Fort William Henry Harrison and World War II’s Red Ball 

Corporal Charles H. Johnson of the 783rd Military Police Battalion, waves on a “Red Ball Express” convoy near Alenon, France in September, 1944. The town was the approximate mid-point on the highway between the Normandy beaches and the ever moving American front lines.  The site was used as a break point for changing and feeding drivers, refueling, and maintaining trucks.  Courtesy National Archives.

African-American (Black) truck drivers of the Red Ball Express kept U.S. Army units supplied in the drive across France in the summer and fall of 1944 during World War II. Approximately two thousands of them received their training in driving and maintaining the 2½-ton trucks (deuce and a half) at Fort Harrison west of Helena, Montana.

After the Allied invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944, American, British, and Canadian forces struggled to first secure and then break out from their newly acquired beachheads. By the middle of July, more than one million Allied soldiers were ashore in France, but they were confined to a front only 50 miles wide and 20 miles deep. By July 1, three weeks after D-Day, over 71,000 vehicles, most of them 2½-ton General Motors trucks as well as tanks, half-tracks, jeeps, and other combat vehicles had been unloaded at Omaha and Utah Beaches. Supplying the advancing Allied armies seemed an unsurmountable task. Under Hitler’s orders, the retreating German army had demolished all of the key deeper water port and dock facilities that otherwise could have been used for unloading critical supplies. In addition, Allied air forces had bombed most of the vital highway and railroad bridges in order to prevent counter attacking German forces from reaching the Normandy beaches. To complicate matters, just weeks after the landings, severe Channel storms battered the landing beaches wrecking one of the “Mulberries” (artificial breakwaters) and stopping the unloading of supplies for several days.

Operation Cobra, the intense aerial bombing assault on German forces on July 25th, by over 2,000 B-24’s and B-17’s from the 8th and 9th U.S. Air Forces, hammered the German units below. A German general said the bombers came like a conveyor belt resulting in 70% of the German forces in northwest Normandy either dead, wounded or shell shocked. Unfortunately, many areas in the planned bombing corridor were obscured by low lying cloud cover resulting in the deaths of many American soldiers. Casualties included 111 killed and 490 wounded GI’s by bombs dropped on supposedly “safe” areas. Despite these discouraging results, American infantry and armored units were now able to escape the labyrinth of Normandy hedgerows and country roads and raced south and east into the open fields and small towns of central France like a floodgate had been opened. The American Army pursued the retreating Germans in one of the fastest advances in the history of land warfare. To expedite cargo shipment to the rapidly moving front, trucks emblazoned with red balls followed a similarly marked route that was closed to civilian traffic. The trucks also had priority on regular roads. The term “Red Ball” was used to describe express cargo service dated to the end of the 19th century. Around 1892, the Santa Fe Railroad began using it to refer to express shipping for priority freight and perishables. Trains and the tracks cleared for their use were marked with red balls. The term grew in popularity and was extensively used by the 1920s. Patton called the M135, 2½-ton, 6 wheel drive trucks, referred to as the “Deuce and a Half” as “our most valuable weapon.” Col. John Eisenhower, Ike’s son, said that without the Red Ball truck drivers “the advance across France would not have been made.” General Omar Bradley said without supplies “we could not move, shoot, or eat.”

At the beginning of World War II, Germany gained a reputation for its blitzkrieg (lightening war) mechanized attacks on Poland and Russia. In reality, the typical German division had ten times as many horse-drawn wagons as motorized vehicles to move men and material. Following the Cobra breakout, the German forces were astounded at the rapid American pursuit of their army. For example, following the breakout, elements of the U.S. Third Army, under General George S. Patton, Jr. often covered more than 75 miles a day. While the campaign forced the German Army to retreat across France, it also caused serious supply problems for the Allies. Patton’s gas-guzzling Sherman tanks averaged only 1.4 miles per gallon with a maximum range of 120 miles.

An armored division required 60,000 gallons a day. If the division had to go across country the figure soared. On top of the fuel, an armored division required thirty-five tons of rations per day for 21,000 men, including all those attached to it, and depending on the intensity of the fighting, a far greater tonnage of ammunition.

The Americans met the challenge with ruthless prioritization. “Supply trains” with fuel and oil received absolute priority. Each M-25 transporter (tanker) carried 16,000 gallons. They even used ammunition trucks “borrowed” from the artillery to haul more gasoline. Military police and Piper Cubs were employed to monitor the progress of every convoy, and engineers worked round the clock to improve roads and bridges.” By the second week of August the demand for POL (petroleum, oil, and lubricants) had jumped from 300,000 gallons to 600,000 per day. Most of this was delivered by five ton trucks each hauling 125 five gallon “Jerry” (German style) cans of highly flammable fuel, each weighing about forty pounds.

Antony Beevor offered a perspective on the challenge in his history, D-DAY: the Battle for Normandy:

“According to General John C.H. Lee, the chief of SHAEF’s rear services, Patton tried to “appropriate the whole of fuel resupply for his own army.” He flattered the truck drivers, handing them Third U.S. Army parches, and sometimes he even commandeered the trucks to shift his infantry rapidly. This provoked exasperation and admiration in his colleagues.

According to Carlo D’Este’s Decision in Normandy: “Patton used every subterfuge in his bag of tricks to keep the Third Army moving, including diversion of gasoline and ammunition destined for the First Army: on more than one occasion the Third Army troops obtained vital supplies by purporting to be from the First Army; trucks of the Red Ball Express were mysteriously diverted to Third Army supply dumps…Montgomery was incensed when he learned of these actions and complained loudly to Eisenhower; but the charade soon ended when the Third Army literally ran out of fuel outside Metz, where they remained for much of the autumn of 1944,”

The “Red Ball” convoy system began operating on August 25, 1944 and was staffed three-quarters with Black soldiers. Reflecting the racism of the time, the Army assigned Black troops almost exclusively to service and supply roles because it was believed they lacked the intelligence, courage, and skill needed to fight in combat units. Black soldiers were generally relegated to noncombat units regardless of their own desire to serve at the Front. (Military units were generally segregated by race until desegregation was ordered by President Truman in 1948.) Most of the men were under the age of 24, typically 18 or 19, and few had experience driving trucks before the war. Driving a “deuce and a half” was not like driving an automobile. The 5,000-pound capacity trucks were primarily manufactured by General Motors (nicknamed “Jimmies’”), Dodge, and Ford, with some by Kaiser and Studebaker. The Dodge trucks were considered more reliable but replacement parts for the Jimmies were easier to come by. The standard trucks had a cargo bed 8 feet wide by 12 feet long, most with canvas tops.

Mileage was about 11 miles per gallon with a five speed, high and low range transmission with ten gears to master. The trucks were referred to as “six by sixes” with two front wheels and two pair in the rear. When needed, such as grinding through heavy mud or snow, all six wheels could be engaged. The four rear duals were powered by two drive shafts in the Jimmies which gave the trucks greater traction for hills, mud or snow. On the right of the floor mounted gear shift were two smaller levers. The right one engaged the front wheel drive, the left one gave the truck an extra low range in all gears. Drivers had to know how to use them all. Drivers had to know how to “double-clutch” and how and when to shift into all gears on the go. Drivers grew adept at driving in all road conditions including narrow, winding French village streets.
In this October 1944 photograph, Black soldiers are filling up gasoline “Jerry cans” to be hauled on the Red Ball Express. AFP via Getty Images
Typical Quartermaster truck maintenance training included learning the basics of carburetion, ignition, how to change tires, and solving minor breakdown problems. The soldiers also went through the standard sixteen week basic infantry course that was given to all World War II soldiers including marksmanship, bayonet drills, night marches, and infiltration. James Rookard, who trained at Fort Meade, Maryland said:

“You could learn to drive the trucks in two or three days if you followed instructors. The hardest part was learning to drive in convoy with no more than blackout lights, following closely behind the truck in front of you.”

The engines had governors which limited top speeds to 56 miles per hour. These were usually disconnected by the Red Ballers as soon as they hit France. Without a governor, a Jimmie could reach 70 mph on a good road, running empty. A driver motto was “Red Ball Trucks Don’t Brake.” Most of the Red Ball roads had 25 mph speed limits, which were universally ignored. The drivers might be scolded by an officer for driving too fast to get supplies to the Front but would never be court martialed. General Patton would have been more likely to give them a medal.

Red Ball truckers adopted the French phrase “tout de suite” (immediately, right now) as their motto, reflecting the emphasis on speedy delivery of supplies to the Front. However, the focus on rapid delivery of material to front line units was a disincentive for good vehicle maintenance. Drivers would typically turn over their fully loaded vehicle at a supply depot or at a front line unit and be assigned an empty unloaded truck for the return trip to the Channel beaches.

Preventative maintenance programs were often ignored and the neglect shortened the useful life of the vehicles. Truck driving teams thus had little motivation to assure proper maintenance for a vehicle they might never see again, especially if they were being urged to return quickly to pick up another load of critically needed military supplies. By November 1944, the Army had over 15,000 broken-down trucks that needed repairs or replacement parts. The trucks often ran 24 hours a days for weeks before receiving any routine, needed service. Preventive maintenance was often ignored in the interest of fast delivery of military material. Persistent shortages of replacement parts exacerbated the problems with inoperable vehicles. Red Ball truckers complied with the 5,000 load weight limits for their Jimmies as carefully as they followed speed limits. Heavy loads, particularly artillery shells, were packed into the trucks boxes as high as possible, short of falling out of the truck. The result for mechanics was dealing with broken suspensions and worn out engines, transmissions, and tires. One of the greatest shortages was replacement tires. Military tires had a life expectancy of 12,000 miles which equaled 12 round trips from Omaha Beach to the French-German border. Additional wear occurred due to potholes, metal debris on roads from combat action causing cuts or punctures, low tire pressure and no pumps to increase pressure, or excessive weight from heavy loads.

One issue that continually raised the hackles of Red Ball Express personnel was remarks from combat soldiers to the effect that rear echelon Quartermaster and Transportation personnel had cushy, safe non-combat duty. Drivers usually worked in two-man teams so that one could sleep while the other drove. To keep up with their convoys the driving teams developed the art of switching seats without stopping the rig, one man sliding under, the other moving over the top. The trucks drove 24 hours straight on one-way roads reserved exclusively for Red Ball convoys. Trucks stayed in the middle of the roadway to avoid any mines planted by the enemy or metal shrapnel pieces from combat. Military policemen guarded the intersections to guarantee the trucks did not have to stop for anything. Convoys were not allowed to stop except for a ten minute “pit stop” break that occurred ten minutes before each hour. The convoy was expected to be under way at the hour mark. After the six hours of consecutive driving, the teams were allowed a thirty minute break for food, when outside of a town. Driving teams often skipped meal breaks to save time or ate C-rations cold as they drove. Driver exhaustion and sleepiness was a continual hazard, particularly for night driving. Round trips often required 48 to 65 hours of constant driving.

The original plan for the Red Ball Express called for trucks to drive at 25 miles per hour at 60 yard intervals in convoys escorted by jeeps at the front and back of the convoy. Convoys were supposed to be at least five vehicles. In reality, the trucks often traveled alone, leaving the Normandy beaches as soon as they were loaded and racing at speeds sometimes exceeding 60 miles per hour to the forward supply depots, despite blackout conditions. At night the trucks drove with “cat’s eye” “Blackout” headlight covers offering just a one inch slit horizontally for minimal roadway vision and to avoid attracting enemy fire. Accidents, fatigue, the poor conditions of the narrow French roads, and enemy aircraft and sniper attacks were just some of the hazards drivers confronted on their routes. In some cases, the truckers helped the tanks and armored cars to refuel and reload ammunition while under fire. According to David Colley’s The Road to Victory: Stars and Stripes, the Army newspaper, praised these Red Ball drivers: ”We often refuel and rearm even while fighting. That takes guts. Our Negro outfits delivered gas under constant fire. Damned if I’d want their job. They have what it takes.”

The Red Ball Express program at its peak operated more than 6,000 vehicles that carried about 12,500 tons of supplies a day. It ran for 83 days until November 16, 1944, when the port facilities at Antwerp, Belgium, were finally captured from the Germans and readied for receiving supplies. At any given time during the operation, an average of 900 vehicles were on the road. By the end of November, when the Red Ball Express was discontinued, its drivers had transported more than 412,000 tons of fuel, ammunition, food, medical supplies, and equipment to 28 different U.S. Army Divisions. By late September, with end destinations of Verdun and Metz, the Red Ball highway round trip was almost 1,000 miles.

After the port of Antwerp opened, the drivers of the Red Ball Express returned to their respective units. However, their accomplishments were well publicized by the Army. The Red Ball Express succeeded because of the devotion to duty of thousands of Black soldiers who had been denied the full benefits of American citizenship but who were committed to doing their part to win the war. Many Black soldiers saw courage and willingness to risk danger as a way to demonstrate their abilities and the patriotism of their race.
A Red Ball Express convoy passes a disabled truck in France in July 1944. Courtesy: National Archives
Most Montanans are not aware that Fort William Henry Harrison, west of Helena, played a vital role in the training of Black soldiers who would serve as truck drivers, mechanics, and loaders for the Red Ball Express. The First Special Service Force had completed their training and departed Helena on April 6, 1943. With the many barracks and administrative buildings now vacant, the 474th Quartermaster Truck Regiment began a truck driving and maintenance training program for Black soldiers. Quartermaster regiments were established at several other military posts across the country including Camp Livingston, Louisiana (where the 474th was activated), Fort Meade, Maryland, and Camp Shelby, Alabama. The typical Quartermaster Truck Regiment consisted of 12 companies with 150 men each with five white officers. Each company had three platoons of 16 trucks each.

According to Ray Read, Director of the Montana Military Museum at Fort Harrison, the Quartermaster unit administered the truck training program for several thousand soldiers at Fort Harrison during WW II. According to Read, even with the number of initially vacant barracks, there wasn’t sufficient space to house all the truck trainees. Many bunked in the basement of Helena’s Civic Center (the former jail). In addition to their military training, many of the Black trainees assisted in community scrap drives to collect materials for recycling for war use such as aluminum and rubber tires.

After completing their training, drivers from the 474th Quartermaster Regiment served in the European theater and were dispersed for the campaigns in Normandy, Northern France, Rhineland, Ardennes-Alsace, and Central Europe. The regiment was inactivated on November 25, 1945 at Camp Kilmer, New Jersey.
Unloading truck at Liege, Belgium, an important supply depot, 1944 Wikipedia


 Carey, Christopher: The Red Ball Express:  Past lessons for Future Wars, English Military Review, April, 2021.

Colley, David P.: The Road to Victory:  The Untold Story of World War II’s Red Ball Express, ( Potomac Books. ISBN 1-57488-173, 2021. 

Delmont, Matthew: The forgotten story of Black soldiers and the Red Ball Express during World War II, The Conversation Newsletter, April, 2021.

D’Este, Carlo, Decision in Normandy, Penguin Putnam, 1983, 1994

Eisenhower, Dwight D.: Crusade in Europe:  A Personal Account of World War II, Vintage Books, December, 2021.

Hastings, Max: Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy, Simon & Schuster, 1984.

National World War II Museum, “Keep ‘em Rolling”: 82 Days on the Red Ball Express”, February 1, 2021 

Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, Red Ball Express,” downloaded November 11, 2023.