Army’s Red Ball Express drivers must be honored

By Frederick H. Lowe

I’ve seen the movie “Patton,” an Academy Award-winning film about General George S. Patton, Jr., who commanded the U.S. Third Army in France and Germany following the Allied invasion of Normandy in World War 2, more times than I care to admit.

Red Ball Express

General Patton was known for leading the relief of beleaguered American troops at Bastogne, Belgium, during the Battle of the Bulge, the last major German offensive of World War 2.  Patton pulled his troops out of one battle, pivoted and led them 90 miles into the Battle of the Bulge.

What wasn’t seen or heard about in the movie were the hundreds of black soldiers who drove supply trucks for the “Red Ball Express,” a truck convoy that supplied the Third Army with gasoline, diesel fuel, food and other necessities, easily traveling  700 miles a day over treacherous roads. Three-fourths of the drivers were African American men.

Despite what we see and don’t see in movies, tanks, trucks and jeeps don’t run on spit or good intentions. The men in combat don’t fast during the war. Tanks, armored personnel carriers and jeeps require fuel and the men require food, drink and ammunition. Patton’s Army ground to a halt during its offensive, not because of enemy fire, but because it ran out of fuel.

American generals came up with a way to supply the troops, calling it the Red Ball Express, meaning it was high priority.

Red Ball Express driver James Rookard said in an interview with the Cleveland Plain Dealer that Red Ball Express drivers drove food, fuel and other supplies to the front before turning around to pick up more supplies.

“Those trucks just kept running. They’d break down. We’d fix them and they would run again,” Rookard said. “We hauled everything Patton needed.”

The Red Ball Express was comprised of 140 truck companies or nearly 6,000 trucks. The truck companies carried more than 12,000 tons of ammo, food and fuel to the front daily.

The black men who drove through danger daily for the Red Ball Express were heroes in a segregated Army, but if these men wore their uniforms after returning to the United States,  some whites would murder or maim them.

In one instance, white North Carolina police severely beat Isaac Woodward, a returning black soldier. The beating left Woodward blind.

There is one black man in “Patton.” He’s Patton’s valet. No other black men appear in the movie. At least five books have been written about the Red Ball Express but the men who made “Patton”  either didn’t  know about them  or didn’t bother to read them.

Members of the Red Ball Express never have been properly honored. A 1952 film titled “The Red Ball Express” had Jeff Chandler, a white actor, play the lead. Sidney Poitier played a driver. In the segregated Army, whites were the commanders.

Saturday was Veterans Day and black men of the Red Ball Express should have been remembered and honored. I know Veterans Day has passed but let’s do something about it next year.

 

2 Comments

  1. Glad to hear someone is recognizing the Red Ball Express. That was a very important unit in World War. They made a big time difference.
    My stepfather also was in a Patton unit. He was with the engineer corps that received a commendation for their work building bridges, road ways that helped the Third Army achieve it’s mission.
    I didn’t know enough about these troops or their mission to ask my dad about this. I just knew he served and could speak french and some other languages. I only learned more about his unit in a battalion yearbook that my brother found before he passed away.

  2. Jim, thanks for your comments. It’s really too bad we don’t know more about these brave black men.

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