D-Day’s ‘Road Warriors’

By Bill Hudgins, contributing writer

June 6, 2014, marks the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe. The toll in blood and suffering was immense, but the long-awaited attack by American and British troops cracked Hitler’s “Fortress Europe,” and within days Allied troops were surging westward.

And right there with them were the convoy drivers, bringing “bullets, beans and bandages” from the French coast to the front lines. America’s economic might – its ability to turn out huge quantities of supplies and to deliver them via ship and then trucks – was the Allies’ true secret weapon.

That weapon began firing in earnest on D-Day +11, when the first elements of the U.S. Army’s 514th Quartermaster Truck Regiment debarked from landing craft and headed inland to connect with Allied troops. At that time, many of the driver-soldiers in the Quartermaster Corps were African-Americans, according to the Center Of Military History United States Army.

For nearly two months after D-Day, the Allies tried desperately to crack the Nazi resistance. The breakthrough finally happened in August 1944, and the First and Third Armies swept eastward in a virtual khaki tsunami.

The sudden breakthrough and speed of the Allied advance caught the Army flatfooted. It simply wasn’t ready yet to implement its formal logistics plan. In order to supply the troops and not slow the advance, the Army Transportation Corps improvised the now legendary Red Ball Express, which began running on Aug. 25, 1944.

Running along two one-way highways placarded “Red Ball Trucks Only,” the convoys carried some 412,193 tons of supplies and logged a total of 121,873,929 ton-miles between Aug. 25 and its official end on Nov. 13, 1944.

The original route ran from Saint-Lo to Paris and back, and was later extended to Sommesous, Reims and Hirson. On an average day, 899 trucks were on the route making the 54-hour roundtrip to Paris and back.

A few years ago, I was privileged to interview several Red Ball drivers from Cleveland, Ohio, who had trained and served together in the 514th Regiment. Like the soldiers who stormed Normandy, the drivers trained endlessly for their part and endured the same interminable waiting and uncertainty.

Marvin Hall told me that crossing the English Channel a few days after D-Day was “a short but a sickly ride. Landing that first night, it was just touch and feel your way along. There were German planes flying around and strafing, and we were carrying gasoline cans and ammunition, so I was pretty scared.”

With the invasion less than two weeks old at that point, Fred Newton was shocked to see “dead men stacked up like cord wood” and even some corpses still floating in the water. As the troops struggled to advance, the convoys ran continuously, using shielded headlights they called “cateyes” at night. And when Patton’s Third Army did break through, the Clevelanders quickly boarded the Red Ball.

“Red Ball” was railroad lingo for hot freight, and the timetables ensured virtually continuous operation. The goal was for drivers to maintain a 25 mph speed. Broken-down trucks were shoved out of the way to await recovery and repair.

“You felt everything you drove over,” Hall recalled. “Those trucks weren’t cushioned at all, and it wasn’t like you were driving on a highway. The roads were rough, pitted and cratered, and the Army engineers were always out there fixing them.”

Indeed, just as today’s trucking needs a reliable support infrastructure, the Red Ball drivers depended on the Army engineers, Medical Corps, MPs, Signal Corps and repair units to stay on schedule – and on the road.

The Army Transportation Center says about 3,000 trucks from 67 different companies were pressed into Red Ball service, with more than 25,000 soldiers participating. In their first month, Red Ball drivers delivered more than 290,000 tons of supplies.

Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower summed up the achievement: “When one looks back on those amazing days, it seems well nigh incredible that at no period, up until the time we stood on the threshold of Germany, was the momentum of the drive retarded through lack of essential supplies.

“The spectacular nature of the advance was due in as great measure to the men who drive the Red Ball trucks as to those who drove the tanks.” LL