Black History Month – The Redball Express

Black History Month – The Redball Express

There are two World War Two film projects, both about 10-20 years old now, which have been criticized for their lack of black actors: “The Pacific” and “Saving Private Ryan”.  The criticism is biased and wrong.  “How come there are no black actors there along with Tom Hanks during the epic D-Day battle?”

It’s an easy answer:  BECAUSE THERE WERE NO BLACK COMBAT TROOPS THERE.  If we are going to aim for historical accuracy in projects, we must accept that accuracy for what it was.  Does this mean black soldiers were irrelevant to the fighting effort?  No!

The most well-known of these is ‘the Tuskegee Airmen’, the pilots who eventually formed the 99th Pursuit Squadron and 332nd Fighter Group.  These pilots flew in Europe from 1943 to 1945.  To distinguish one another quickly during air-to-air combat, the pilots painted the back of their tails red.  Here’s one in action:

The Germans despised  the 332nd, referring to them as die Rotschanzteufel–the Red Tailed Devils.  How good were the Red Tailed Devils ?  As a unit, its pilots earned nearly 100 Distinguished Flying Crosses and are known to have shot down multiple German Wunderwaffen–jets and rocket planes.

All the more amazing–the black airmen were initially given commanders who were outright racists and bigots and took actions like drawing lines down the middle of base facilities, arresting blacks who had the ‘audacity’ to cross over the line (to be fair, they also punished white soldiers and officer who tried to erase the line, too).  For history and aviation buffs, this is reasonably well known because the Red Tail Devils are famous.

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With that noted, few other than ‘war buffs’ or military historians know of a more important group of black soldiers.  Their role wasn’t glamorous.  These were the men of the ‘Red Ball Express.’  The Express was the term for the trucks which carried fuel and supplies forward from Normandy to fighting forces on the front line as the Germans retreated to the Rhein.

The Red Ball Express ran from August through October, 1944–three months, but during that time, the 6,000 trucks carried 12,000 tons of supplies forward daily.  This was critical because there were roughly 30 (28 if you want to be exact) Allied divisions involved in the breakout.  In most cases, frontline units burned 700 tons of supplies on a daily basis.  Do the math: 700×28=19,600 tons.   Since other supply routes couldn’t provide more than 8,000 tons/day, the Red Ball Express was critical for driving the Nazis out of France.

It was a cool setup–two highways were commandeered.  One for trucks heading towards the front, the other for empty returners.

More than 75% of the personnel assigned to the Red Ball Express were black.  No Express, no victory over the Nazis in Western Europe.

Just as important, the army’s orders against segregated facilities (desegregation was just really making headway against the wishes of many officer from the South) and the efficiency of the Red Ball Express convinced a lot of white soldiers that black soldiers were competent–and human, that the only difference was skin color.  Those soldiers saw who were bringing up the supplies, working around the clock and letting them take it to the Nazis.

The privates and corporals who drove these trucks are generally forgotten now.  It’s a pity.  They played a decisive role in the breakout from Normandy.

In terms of education–think of other big events in history.  We read about big names, but when we dig deeper, we find the little guys, the ordinary people–in this case the Red Ball Express drivers.  Who are the little guys in the Civil Rights protests?  What about the labor movement?  Who does the work on arms control treaties–or trade agreements?   With these other events–how has bias shaped the history?  Is it intentional bias or does the bias exist because opinion/perception exists in all of us?