Of the more than one million black Americans in uniform during World War II, most of them were in the Service of Supply (SOS). This did not mean that black Americans were either unable or unwilling to fight; it meant that as they were subjected to the policies of racial segregation and discrimination in the wartime military the same as they were in peacetime civilian life, they did not readily or easily find themselves in combat roles.
They were relegated primarily to SOS in the Army, to the messman branch in the Navy and not initially accepted in the Marine Corps. Even when they were eventually permitted to serve in the Marines, most of them served in ammunition and depot companies and battalions in the composite battalions and in support detachments.
Even in these service, supply, messman and support units, they were called upon to fight in emergencies and their performance was generally rated satisfactory.
For example, the (black) 57th Ordinance Ammunition Company found itself engaging sixty-five enemy soldiers at Peronne with no other American units in the area. Its members killed fifty of the enemy and captured the other fifteen.
For their action, two of them received the Croix de Guerre, one received the Silver Star and one received the Bronze Star.
While blacks at home in civilian life were very limited in the type of employment they could acquire, black servicemen overseas were operating bulldozers and cranes, setting up communication systems and driving heavy trucks and trailers.
It was in the driving of these heavy trucks and trailers that many blacks distinguished themselves as a group. That group was known as the "Red Ball Express."
Of all the black units that served in Service of Supply in the Army, perhaps none received the acclaim of the truckers of the fabled Red Ball Express. The drivers in this system, like other black Quartermaster truck companies, were permanently attached to infantry and armored divisions fighting across Europe.
The legend of the black truckers of the Red Ball Express is well known in their hauling of food, ammunition and other conventional materials and supplies, but very little is even mentioned about dump truck, gasoline truck and ambulance companies. These men were not just truck drivers. There were times when black drivers had to stop their vehicles, get their rifles and other weapons and join combat troops in repulsing enemy attacks. This is also part of the legend of the Red Ball Express.
The Red Ball Express had an auspicious beginning and it was rather short-lived. The Allied breakthrough in August of 1944 resulted in a need for significant tonnage of materials for American and other Allied forces in Europe. This was an acute imperative for the First and Third Armies, especially General Patton's Third Army. Since the retreating Germans had destroyed the French railroads, the troops of these advancing armies had to be supplied by truck.
In order to meet this demand, the Red Ball Plan was devised by the Transportation Corps on August 21, 1944. The Red Ball Express became operational on August 25th, and its convoys operated trucks in endless numbers until November 13th of that year.
The Red Ball Plan provided for two one-way reserved highway routes marked "Red Ball Trucks Only." The original route was from St. Lo to Paris and back. On an average day, 899 vehicles on the Red Ball Express traveled 1,504,616 ton-miles on the trip that took an average time of 54 hours.
Approximately 73 percent of the truck companies in the Motor Transport Service were black.
Although the Red Ball express was the most famous of all trucking routes of the European Motor Transport, it was not the only truck route. When the Red Ball Express was faded out on November 13, 1944, it was replaced by the White Ball Route. The White Ball Route carried supplies and materials from La Harve and Rouen to forward areas. Four of the nine truck companies of the White Ball Route were black.
Two other routes were the Anthwerp-Brussels-Charleroi (ABC) Route which went into operation on November 30th and the Green Diamond Route. Of the truck companies which made up this route from Normandy and the Brest peninsula, two of those nineteen truck companies were black.
Two days after the June 6, 1944 Normandy landings, the Petroleum-Oil- Lubricant (POL) Route of the Motor Transport Service began to operate two truck battalions of which one was black. This route preceded the Red Ball Express.
The 3917th Gasoline Supply Company which supplied General Patton's Third Army with up to 165,000 gallons of gasoline a day was an example of another black trucking company other than those of the Red Ball Express that rendered outstanding service.
After 1943, the Transportation Corps assigned blacks as most of the personnel in the twelve amphibian truck companies. It was jokingly stated that black amphibian companies, whose drivers drove the easily sunk DUKW, were evidence of the effort to "get rid of blacks."
When speaking of black truckers in World War II, it must be rememberd that these quartermaster trucks sped over the Red Ball Express Route in Europe, the Motor Transport System in Iran and the Stillwell Road in Burma. When the Japanese invasion of Australia seemed imminent, Colonel Landes, who was decorated by General MacArthur for his initiative, organized 3500 Quartermaster truck drivers into the Motor Transport Command in Australia. Two thousand four hundred of these were black truck drivers. In addition to transporting all manner of supplies in Australia, these truck drivers had the primary responsibility of transporting soldiers south should the Japanese invasion occur.
All of these truckers have earned for themselves a place in the history of the World War II effort. None, however, was as popular as those who proclaimed themselves drivers of the Red Ball Express.