Riding Along the Red Ball Express

Guiding Question:

How did African-American drivers of the Red Ball Express aid the war effort in Northern Europe?


The goal of this lesson is to explain the vital role of the Red Ball Express, and more specifically, African Americans serving in Western Europe. This lesson will help students to develop an understanding of the importance of transportation during the war. Through the examination of primary and secondary sources, students will be able to assume the role of a Red Ball driver and construct a journal entry to a relative explaining their lives in Western Europe.


Historical Context

After the Battle of Normandy ended, the war in Europe was far from over. As General George Patton and the Third Army rolled from the beaches of Normandy towards Germany, they needed supplies such as gasoline, food, and ammunition to continue the war effort. With the destruction of the rail lines in Northern France, it became necessary to find an alternate means of getting supplies to the troops. On August 25, 1944, the Red Ball Express was born.

The Red Ball Express was a convoy system that stretched from St. Lô in Normandy to Paris and eventually to the front along the French-German border. The Red Ball Express got its name from an old railroad term that referred to priority freight; other trains had to yield to those marked with the red ball. Between August and November 1944, the Red Ball Express truckers had delivered 412,193 tons of gas, oil, lubricants, ammunition, food, and other essentials. By 1944, there were over 200,000 African Americans serving in Europe, with roughly 90,000 driving for the Red Ball Express, making up 75% of the truck drivers who kept the “Red Ball” rolling. The Red Ball Express played an essential role in the Allied victory in Northern Europe.

Infantrymen like Private First Class Richard Travis Townsend relied on the essential supplies provided by the drivers of the Red Ball Express to press into Germany. Townsend rests today at Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery along with nearly 8,000 other Americans.


At the conclusion of this lesson, students will be able to

  • Analyze primary and secondary sources to discuss the importance of the Red Ball Express;
  • Discuss the implications of the Red Ball Express on the military effort in World War II; and
  • Compose a journal entry from the perspective of an African-American soldier driving on the Red Ball Express.

Standards Connections

Connections to Common Core
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, attending to such features as the date and origin of the information.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.WHST.9-10.2.b Develop the topic with well-chosen, relevant, and sufficient facts, extended definitions, concrete details, quotations, or other information and examples appropriate to the audience's knowledge of the topic.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.WHST.9-10.2.c Use varied transitions and sentence structures to link the major sections of the text, create cohesion, and clarify the relationships among ideas and concepts.

Connections to C3 Framework
D2.His.1.9-12 Evaluate how historical events and developments were shaped by unique circumstances of time and place as well as broader historical contexts.
D2.His.16.9-12 Integrate evidence from multiple relevant historical sources and interpretations into a reasoned argument about the past.


Lesson Preparation


Contributions of the Red Ball Express (90 minutes)

  • Distribute the Warm-Up Activity to each student.
    • Allow students three to five minutes to respond to the prompt.
    • Give several students an opportunity to share their responses with the class.
  • Project the Normandy Campaign Interactive to set the stage for the lesson about the Red Ball Express (click “enter” then “6 June 1944”.)
    • Explain or review the Normandy Invasion and the push to Berlin. If there are multiple computers in the classroom, students can explore the missions of the various combat units.
    • Engage the students in a discussion about the possible difficulties the troops may have had while trying to liberate Paris.
  • Project the Gangway painting and ask students to analyze it.
    • Engage the students in a discussion about the job of a truck driver in World War II.
  • To provide historical context, the teacher may choose to use any of the following:
  • Review key points with the students, ensuring they understand that the Red Ball Express was a convoy system used to supply the troops in Western Europe. A few points you may want to stress are:
    • Most of the members of the Red Ball Express were African American;
    • The convoy was necessary as Patton’s Third Army was running low on fuel and supplies;
    • The term Red Ball referred to the red ball on the freight trains that were carrying priority materials; and
    • At its peak, there were over 5,000 vehicles carrying over 12,000 supplies daily.
    • Teacher Tip: To learn more, read the articles from the U.S. Army Transportation Museum and World War II Magazine on the Red Ball Express.
  • Display the Map, Highway Express Routes, September 1944 - February 1945 and distribute a copy to each student. Lead the class in a discussion about the challenges the drivers may have faced as they delivered materials.
    • Prompt students to look at the complexity of the routes. What do they notice?
    • Tell the students that one way on the Red Ball Express was approximately 534 miles and the trucks could only travel up to 25 miles per hour (teacher tip: various sources claim that the trucks were limited to speeds ranging from 25 to 40 miles per hour - we are using 25 for the purposes of this exercise).
    • Have the students figure out how long one way on the Red Ball would take in 1944
    • Teacher Tip: Equation: Time = Distance/Rate, correct answer is roughly 21 hours.
  • Divide the class into four groups of students.
  • Distribute one Photograph Analysis Worksheet to each student. Give each group a set of photographs:
  • Allow student groups approximately 15 minutes to view and discuss each set of photographs. Ask each group to complete the Photograph Analysis Worksheet.
    • Make sure each group selects a leader, recorder, timekeeper, and reporter and give each group a chance to share their findings with the class.
    • The remaining groups should take notes as each group presents, as this information can be used to help them to compose their journals.
    • Clarify any misconceptions about the photographs.

Assessment Materials

  • Distribute the Writing Assessment Prompt and Rubric.
  • Give students approximately 15 minutes to compose a journal entry from the perspective of a driver on the Red Ball Express.
  • Encourage several students to share their journal entries.

Methods for Extension

  • Students can write a series of journal entries over the course of several months.
  • To increase their writing capacity, students can work together to critique their classmates journal entries.
  • Students can research other supply lines (ie. the Green Diamond Route, the ABC Express, the XYZ Express, or the Little Red Ball Express) and create Venn Diagrams or write a comparative essay. Learn more about these lines from the U.S. Army Transportation Museum.
  • The American Battle Monuments Commission maintains U.S. military cemeteries overseas. These cemeteries are permanent memorials to the fallen, but it is important that students know the stories of those who rest here. To learn more about the stories of some of the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice, visit the Understanding Sacrifice Interactive Map.


  • Teachers can add captions to the documents for purposes of differentiation.
  • Teachers can use a projector and guide students through the photograph analysis task as needed.


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Secondary Sources

Other Sources