Texas Red Ballers
by Thomas S Johnson
“I wish Herohito had come to California and got that Golden Gate Bridge. I can’t stand being down here, it stinks like Hell.” The constant complaints were none stop from Private First Class, L.C. Dupree, as he checked the air pressure of the trucks he was assigned to routine each morning. “It just don’t make no sense that we have to do this crap while the white boys get all the glory killing Nazis. They just don’t want us killing white folk, is all.” He continued speaking to no one in particular as he recorded fluid levels and tire pressure in the log book. The trucks had six tires, and one spare, on each of the brand new Dodge 6x6 one-and-a-half ton green trucks.
Two months prior, black solders out of Texas were assigned to duty in California guarding the west coast, and its Golden Gate Bridge, after December 7th, 1942. Fear of the Japanese navy continuing to the main land was genuine in the weeks following the surprise attack at Pearl Harbor.
After months of guard duty, enjoying the freedoms of a lesser racially prejudiced California, the Texans were on their way to confront the enemy in Europe in the bowels of the Queen Mary; newly commissioned as a troop carrier. The “Negro” solders were truck drivers and mechanics. They were believed not to be of temperament to handle combat by the generals running the war.
Corporal Harden said, “The Navy is still bombing the beach. Let’s go top side, when we finish, and see the fireworks. I hear it’s a clear day this morning, and the coast of France, I’ve been told, is beautiful.” Harden’s routine was to start each truck after checking the battery for proper voltage, and charging if tested low.
Dupree said, “By the time we get on the beach it will be covered with dead Germans. That’s when it’s most beautiful, Harden. The shame of it all is that we will be baby-sitting these damn trucks while the white troops fight.
“I’ll go top side, Harden, for the fresh air not the view; just too much water to see. Your fumes are killing me down here.” PFC L.C. Dupree continued grumbling while wiping his hands on a rag. “The Sarge was tellin me my people crossed this same ocean from Africa. My people be from Mississippi. He don’t know my people.”
On August 21, 1944 all one thousand twelve trucks, and jeeps were ferried to the shore of France to a staging area where they received orders. General Patton was kicking German ass, and needed 350 trucks to keep him supplied with fuel, ammo, and food as he pursued the fleeing Nazis across France to the German border.
Timothy Samuel grew up on a seventy-five acre farm in southern Texas, forty miles north of Houston. No electricity, a hand pump for water, five sisters, and one brother never considered themselves poor. His hard working father, and half Native American mother, was considered to be well-to-do by all local standards, even as the rest of the country went through the depression. Timothy Samuel finished high school, while all others his age worked long hours with their families as share-croppers.
Because he was able to read, write, and ‘tally’ numbers he quickly rose in rank while in the Army. Tim was selected to Officer Candidate School, but soon returned to the ranks of the black regular Army because he discovered white soldiers were not required to salute black officers.
Not a big man, five-eight, and one-hundred-fifty pounds of hard ‘plow-and-mule’ muscle.
“Okay, you all, this is the way we are going to do this.” Staff Sergeant Samuel spoke to his platoon of twenty-five drivers and auto mechanics. “We will be following General Patton’s Third Armored Division across France as he forces the Germans out of the country. We will stay on the road marked Red Ball. It’s important to stay sixty yards behind the truck in front. Be advised, men, it is very likely we will be taking incoming fire. It will be two men per vehicle. Make sure you bring extra ammo. These trips will take many long hours, so the man that drives up will ride shot-gun on the way back. If your truck breaks down, or you get stuck in the mud, you will just have to stand down until we get the towing crew out to you. You must protect the cargo at all cost. Some of the French people, who live along the route, may try to loot a disabled truck. General Patton is expecting us to be on time men; he needs ammo.
Sergeant Samuel opened the door to the first truck, stepped behind the wheel then, “Move out!” The first trip on the Red Ball Express was uneventful, and took twelve hours round trip. The empty trucks took a different road back to avoid over crowding the road. All the trucks were prevented from going over twenty-five miles per hour by an accelerator governor installed per orders from General Patton. His thinking was that the Negro troops would panic, and crash with needed munitions that would be looted by the long deprived French peasants.
Patton’s tanks were spread out for miles on both sides of the supply line in the hedgerow country, rousting the German army with unprecedented speed. Small groups of Germans hid in farm houses and barns, trying to do anything to disrupt the supply route. Some trucks were fired on, and a dozen came under mortar attack.
“McMichael, where is your shot-gunner?” Sergeant Samuel asked while unloading rations at the end of a run.
“Sergeant, the truck in front of us took a mortar near enough to blow it off the road at marker twenty-six. L.C. jumped out to help defend that truck with the other two men. They were taking, and returning small arms fire, so I got the hell out of there. I got bullet holes in the truck, Sarge!” McMichael said, wide eyed, shaking, and talking rapidly.
Sergeant Samuel put his hand on McMichael’s shoulder, “Harden is in the follow jeep, he has an automatic weapon, he’ll pick’um up. Good job, McMichael. Now, get ahold of your self, man, and help us unload these trucks.”
Every truck stopped to take on as much ammo as could fit in an already loaded vehicle; under the seat, on the floor, or on a lap until the disabled truck was unloaded. This was done while L.C. and Hardin kept a steady cover fire on the farm house while the drivers transferred material.
Old Blood and Guts (Patton’s nickname) and his tanks broke through the hedgerows and were moving very quickly across France requiring longer supply lines, even driving in total darkness all night without head lights. The man riding shot gun would walk in front of his truck with a small, dim light, so the driver could stay on the road. A line of head lights could be seen for miles at night, which could be followed by any remaining German airplane to the over night bivouac area of the tank division.
While loading the trucks for another day, and night run, Sergeant Samuel approached his First Sergeant who was keeping tally of items placed in the trucks. “Top, I think it would be a good idea if we were to unload supplies at the bivouac location, rather than have the 3rd pick’um up on the road. We can go the few extra miles.”
“Damn, Sam you want to do that? You would be out front of the tanks, gettin shot at,” the First Sergeant said while looking at his staff sergeant as if he were suddenly insane.
“We can do it. We won’t be that far ahead, Top. Patton is going through France like pork-fat through a goose. The Nazis are running like they’re on fire.”
“I’ll mention it to the captain to see what he say.
“You know Sam, they an’t gonna send yo dead black ass home; they just bury you on the side of this muddy damn road with yo boots, and helmet on top. Ain’t no such thing as a Negro hero.” The First Sergeant returned to his clip board.
Two trips later (about a day and a half) while unloading, a jeep approached from the front. A driver with a white officer standing, wearing a uniform not seen anywhere in the colored army approached the trucks. The driver stopped at private Wheatherspoon’s truck, the first of the twelve trucks lined up on the road. Wheatherspoon saluted, then pointed in the direction of Sergeant Samuel.
“Are you Staff Sergeant Samuel?” Asked the captain driver. General Patton stood tall wearing four stars on his helmet, a brown jacket covered with army ribbons, khaki riding paints, with black shinny riding boots, and an ivory handled pistol in a brown western cowboy holster. He wore a smile turned up-side-down glaring menacingly at the young sergeant. “Yes sir.” Said Sergeant Samuel while saluting, coming to attention.
Patton returned the salute by tapping his helmet with the horse whip he carried. “You want to get in front of the Spear Head, Boy?” The General boomed down.
“Yes, sir. We have been assigned to the 3rd Armored Division as truck drivers. We are part of the same army; the same spear head, the same risks, Sir.”
“Out front the krauts are running; shooting over their shoulders like sissy cowards. Your boys will have to protect my supplies and trucks. Can you boys fire those weapons with effect?”
“We are all from Texas, sir. We gotta shoot to eat where we come from. We got U S Government issue carbines; yes sir, we can shoot.” Sergeant Samuel proudly replied.
Patton asked, “What do you say about these Texas truck drivers, Captain Kelley?”
“The colored boy that killed that German sniper was from this group, General.”
Without hesitation Patton issued a new order, “The next time you come in don’t unload, Staff Sergeant. Report to Captain Kelley, here, to get planned bivouac location, stand down until a unit reaches your advanced location, then and only then you are to unload. Remove those damn governors in your trucks, you are moving too slow.
“I worked long and hard on the logistics of this operation, I didn’t factor in gung-ho colored drivers. Let’s see how this works. Good job Staff Sergeant.”
“Thank you, sir! And sir, if you would like we can get a driver to bring the mess truck with us for the officers the next trip.” Sergeant Sam volunteered.
“God Damn, kiss ass son-of-a-black-bitch!” The general slapped his boot with his whip, smiling for the first time. “Did you here that, Kelley?
“Staff Sergeant, if you are going to kiss ass, it better God Damn be my ass you kiss. I like you, boy, but no mess truck. I eat what the tankers eat. You boys just keep the k-rations coming. You get a hot meal at least once a day, Sergeant. I eat hot Nazi kraut-ass every meal. I like your Texas metal, boy.
“Kelley, remind me to get that 761st Black tank battalion at Fort Hood over here. If they are anything like these Texas truck drivers we may have some black magic we should be using.”
“Back to the front captain, I’ve got a God Damn war to win!” Patton roared. The jeep turned around in a cloud of dust, and gravel and headed toward the sound of tank artillery. The general returned salutes from the drivers, smartly moving his whip repeatedly up to his star studded helmet.
McMichael ran over to his sergeant, “Damn! that was General Patton, Sarge. Old Blood and Guts himself. You were talking to him like you was talking to me. Man, you got marbles.”
Adding a box of ammo to a growing stack the Staff Sergeant said, “This Army thinks of Patton as a God, my friend, but when a God comes down to earth he becomes a man; just a man McMichael. Now look alive, help me with this stuff.”
Harden came running over next, bug eyed. “I’ve never seen so many stars. He had four, Sarge. Damn! You were looking at him, eye-to-eye and talking to him. What did he say? Are we done? We goin to Paris? Joe Louis is in Paris.”
“Get everyone over here, Harden, we got new orders.”
The new orders were carried out expeditiously, and without German harassment. Patton never returned to the truck drivers with a well deserved “well done.”
Five star general Ike Eisenhower issued a strong order to his 3rd Army ‘Pitt Bull’ commanding general to stand down after the liberation of France. Patton wanted to keep the Nazis on the defensive all the way to the German capital of Berlin, and was upset with Ike. How great it would have been to hold his ivory handled, made in USA, Colt .45 pistol to the head of the Fuher while he signed the documents of surrender, Patton lamented to trusted friends.
The Red Ball Express truck drivers were reassigned to Liege, Belgium to repair and service the trucks while waiting for orders to move into Germany while the ‘white’ Army participated in a parade on the Avenue des Champs-Elysees in Paris celebrating the allied forces liberation of France.
General Patton’s Texas truck drivers had a small celebration of their own. PFC L.C. Dupree was awarded the Bronze Star medal earlier in the day, and promoted to corporal. The men were gathered in one of the many pubs, in the small town, drinking the local brew.
The drivers were welcomed by the citizens in any bar they chose to attend, but the white troopers discouraged the truckers from the better bars. They self-segregated in the French towns.
The locals accepted the truckers with enthusiasm. The Texans learned to throw darts, and play new games of chance, while singing in French, and English.
Sergeant Samuel was standing at the bar working on a liter stein of a pilsner beer that had an unpronounceable name when L.C. Dupree joined him. “Sarge, why do I get the metal, and Harden don’t? Old Harden was shootin too.”
Sarge leaned on the bar while facing the newly promoted corporal. “Harden was doing what he was assigned to do; machine gunner. You were assigned as a truck driver, L.C., but you went beyond your duties by taking a weapon, and firing on the enemy to protect lives, and US government property. You heard what the Colonel had to say about what you did during the pinning of your star ceremony. That’s it, LC.”
“I heard it. I didn’t expect it. I guess I was in some kind of shock standing there. And Sarge, they have that name, Larry Charles Dupree on the citation.” The Army did not recognize initials as legal names. A name was given to the ‘Negro’ soldiers that had letters for names.
Sarge continued. “It is still an honor, L.C. The award was given to you. You have a medal to show your kids, and family.”
Weatherspoon came over and leaned on the bar with both elbows. “What’s up Spoon? You look strange.” Sarge said.
“You all got to hear this.” Weatherspoon began. “The white guys are telling the white gals we got tails, Sarge, and them gals want to see my tail.”
Sarge laughed quietly then said, “They are just curious, Spoon. The white boys did you a favor. Tell the girls your tail is not in the back.”
“What tail? I ain’t got no tail, man.”
“Your tail is in the front, Spoony. Show’em the tail you got in the front.”
Weatherspoon, with a puzzled look said, “What front? What he talkin bout, L.C.?”
L.C. began laughing, and could hardly speak, “Thank about it, Spoon. Don’t be so slow, man. Repeat what the Sarge said.”
Weatherspoon walked back to the table, still puzzled, where two young gigging Belgian women were drinking from steins courtesy of PFC Spoon.
“He’ll get it. He’s slow, but not that slow.” Sarge said smiling while watching Spoon with his friends.
“Something else I want to talk to you about, Sarge.” L.C. said.
“Get a beer L.C. What you got on your mind?”
“The people here love us, both the men, and the women. They are so very glad we here to save them. You seen me with that gal over there.” L.C. said pointing with his chin at a petite attractive young girl with a head of dark curly hair cleaning tables. “We in love, Sarge. I want to marry her, and take here home to Sandy Point. I want to know what you think about it.”
“Damn it, L.C. she’s a white woman. You can’t do that.” Sarge said while standing straight up looking down on the corporal. “That is the craziest thing I’ve ever heard.”
“She an’t white, Sarge, she what they call a Gypsy. Gypsies are like the colored folks here in Europe, she a bit darker.” L.C. said shyly.
“You take that girl anywhere in America she’s white, L.C. Nobody know nothing about no Gypsy in Sandy Point. You understand what I’m sayin?” Sarge said while rubbing his head with both hands. “Give me a minute to think.”
“You said we can all go to California, and get real jobs, and buy a house in the city. It will be okay in California, wont it Sarge?” L.C. looking with pleading eyes at his friend, and advice-giver.
“Not good in California either. Listen, L.C., if you are really serious you might think about living here in Belgium. A lot of colored folk living over here now, mostly entertainers. Another thing, what you gonna do to make a living, not knowing the language."
“Stay in the Army, L.C., in Europe, things might change after the war. You are smart, and not many colored soldiers read as well as you do. We’ve all heard that Ike wants to integrate all the military; the Army might be the best place to be married to a white girl now that I think about it.”
Staring into his beer L.C. quietly said, “I got me some thinkin to do. But I know I love that gal, Sarge, and she love me. And I an’t got no real family back home to speak of, and no way was I going back to pick cotton, married or not. She got no family. I want to take care of her, Sarge. They treat her like a dog here, and the Nazis were killin Gypsies just like they was doin the Jews. They killed all her people.”
“I’ll talk to one of the friendly officers for you, man, and let you know how marrying the civilians is done.
“Fabian!” Sarge called to the bar-tender. “What’s in that bottle up there?” pointing to a fifth of clear liquid on the top shelf.
“Russian vodka, my friend.”
Holding his stein out to Fabian, Sarge said, “Pour some in here until I say stop.”
Most of the truck drivers returned to Southern California, and worked at Lockheed Aircraft in Burbank, building planes for the new war in Korea. Others worked for the city, and county as garbage men, and janitors. They lived in homes provided to ex-GIs by the government, and raised families.
L.C. stayed in the Army, in Europe and married his girlfriend. He was never heard from, but often spoken of, and fondly remembered by all of his Texas brethren.
I called my father Daddy, my mother called my father Honey, but it seemed every man that came by to visit called him Sarge. I must have been five, or six years old before I understood Sarge was not my Father’s first name.
Some of my father’s friends took part time jobs as extras in Hollywood movies, after working on airplanes all day. We eagerly watched television to see how many familiar faces we saw in the Ramar of the Jungle, and Jungle Jim TV serials. My father said no matter how much they paid, he would never play a naked African even if Woody Strode (Woody was a star football player while at UCLA) was playing the native chief.
From time-to-time my father would return home after a funeral, and cry all day. One-by-one the Texas Red Ball Truckers were laid to rest. Old Weatherspoon was the last, and would often come by to visit my mother to reminisce after working at the Los Angeles Coliseum selling peanuts at the Rams games. We never knew what happened to Old Spoon; he just stopped visiting.
My opinion is a bias one, and I should recuse myself from judging these men, but truly these were men from the best generation the country has ever produced.