Editor’s Note: This special opinion piece by local author Dante Brizill is being offered as part of the Cecil Whig’s Veteran’s Day coverage.
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II. Few events in our history have sparked such fascination and study, and few events in our history have caused the level of death and destruction that this war did. Today, more than seven decades later, this war continues to inspire movies, documentaries, and books galore. Historians with greater access to archives and resources than ever before continue to churn out dozens of new titles on WWII every year. Social media pages on the war have large followings. A quick stroll through your local Barnes & Noble can attest to the enduring interest that this war continues to spark.
Unfortunately, some of the key contributions made to the victory by the U.S. and its allies have been left out. The Red Ball Express is one of those contributions that every American should know about.
During this current COVID pandemic, the term “essential workers” has become a part of our everyday vocabulary. We relied heavily on these men and women to deliver our medication and supplies, care for our sick and shut-ins, and feed us. The Red Ball Express performed a similar function in World War II. These largely unknown delivery drivers actually helped to win the war.
After the D-Day landings in June 1944, the Allies soon developed a supply crisis. The pre-invasion air attacks devastated the French rail and bridge network that led to the Normandy beaches. This so-called devastation was by design. Allied leaders were pre-occupied in the weeks leading up to the invasion on how to prevent the Germans from counterattacking and pushing the invasion back into the sea. A plan was developed called the “Transportation plan.”
Supreme Allied commander and future President Dwight D. Eisenhower demanded and assumed control over all Allied Air forces in order to wreck the French transportation network and infrastructure. The plan worked. The Germans had a difficult time moving reinforcements to stop the invasion, but soon after weeks of tough fighting, the Allies faced a dilemma. Hitler ordered his military to fiercely defend the channel ports which caused some delays in supplies. And Allied armies had advanced well beyond those ports and closer to liberating France.
The Red Ball Express was created under these dire circumstances. A plan was needed to keep up the supplies and essentials that WWII armies required to fully function. Allied commanders pulled men from existing quartermaster units to drive two-and-a-half ton trucks known as “Jimmies” to supply the advancing Armies. Seventy-five percent of these drivers were African-American.
This availability of Black soldiers was due to the fact that most African-American soldiers were forced into non-combat roles based on racist assumptions that they were unfit and unintelligent to perform well in combat. The abundance of trucks didn’t hurt, either. They performed this task with excellence, often driving nonstop in all types of weather conditions, poor roads, land mines, and attacking German planes to bring the much-needed essentials to General George Patton’s fast moving Third Army.
By November 1944 the Red Ball Express was no longer needed, as the French rail system was repaired and the critical port of Antwerp reopened. But in December of that year, Hitler launched one last desperate attempt to win the war in what became known as the Battle of the Bulge. Once again the Red Ball Express was called in to evacuate fuel supplies from the forward areas to keep them out of the hands of the Germans, and to bring in critical reinforcements such as the battle hardened 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions into the battle. These actions proved to be decisive.
Red Ball Express drivers were proud of their service. Their sense of pride is evident in the testimony of their descendants, some of whom I have had the opportunity and privilege to interview when doing research for my latest book. These World War II soldiers do not have the notoriety or fame of the Tuskegee Airmen, but their contributions to victory were no less significant.
In the pantheon of heroes that we all honor and celebrate from World War II, the Red Ball Express must be a part of that conversation. Their courage, stamina, and bravery was a key component to the victory that followed. We are a freer country and world today because of their service and sacrifices behind the wheel. All heroes don’t wear capes; some drive trucks.
Dante Brizill is a History educator with 16 years of experience. He is the author of two books, with his latest being “Red Ball Express: Greatness Under Fire” that was released in August 2020.