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© 2010 Curtis Redgap; all rights reserved. Printed by permission.
When World War II started, Dodge trucks were known for their tendency to run without repairs. GM and Ford trucks, especially those with the simple Chevrolet 216 six cylinder “stove bolt” overhead valve engines, often burned their valves on the low-octane fuel sent to the rear areas (higher octane fuels were diverted to aircraft). Maintenance depots could be filled with GM and Ford trucks, crippled by burned-out valves; replacement valves were nearly impossible to get. The Dodge flat headed engines, however, made no complaint, and just kept on going, some lasting the entire war without a rebuild.
They were also tough. General Patton instituted his own resupply efforts when his requests seemed to fall on higher command’s deaf ears; he and supply master Major General John C.H. Lee painted 12 inch bright red circles on trucks, calling it the Red Ball Express. (General Eisenhower had privately told General Bradley to slow General Patton down to avoid the political embarrassment that might be felt by the English, under English General Montgomery.)
The special supply system was needed because the Allies had bombed out French rail lines, then used by the Nazis. After the Allies landed and broke out of the beaches, there were 28 Allied divisions in the field, each using 750 tons of food and other supplies per day.
Patton's Military Police were ordered to make sure that the trucks with the red ball were cleared over any road, never to be stopped, to get fuel, ammunition, and food to the front lines when Patton was literally racing across Europe heading up the Third Army. (He also commanded numerous Sherman tanks with the 30 cylinder Chrysler tank engine.)
Under the influence of General Lee, many of the Red Ball drivers were blacks, who Lee felt should be integrated into the regular army units. The drivers, white and black alike, were pushed as hard as the trucks, eating and sleeping when they could, often doing without food and rest, and having their bodies battered by the constant pounding of the relatively primitive trucks on the harsh paths.
Colonel Loren Albert Ayers, known to his men as "Little Patton," was in charge of gathering two drivers for every truck, obtaining special equipment, and training port battalion personnel as drivers for long hauls; General John C.H. Lee, was also responsible for overseeing Red Ball Express work within the ADSEC Transportation Section.
Patton choose Dodge trucks at first to be the exclusive Red Ball vehicle, preferring the the tough 6x6 (WC-62 and WC-63 models), because they could run flat out, for miles, over rough and tough terrain, to deliver the goods. (Flat out was a relative term; with the 230 cubic inch flathead six, top speed with a two speed transfer case was a lively 55 miles an hour.)
Unfortunately, there weren’t enough of Dodge trucks of any description available, and Chevy trucks were also pressed into service; because there were so many available, Chevy ended up with the majority of the Red Ball Express carriers, but also most of the trucks abandoned on the side of the road or sitting in depots, waiting for spares and repairs. According to the Army Quartermaster, nearly 30,000 GMC 2½ ton trucks were sidelined and cannibalized to the keep the other GM trucks running, during the 80 days of Red Ball Express — a 5:1 ratio of parts to trucks.
The drivers, armed with carbines or machine guns, were known to remove governors to raise their speed over 50 mph; tires shredded from road hazards, and overloaded trucks flipped over. Drivers were pushed to the limit, some falling asleep at the wheel and ending up in ditches; some switched seats with relief drivers without pulling over. At night, they ran with “cat’s eye” slits, and drivers maintained the same speed as during the day. They could barely see.
The trucks had to run flat out for long distances over bad roads or fields, then turn around run flat out all the way back, at times making two or three trips a day, up to 80 miles one way, at wide open throttle with a full load. They often made their own roads out of the countryside so they could catch and then pass the front lines of Patton's tanks and troops, and dump the loads where they would be waiting for Patton when he got there (a 55 mph top speed would not be a limiting factor when driving cross country). It worked, and kept Patton going long after Bradley and Eisenhower had hoped he would run out of gas.
At its peak, the Red Ball Express operated nearly six thousand trucks, carrying 6 tons of supplies, per day, with 1,500 vehicles being repaired at any given time. The trucks had been commandeered from three new infantry divisions, at some cost to their effectiveness. The plan had been for the Express to last just two weeks; it lasted over 80 days, and in the end, the transport trucks ended up using most of the fuel themselves. The original scheme to use well planned convoys failed, with few of the trucks moving together; and loading and unloading took far longer than projected. The Express also wore out many trucks prematurely, overloading repair groups and demanding more spare parts than anticipated. The system worked, but at a cost; still, it got the Army past a rough time, when pipelines and railways were down and heavy duty tractor-trailer trucks had not yet been unloaded from the docks.
During their time, the Red Ball Express drivers carried over a half a million tons of supplies, its drivers braving accidents and enemies, driving at top speed and evading regulations to get the job done. By speeding Patton’s armies on their way to Berlin, the Red Ball Express saved countless American and European lives.
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