The forgotten story of Black soldiers and the Red Ball Express during World War II

The forgotten story of Black soldiers and the Red Ball Express during World War II

Shown here in May 1945.These black soldiers were attached to the 666th Quartermaster Truck Company that was part of the Red Ball Express. National Archives
Matthew Delmont, Dartmouth College

Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower had a problem. In June 1944, Allied forces had landed on Normandy Beach in France and were moving east toward Nazi Germany at a clip of sometimes 75 miles (121 kilometers) per day.

With most of the French rail system in ruins, the Allies had to find a way to transport supplies to the advancing soldiers.

“Our spearheads … were moving swiftly,” Eisenhower later recalled. “The supply service had to catch these with loaded trucks. Every mile doubled the difficulty because the supply truck had always to make a two-way run to the beaches and back, in order to deliver another load to the marching troops.”

The solution to this logistics problem was the creation of the Red Ball Express, a massive fleet of nearly 6,000 2½-ton General Motors cargo trucks. The term Red Ball came from a railway tradition whereby railmen marked priority cars with a red dot.

From August through November 1944, 23,000 American truck drivers and cargo loaders – 70% of whom were Black – moved more than 400,000 tons of ammunition, gasoline, medical supplies and rations to battlefronts in France, Belgium and Germany.

These Red Ball Express trucks and the Black men who drove and loaded them made the U.S. Army the most mobile and mechanized force in the war.

Black soldiers are seen filling up gasoline tanks for dozens of trucks used to transport military supplies.
In this October 1944 photograph, Black soldiers are filling up gasoline tanks for the Red Ball Express. AFP via Getty Images

They also demonstrated what military planners have long understood – logistics shape what is possible on the fields of battle.

That’s a point well known in today’s war in Ukraine: As the Russian invasion stretches into its second month, logistics have been an important factor.

Supplying the front lines

The Red Ball Express gave the Allies a strategic advantage over the German infantry divisions, which were overly reliant on rail, wagon trains and horses to move troops and supplies.

A typical German division during the same period had nearly 10 times as many horses as motor vehicles and ran on oats just as much as oil. This limited the range of the vaunted Blitzkrieg, or lightning attacks, because German tanks and motorized units could not move far ahead of their infantry divisions and supplies.

Driving day and night, the Red Ball truckers earned a reputation as tireless and fearless troops. They steered their loud, rough-driving trucks down pitch-black country roads and through narrow lanes in French towns. They drove fast and adopted the French phrase “tout de suite” – immediately, right now – as their motto.

Gen. George C. Patton “wanted us to eat, sleep, and drive, but mostly drive,” one trucker recalled.

A convoy of trucks carrying military supplies is seen on a narrow road.
A convoy of U.S. trucks heads toward the front lines loaded with military supplies from the Belgian port of Antwerp in spring 1945. Photo12/UIG/Getty Images

James Rookard, a 19-year-old truck driver from Maple Heights, Ohio, saw trucks get blown up and feared for his life.

“There were dead bodies and dead horses on the highways after bombs dropped,” he said. “I was scared, but I did my job, hoping for the best. Being young and about 4,000 miles away from home, anybody would be scared.”

Patton concluded that “the 2½ truck is our most valuable weapon,” and Col. John D. Eisenhower, the supreme commander’s son, argued that without the Red Ball truck drivers, “the advance across France could not have been made.”

Fighting Nazis and racism

The Red Ball Express was a microcosm of the larger Black American experience during World War II. Prompted by the Pittsburgh Courier, an influential Black newspaper at the time, Black Americans rallied behind the Double V campaign during the war, which aimed to secure victory over fascism abroad and victory over racism at home.

Many soldiers saw their service as a way to demonstrate the capabilities of their race.

The Army assigned Black troops almost exclusively to service and supply roles, because military leaders believed they lacked the intelligence, courage and skill needed to fight in combat units.

Despite the racism they encountered during training and deployment, Black troops served bravely in every theater of World War II. Many saw patriotism and a willingness to fight as two characteristics by which manhood and citizenship were defined.

A Black solider stands near a sign that says Red Ball Highway.
In this Sept. 5, 1944, photograph, Cpl. Charles H. Johnson of the 783rd Military Police Battalion waves on a Red Ball Express convoy near Alenon, France. National Archives

The boundaries between combat roles and service roles also blurred in war zones. Black truck drivers often had to fight their way through enemy pockets and sometimes required armored escorts to get valuable cargo to the front.

Many of the white American soldiers who relied on supplies delivered by the Red Ball Express recognized the drivers’ valor at the time.

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An armored division commander credited the Red Ball drivers with allowing tankers to refuel and rearm while fighting. The Black drivers “delivered gas under constant fire,” he said. “Damned if I’d want their job. They have what it takes.”

A 5th Armored Division tank driver said, “If it wasn’t for the Red Ball we couldn’t have moved. They all were Black drivers and they delivered in the heat of combat. We’d be in our tanks praying for them to come up.”

Logistics in Ukraine

Days into the war, Ukraine’s armed forces destroyed all railway links between Ukraine and Russia to thwart the transport of Russian military equipment and tanks.

Relying on trucks and road networks, Russian convoys encountered fuel shortages and counterattacks from Ukrainian military and civilians.

Dozens of trucks with Russian military supplies are seen on a highway.
A convoy of Russian military vehicles moves toward the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine on Feb. 23, 2022. Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The Russian military’s ability to move supplies across extended distances – as well as Ukraine’s ability to disrupt those supply lines – is pivotal in determining the future direction of the war.The Conversation

Matthew Delmont, Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Professor of History, Dartmouth College

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Taking a Deeper Look at ‘Red Tails’

Taking a Deeper Look at ‘Red Tails’

There’s been plenty of buzz surrounding Red Tails, the George Lucas blockbuster action picture depicting the daring exploits of the 332nd Fighter Group of World War II, more commonly known as the Tuskegee Airmen. Strictly by the numbers, it’s been considered an initial success, grossing $19 million in a strong opening weekend. Anecdotally, my Facebook and Twitter feed are both testifying to its popularity. People are talking about it.

And if I were strictly a PR flack for Lucasfilm, I’d be focused primarily on trying to find out what people are saying about it.

But as a critical thinker, I have to get beyond the question, “what are people saying?” and get to the bigger question — what should people be saying?

I realize that’s an inherently presumptuous question. People are entitled to their own reactions to any piece of art or commerce. But anytime there is a popular movie or television show that captures the collective attention of a sizable group of people, most of the responses tend to be polarized. Yet, discerning viewers need to be able to give and receive more feedback than just, “it was great!” or “it sucked.”

The truth is, no matter what you thought about the film itself, there are great lessons to be learned in the wake of this Red Tails phenomenon, and we’d all be better off if we could dig deeper and find them.

Lesson one: Before we decide if it’s good or bad, let’s be grateful Red Tails was made.

I know it’s obvious, but really … this can’t be repeated enough: it is amazing that this film ever got made. George Lucas deserves a lot of credit for putting his money on the line to make this film. No disrespect to the well-done mid-’90s HBO version, but Red Tails is the kind of movie that kids and teens might actually want to see, instead of being the kind of movie that they dutifully sit through to please their parents.

When you get right down to it, Black history is American history. But this particular chapter in American history has been so overlooked for so long that it takes a film with a big budget, decent writing, excellent sound design, and other Hollywood perks to get a wider array of people to pay attention and give these heroes their due.

So whether or not Red Tails is a great film is, in my view, mostly irrelevant. It doesn’t need to be great. It just needs to be legit … to have the air and cachet and buzz of a major blockbuster motion picture. And on those grounds, it has succeeded.

Strictly as a piece of WWII-era entertainment, Red Tails is a mixed bag. It’s not as good as, say, last summer’s Captain America. As a matter of fact, I enjoyed Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow more than I liked Red Tails, despite the fact that it flopped pretty badly at the box office.

Which just goes to show you that critics aren’t always a great indicator of what people will flock to.

No, Red Tails isn’t going to set the world on fire … but that’s fine. Neither did Pearl Harbor with Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett. But they’re both historical films that inform our broader American culture about important people and events in our nation’s history.

And by the way, the fact that George Lucas had to put so much of his money into it to make it happen is the main reason why he’s getting all of this love. It’s not because it’s such a great movie, or because Lucas is a such a greatfilmmaker (more on that in a bit).

It’s because it’s such a great thing for the movie to have been made in the first place.

To resurrect a tired-but-appropriate illustration:

Bankrolling a Big-Budget Blockbuster With An Ensemble Cast And Top Rate Special Effects, as well as Bankrolling the Promotion and Distribution For Said Film when the Big Hollywood Studios Wouldn’t Touch It: $60 Million.

Honoring the Story of A Neglected Subset of American Heroes and Inspiring Black Boys In Ways That Other Films Have Never Done Before: Priceless.

Lesson two: Stop giving George Lucas all the credit — or blame.

Because of the cult fandom of Star Wars that played out through the ’80s and ‘90s, George Lucas developed a near mythical persona — that is, until he released the trilogy of Star Wars prequel films, and then he became a rhetorical punching bag for disillusioned fans of the original films.

FROM SKYWALKER TO TUSKEGEE AIRMEN: 'Red Tails' producer George Lucas. (Photo: Nicolas Genin/Wikipedia)

Ever since, George Lucas has had a polarizing effect on people. And depending on whom you talk to, he’s considered either a rarified genius or a no-talent hack.

Here’s what a lot of folks are forgetting, though — George Lucas did not direct Red Tails.

That honor went to Anthony Hemingway, notable for his TV work on HBO’s The Wire and Treme. And so should some of the praise — and the blame — for the way it turned out. Many of the people who automatically take aim at Lucas don’t necessarily understand the role of a producer, and how it differs from that of a director.

It probably hasn’t helped that Lucas has done all of the high-profile press and television appearances by himself. Not only might it have helped to elevate Anthony Hemingway’s profile as a young, up-and-coming African American film director, but Lucas might have more easily avoided flirting with a White savior complex.

Lesson three: It wasn’t just money that turned this idea into reality; it was also passion, humility, and relationship.

Being a historical film, Red Tails is a fun ride, but it doesn’t have too many surprises (SPOILER ALERT: the Germans lost the war.)

The biggest surprise for me about Red Tails was in the credits — that alongside main screenwriter John Ridley was none other than Aaron McGruder, creator of The Boondocks comic strip and animated series.

(*cue the sound of needle scratching record*)

Yes, this is the same Aaron McGruder who, through the voice of his protagonist Huey Freeman, took shots at George Lucas and the Star Wars prequels on a regular basis — especially for the character Jar Jar Binks, who was widely considered to be an annoying galactic caricature of Black stereotypes.

It’s no surprise that he would branch out into feature films, but seriously … raise your hand if you foresaw Aaron McGruder teaming up with the man he so thoroughly and publicly lambasted. (Now put those hands back down, and stop lying.)

The truth is, it would’ve taken a lot of humility for George Lucas to invite Aaron McGruder into the collaborative process, and just as much for McGruder to accept that invitation. But that’s also where the passion part comes into play. Both Lucas and McGruder grew up in awe of the Tuskegee Airmen, and as McGruder explains in this clip, everyone who collaborated on the film had a real desire to honor them as heroes, and tell their story the right way.

Then when you factor in Lucas’ romantic relationship with Mellody Hobson of Ariel Investments, and how that might have bolstered his sense of connection to the Black community at large, it’s clear that George Lucas did not see Red Tails as simply another commercial investment or even routine altruism. It was a labor of love with a significant emotional investment.

 *                       *                       *

This is the point that Christian leaders need to really understand. So much energy is spent in dissecting all of the problems in our country … racism, poverty, political rancor, you name it. As much as we need solid cultural analysis and biblical exegesis regarding these matters, being engaged from a distance will only get us so far. What we need is leaders who can speak to these issues with the conviction and gravitas that can only come from being personally invested.

It’s no surprise, for example, that of all the high-profile White pastors and/or Christian leaders, the one who most recently released a definitive biblical exploration of the race issue in America (Bloodlines, available here as a free download) is John Piper, a man known primarily for his role as author and pastor, but who also cherishes his role as an adoptive father of an African American teenage girl. It’s one thing to pontificate in theory about how Blacks and Whites can and should live in unity. It’s another thing to try to walk that out in your own household, day by day.

And maybe that’s the biggest lesson that Christians can extract from the story of Red Tails — that in desperate times, history celebrates the ones who are willing to forego safety and security in order to bravely take on the task at hand.

And yes, there are times when the battle doesn’t belong to us. But when it does, we put on the full armor … and yes.

We fight.

We fight.