies from the port of Antwerp to depots 90 miles inland; and the XYZ Route, the last long-haul trucking operation, which carried supplies across Germany in the final weeks of the war.

Although its days were few, the Red Ball never really died. Its name and mystique were so embedded in the history of World War II, even during the war, that most of the men who drove trucks, even well after the route’s demise, always believed they were on the Red Ball. The other express lines became mere footnotes in history. Welby Franz, a trucking company commander who later became president of the American Trucking Association, arrived in France from Iran in February 1945. He still believes his unit was on the Red Ball. “That’s what we were all told,” he says. Part of the confusion stems from the fact that the Transportation Corps issued a patch that included a red ball, to commemorate the Red Ball Express, centered on a yellow shield. Franz’s men were issued the patch in April 1945.

The Red Ball was successful in large part because Americans understood the strategic value of the motor vehicle that already was playing a critical role in the growth and development of their country. The U.S. Army had also learned the value of motor transport in warfare early in the century. During the 1916 punitive expedition against Pancho Villa, General John “Blackjack” Pershing’s force found that the truck was vastly superior to the horse in a war of maneuvers. With minimal maintenance, trucks could supply Pershing’s force 24 hours a day.

In 1919, the U.S. Army dispatched a cross-continental convoy to test the efficiency of the truck as the mainstay for supplying a fast-moving army. One junior officer on the expedition who was impressed by the potential of motor transport was Lieutenant Dwight D. Eisenhower. The tactical and strategic importance of the truck was not lost on the future supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe.

The Red Ball also was possible because of the awesome industrial might of America. During the war, the United States mass-produced millions of military vehicles. More than 800,000 21/2-ton trucks were manufactured in the United States during the war. No other army during World War II had as many trucks, and America supplied hundreds of thousands to Allied armies, including more than 395,000 to the Red Army alone.

It was the truck as much as the tank that enabled the U.S. Army to become the premier mechanized force in the world during World War II. Many believed that honor went to the Wehrmacht, but even as late as 1944 the Germans relied heavily on horse-drawn wagons. Incredibly, the Germans employed more than 2.8 million horses to supply their legions during the war. Without the truck, American tanks would have been immobilized and U.S. troops would have slogged across Europe barely ahead of their supplies.

A generation after World War II, Colonel John S.D. Eisenhower, a veteran of the European war and son of the supreme Allied commander in Europe, wrote: “The spectacular nature of the advance [through France] was due in as great a measure to the men who drove the Red Ball trucks as to those who drove the tanks.” Colonel Eisenhower concluded, “Without it [the Red Ball] the advance across France could not have been made.” As the saying of the day went, “Red Ball trucks broke, but didn’t brake.” *

First-time contributor David P. Colley is a resident of Easton, Pa. Further reading: The United States Army in World War II, Logistical Support of the Armies, by Roland G. Ruppenthal; and Overlord, by Thomas Alexander Hughes.