The story of Black Quartermasters in WWII
Tuesday, January 31, 2023
By Joe Reagan, Director of Military and Veterans Outreach at Wreaths Across America
At the entrance to the U.S. Army Infantry Museum, located in Ft. Moore, GA, (formerly Ft. Benning), visitors begin their journey by walking up a 100-yard ramp that shows the history of the U.S. Army Infantry. It is a
symbolic representation of what is ingrained in every infantry soldier – you can have all the tanks, artillery, planes, trucks, and anything else in the world, but in battle the last 100 yards requires a soldier with a gun – the last 100 yards will always belong to the Infantry.
This mindset inspires great pride in Infantry Soldiers, and inspires the admiration of historians, filmmakers, and civilians alike – often lost is the story of those troops who comprise supply lines that often begin in the U.S. and extend thousands of miles to ensure that the infantry has everything it needs to fight their way across that last 100 yards. By some estimates standing behind each infantry soldier are six support soldiers – they are the lifeline and unsung heroes whose efforts are often overlooked. This was especially true in World War II.
World War II saw an increased level of mechanization – no longer did an army run solely on its stomach, fuel and spare parts were needed to keep the machines of war moving and that meant a supply chain extending back to industrial hubs in the United States. When comparing the success of campaigns like D-Day to failures like the German invasion of Russian in 1941 – it was logistics that determined success or failure – even the most tactically proficient army can’t win if it doesn’t have supplies. This required support soldiers to be better trained, and the U.S. Army needed more of them.
Nearly one million black men served in WWII, over 80 percent of them were assigned to logistics and service units, in fact by 1944 almost all black soldiers were assigned to these units. They were responsible for building bridges, roads, and runways, they moved beans, bullets, fuel, and the fallen – their efforts were critical to the allied success and were the embodiment of the modern military saying, “armatures study tactics, professionals study logistics.” To be historically accurate, all black units such as the 92nd and 93rd infantry divisions, the 861 Tank Battalion, and the Tuskegee Airman have impressive and well documented success in combat – the story of black quartermasters is important because it not only embodies the courage and valor of these Americans but demonstrates their ingenuity and how their service led to success on the battlefield and when they came home.
In Europe, allied preparations for the D-Day invasion required a massive movement of supplies, ships would have to be quickly unloaded to make room for the next load – this job fell to the quartermaster corps whose dockhands were primarily black GI’s. In prior conflicts much of this unloading would have been done by hand – a menial task – given the size of the loads, often exceeding 30 tons, it required skilled crane operators who worked non-stop during the 18-month build up to D-Day. In the final hours before the invasion these skilled operators would transfer loads directly from the supply ships to the invasion crafts.
Once the foothold was established in Normandy, the quartermasters were in a race to ensure the front-line troops they needed to continue to push the Nazi’s back. By July of 1944, allied troops were moving east at a rate of nearly 80 miles a week. With sea and rail infrastructure badly damaged – Normandy remained the sole point of entry for supplies entering the European theatre. Allied commanders were determined to prevent a lack of supplies from stopping the advances on the front lines, so they devised an ambitious plan that became known as the Red Ball Express. Nearly 75 percent of the drivers who made up this critical and constantly expanding supply line were black and not all of them were trained to drive trucks, never mind drive trucks filled with ammunition, at night, without headlights working in teams of two to complete the 54-hour round-trip journey. They succeeded in delivering roughly 12,000 tons of supplies per day – for 82 consecutive days.
The quartermasters played a huge role in the Pacific as well. While we typically think about the island-hopping campaign in the Pacific, crucial to the success of these missions was the work of our Chinese allies under Chiang Kai-shek. The Ledo Road, like the Red Ball Express, was a critical supply route connecting U.S. bases in India with allied forces in China – without these supplies Chinese forces likely would have been defeated allowing Japan to focus all its efforts on the Pacific. The building and maintenance of the Ledo Road was overseen primarily by these units. The roughly 1,000-mile road cut through many obstacles including Japanese snipers, dense jungles and of course the southern Himalayan Mountains. Running the route was treacherous, challenging even experienced drivers. Keeping the road open was an equally daunting task that fell on engineering units who would operate bulldozers and other specialized equipment in torrential rain to clear blocked portions of the road or reconstruct parts that washed out.
The legacy of black quartermasters in World War II is one of Service and Success. GI’s who quickly learned how to become skilled crane operators working non-stop to ensure the D-Day invasion had all the supplies needed to succeed. They became expert truck drivers and tirelessly kept the flow of supplies moving to the front during the Red Ball Express. They were engineers and drivers who crossed the Himalayan Mountains to ensure allied forces could keep pressure on the Japanese to allow U.S. forces to succeed in the Pacific. These quartermasters answered the call to serve, while in uniform they succeeded in quickly learning new skills, adapting to challenges, and committing themselves to mission success. After the war their service left an enduring legacy on our military. An after-action review of the war found that the contributions of black soldiers was instrumental to the success of the war effort. The report went on to recommend creating a desegregated force that was fully reflective of American society.
After the war these quartermasters continued to serve and succeed. Men like Medgar Evers, who was a driver on the Red Ball Express, saw what could happen when Americans worked together during the war. He returned home and became a highly influential part of the Civil Rights movement. Others like Harry Bellefonte who dropped out of high school to enlist in the Navy, while not part of the quartermaster corps he served as a crane operator loading and unloading ships. After the war Bellefonte used his GI bill to pay for acting classes in New York. He would find tremendous success on stage. Charity Adams, one of the first black female officers in the military who served in the Quartermaster Corps, continued to serve using her GI bill to earn a degree in psychology and then working at the Veterans Administration. This year the home of the Quartermaster Corps in southern Virginia will be renamed Ft. Gregg-Adams a fitting tribute to the legacy of service and success of the black soldiers who served in World War II.