"Keep 'Em Rolling": African American Participation in the Red Ball Express

By Medford, Edna Greene; Frazier, Michael | Negro History Bulletin, December 1993 | Go to article overview

"Keep 'Em Rolling": African American Participation in the Red Ball Express


Medford, Edna Greene, Frazier, Michael, Negro History Bulletin


Technical Sergeant Emanuel Wilson Greene of the 3989th Motor Transport Company served two years, ten months, and twenty-two days in the U.S. Army during World War II. All but ten months of that time he spent in the European Theater of Operations as an automotive mechanic. It was the first time the Virginia native had ever left the state of his birth; while overseas he promised himself that he would never leave home again. In the thirty-five years he survived following the war, he remained faithful to his promise and rarely left the place that he knew and loved.(1)

His fondness for home was but one among many manifestations of the war's impact on Greene. The horrors he had witnessed in Europe tempered any nostalgia he may have felt for this period in his life. Yet, there were certain aspects of his military experience he recalled with pride. Whenever the ordeal of earning a living in the racially-charged environment of postwar America began to overwhelm him, he could reflect upon (perhaps with a mixture of satisfaction and irony) the role he played in helping the nation to win the most important armed conflict of the 20th century.

Most African Americans who served in the armed forces during World War II were, like Greene, non-combat troops. Their task was to render support to combat units, to work in the supply operations--loading and unloading food, equipment, and ammunition as well as transporting these essential items to dumps near the front--and to serve in ordnance units.(2) Black men generally chafed at assignments to these service units, because such duty did not reflect their idea of what it meant to soldier. Ernest Myers, who saw duty as a truck driver with the 3214th Quartermaster Service Company, says that black soldiers desired the opportunity to show that black men "were combat ready...We wanted to make an impression for the people back home."(3) But the country--still unconvinced of the ability of black soldiers as fighting men, despite incontrovertible evidence of valor in previous wars--consigned the bulk of black soldiers to service units. Ironically, it was these men who proved invaluable to the Allied effort, and whose performance forever altered the image of the non-combat soldier.

Both Greene and Myers were among the thousands of African Americans involved in the most legendary of support activities during the war--they served with units that operated along the Red Ball Express. One of the largest logistical operations before the preparations for Desert Storm almost fifty years later, Red Ball was linked to the June 6, D-Day invasion on the Normandy beaches and the allied drive across France in the summer of 1944. Operation Overlord, as the invasion plan was codenamed, proceeded slowly and with devastating loss of life; but by the end of July, the Allies had penetrated the German lines and had them on the run. Once the breakout occurred, the First Army and General George C. Patton's Third Army advanced swiftly across Franceso swiftly that by mid-August Allied forces were beginning to experience difficulty in keeping the ground forces adequately supplied. In its attempt to cut off the German supply lines, Allied bombing had seriously damaged the French rail system. The Germans, too, exacerbated the problem by sabotaging the system as they fled the Allied Forces. The inability of supply to keep up with need threatened to slow, if not halt, Patton's advance.

Hence, on August 25, the Allies implemented a program which would allow the armies to continue their advance across France. The plan consisted of a one way, restricted highway that was used exclusively for the hauling of supplies--POL (petroleum, oil, and lubricants), ammunition, food and other essentials--to the First and Third Armies. The express operated twenty-four hours a day, even under adverse conditions. The route formed a loop with the northern road, leading to dump sites forward, and the southern, to be used for trucks returning to the rear. …

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