Keep ‘Em Rolling – African-American Participation in the Red Ball Express

rolling1By Edna Greene Medford and Michael Frazier

Technical Sergeant Emanuel Wilson Greene of the 3989th Motor Transport Company served two years, ten months, and twenty-two days in the Ll.S, Army during World War II. All but ten months of that time he spent in the European Theater of Operations as an automotive mechanic. It was the first time the Virginia native had ever left the state of his birth; while overseas he promised himself that he would never leave home again. In the thirty-five years he survived following the war, he remained faithful to his promise and rarely left the place that he knew and loved.1

His fondness for home was but one among many manifestations of the war’s impact on Greene. The horrors he had witnessed in Europe tempered any nostalgia he may have felt for this period in his life. Yet, there were certain aspects of his military experi- ence he recalled with pride. Whenever the ordeal of earning a living in the racially-charged environment
of postwar America began to overwhelm him, he could reflect upon (perhaps with a mixture of satisfac- tion and irony) the role he played in helping the nation to win the most important armed conflict of the 20th century.

Most African Americans who served in the
armed forces during World War II were, like Greene, non-combat troops. Their task was to render support to combat units, to work in the supply operations- loading and unloading food, equipment, and ammu- nition as well as transporting these essential items to dumps near the front-and to serve in ordnance units.2 Black men generally chafed at assignments to these

“Dr. Medford, Assistant Professor of History, Howard University Dr. Frazier, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Howard University

Emanuel Wilson Greene

service units, because such duty did not reflect their idea of what it meant to soldier. Ernest Myers, who saw duty as a truck driver with the 3214th Quartermaster Service Company, says that black sol- diers desired the opportunity to show that black men “were combat ready …We wanted to make an impres- sion for the people back home.,,3 But the country- still unconvinced of the ability of black soldiers as fighting men, despite incontrovertible evidence of valor in previous wars-consigned the bulk of black soldiers to service units. Ironically, it was these men who proved invaluable to the Allied effort, and whose

African Americans and World War /I • 57

performance forever altered the image of the non- combat soldier.

Both Greene and Myers were among the thou- sands of African Americans involved in the most leg- endary of support activities during the war-they
served with units that operated along the Red Ball Express. One of the largest logistical operations
before the preparations for Desert Storm almost fifty years later, Red Ball was linked to the June 6, D-Day invasion on the Normandy beaches and the allied drive across France in the summer of 1944. Operation Overlord, as the invasion plan was codenamed, pro- ceeded slowly and with devastating loss of life; but by the end of July, the Allies had penetrated the German lines and had them on the run. Once the breakout occurred, the First Army and General George C. Patton’s Third Army advanced swiftly across France- so swiftly that by mid-August Allied forces were beginning to experience difficulty in keeping the ground forces adequately supplied. In its attempt to cut off the German supply lines, Allied bombing had seriously damaged the French rail system. The Germans, too, exacerbated the problem by sabotaging the system as they fled the Allied Forces. The inabili- ty of supply to keep up with need threatened to slow, if not halt, Patton’s advance.

Hence, on August 25, the Allies implemented a program which would allow the armies to continue their advance across France. The plan consisted of a one way, restricted highway that was used exclusive- ly for the hauling of supplies-POL (petroleum, oil, and lubricants), ammunition, food and other essen- tials-to the First and Third Armies. The express operated twenty-four hours a day, even under
adverse conditions. The route formed a loop with the northern road, leading to dump sites forward, and the southern, to be used for trucks returning to the rear. The initial route was from St. Lo in the Normandy

area, to the La Loupe-Dreux-Chartes triangle, just west of Paris. After trucks picked up cargo from base depots established near Normandy beaches, the sup- plies were dispatched from St. Lo and shipped in con- voys. The route and the trucks were marked with a

red ball, from which the operation derived its name. 4

As the First and Third Armies advanced, the need arose to extend the supply line farther east. Hence, on September 10, the Red Ball highway was extended to Soissons (and ten days later to Hirson) in its effort to supply the First Army, and to Sommesous to supply the Third Army. Some trucks were dis- patched beyond these official drop-offs, and traveled as far east as Verdun and Metz.5 At its greatest
length, the Red Ball Express extended for 750 and 670 miles round trip in support of the First and Third Armies, respectively.P

In the eighty-two days during which the Express operated, the truck companies moved an impressive amount of supplies. The target tonnage was 75,000, to be delivered by September 1. The operation was extended when it fell short of that mark. The Allies also agreed to keep it running a bit longer, because
rail services still were not fully functional. At the end of the Red Ball program on November 16, tonnage reached 412,193? As many as 140 truck companies were assigned to Red Ball, and on an average day 899 trucks were sent forward.8

The Army found personnel for Red Ball within the truck companies scattered throughout the Communications Zone. It used every truck company available for line of communications hauling; others were taken from infantry units and from beach and port facilities.9 Approximately 73 percent of truck companies in the Motor Transport Service of the European Theater were African American. Consequently, the majority of the units in Red Ball were black companies.l-‘

Duty with the Red Ball operation left an indelible impression on the African Americans who served, beginning with their arrival on the Normandy beach- es. Alphonso Campbell, who served as a Master Sergeant with the 520th Quartermaster Group, recalls that his unit landed ten days after the D-Day invasion, early enough to “still smell the stench of the dead.” 11 Former PFC Myers also remembers the carnage that

58 • African Americans and World War /I

accompanied the amphibious assault. When his unit landed, “bodies were still floating in the water..and

land mines” remained a serious threat to the sol- diers.12

These were not combat troops, but the duty was dangerous and the responsibility awesome. In the first phase of the operation, when they trucked sup- plies no farther west than the Seine River, they were allowed to use full headlights at night and were per- mitted to dispense with other blackout precautions. But when the route was extended in the second phase, drivers were required to use “cat-eyes” because of the possibility of sniper attacks and German bombing. Cat-eyes were special headlights that cast a dim beam directly onto the highway and hence made the convoy a more difficult target. Recognizing the inherent dan- ger of the operation, the army equipped some of the trucks in each convoy with 50-caliber machine guns, and the soldiers carried carbines.13 Deliveries some- times placed these men perilously close to the front.

Greene recalled an instance when he was required to step over dead enemy soldiers once his unit had arrived at their drop-off point. Just as vivid was his recollection of witnessing one of the noncom- missioned officers in his company severely injured after accidently triggering a land mine near a truck Greene had been repairing. (He later named his old- est son in honor of that man). Red Ball units also had to guard against hijackers who sought to seize their cargo, either for their own personal use or for sale to the black market. Stragglers were especially vulnera- ble to these kinds of assaults.14

Strict rules governing the operation of the Red BallExpress made the task even more arduous. Regulations required drivers in the convoys to main- tain 60-yard distances between trucks, to refrain from passing, and to observe a speed of no more than 25 miles per hour. Convoys were allowed to halt for ten- minute breaks at exactly ten minutes before each even hour. When a truck became disabled, the driver was required to exit the convoy, attempt to repair the vehi- cle, and if failing this, wait until ordnance units

arrived to repair it. They were not expected to catch up with their group, but rather to wait for the next convoy hauling similar supplies.15

The Army expected the convoys to “Keep ’em

Rolling,” whatever the weather conditions or circum-

stances. Consequently, the demands of the operation

eventually took their toll on the men and equipment

of Red Ball. Driver fatigue and inadequately main-

tained vehicles produced a formula for disaster.

Accidents occurred frequently, exacerbated no doubt

by insufficient rest and sleep. Some sources indicate

that drivers averaged 36 hours at the wheel without

sleep; bivouac areas established at the halfway point

along the route apparently were inadequate.U’

Desperate for rest, a few resorted to sabotaging their

vehicles or managed to get “lost” near towns. They

generally found their way back to their units the fol-

lowing day. Maintenance of the trucks strained the

operation as well. Tires and vehicles wore out quickly

and often; many of the breakdowns that occurred

along the route were repaired by mechanics who

almost became accustomed to working in the rain and mud.17

Recognizing the arduous, unglamorous, and dan- gerous character of the Red Ball assignment, the Army implemented a program intended to build morale among the personnel of this very critical operation. Servicemen’s papers like Stars and Stripes and Yanks did their part by publishing accounts of Red Ball activities. One such article described the valor with which these men served:

Truck drivers have worked 20 hours a day, and when their trucks zigzagged, they stopped, splashed water on their faces and drove on …They got the sup- plies to the front and if necessary, they died with their hands on their wheels …They carried their duffel bags with them and slept on piles of ruins which had scarcely cooled from the heat of battle.18

Near the end of the operation the Army imple- mented plans for a “Red Ball Circuit”, a series of shows and entertainment for the soldiers who drove

African Americans and World War /I • 59

the Express route. Jeep shows consisting of three per- formers with a jeep and a trailer carrying a small gen- erator, a public address system and a musical instru- ment were organized. The Red Ball operation ended before the shows could be fully organized, but the idea of entertainment for the troops survived. Two shows were eventually organized and “dispatched to Channel Base Section” where they were performed for troops in the Transportation Corps.19

The supply efforts of the men of the Red Ball Express hastened the day of final victory for the allies in Europe. The exceptional progress of the First and Third Armies could not have occurred but for the

extraordinary effort of these service troops. Yet, the literature on these men is sketchy. In reviewing both the published histories of operations in the European Theater and the archival materials, one does not readi- ly get a sense of the extent to which this particular program depended for its success on black soldiers. To the military these were simply men who per- formed a service, albeit an invaluable one. But to Emanuel Greene, Ernest Myers, Alphonso Campbell, and the other black men who served with them, their duty with the Red Ball Express proved the valor and worth of black soldiers in a way that was as definitive as the service rendered by any other units in World WarIl.


1. The authors are indebted to the family of Emanuel Greene for information regarding his military experi- ences. They would also like to thank Russell J. Parkinson of the U.S. Army Center of Military History for his gen- erous sharing of materials on the Red Ball Express.

2. For discussion of black men in service units during World War II, see Ulysses Lee, The Employment of Negro Troops, United States Army in World War II (Washington, D.C: Office of the Chief of Military History, Department of the Army, 1966).

  1. Interviews with Ernest Myers, June, 1993, Capitol Heights, Maryland.
  2. The use of the red ball symbol had originated before the war as a method of marking railway service that

had high priority status. It was also easier for drivers to see this symbol at night. The bulk of the literature on the Red Ball Express is to be found among the official histories published by the U.S. Office of Military History, Department of the Army and the archival materials on military activities during World War II at the National Archives, Suitland, Maryland Branch. For published histories under the U.S. Army in World War II series of the Office of Military History see especially: Roland G. Ruppenthal, Logistical Support of the Armies: The European Theater of Operations, 2 Vols. (Washington, D.C: Office of the Chief of Military History, 1953); Joseph Bykofsky and Harold Larson, The Transportation Corps: Operations Overseas, (Washington, D.C: Office of the Chief of Military History, 1957); Martin Blumenson, Breakout and Pursuit: The European Theater of Operations (Washington, D.C: The Office of the Chief of Military History, 1961).

5. Bykofsky and Larson, The Transportation Corps: Operations Overseas, p. 334.

6. H. H. Dunham, “U’S. Army Transportation in the European Theater of Operations, 1942-1945,”. Prepared by the Historical Unit, Office of Chief of Transportation, Army Service Forces, June, 1946, p. 221. Photocopy pro- vided by U.S. Army Center of Military History.

7. RolandRuppenthal,LogisticalSupportoftheArmies,Vol.2,p.137. 60 • African Americans and World War /I

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