From the Pony Express to the Red Ball Express

American ingenuity is at its best when it's most needed.

Although deployed more than 80 years apart, the Red Ball Express and the Pony Express share many similarities. They each played a vital role in a pivotal time in the history of the United States. Each one was short-lived and later replaced by a more efficient way of achieving their original purpose. Most importantly they were able to deliver a vital cargo on the receiving end.

The Red Ball Express was a large convoy of trucks that supplied the Allies once they broke out of the Normandy Beaches in 1944. As a prelude to the landing on the Normandy beaches, the Allies destroyed the French railway system through a concentrated bombing campaign. As the Allies took the offensive against the Germans, a steady source of supplies was needed. A division, when in combat, easily consumed 750 tons of supplies per day. Initially the only way to supply the advancing armies was by truck, leading to the birth of the Red Ball Express. Beginning in August 944, trucks marked with a red ball traveled down a designated highway around the clock delivering the much-needed supplies. Two routes were opened from Cherbourg to Chartres, France; the northern route was used for delivering the supplies and the southern for returning trucks.

In addition to the risk of enemy attack, Red Ball Express drivers had to deal with weather woes and bad roads, as illustrated by this truck sunk up to its axles in mud. Image: US Army Transportation Museum.

At the height of the Red Ball Express mission, over 6,000 vehicles carried about 12,000 tons of supplies a day. The majority of the drivers were African Americans. The biggest problems facing the Express were finding enough drivers and maintaining the vehicles. In November 1944, the port facilities of Antwerp, Belgium, were opened and enough French railroad lines were repaired. So, the Red Ball Express was replaced with a more efficient way of supplying the advancing armies. In the mid-19th century, a similar transportation system called the Pony Express was put in place to deliver mail.

Pony Express Route: April 3, 1860–October 24, 1861. Image: National Postal Museum, Smithsonian Institution.

The main drive behind the Pony Express was the need to connect the eastern United States to the emerging western United States, especially the rapidly growing new state of California. Thousands of prospectors, investors, and businessmen made the move to the new state to conduct various kinds of business. On April 13, 1860, the first rider of the Pony Express left St. Joseph, Missouri, and reached Sacramento, California, in 10 days. Each rider carried a pouch that held up to 20 pounds of letters and newspapers. There were nearly 200 Pony Express stations along the route spaced about 10 miles apart. At each station the rider would stop and change to a fresh horse and then continue the journey. Approximately every 75–100 miles a new rider would continue the route until the mail reached California. Like the Red Ball Express drivers, these riders rode day and night. On October 24, 1861, the transcontinental telegraph brought the Pony Express to an end. The Pony Express was replaced by a more efficient way of carrying out its objective.

Both the Red Ball Express and the Pony Express rose out of a need to accomplish an immediate objective. Without the Red Ball Express there is no telling how long the struggle after the breakout from the beaches would have taken. Without the Pony Express, California and the emerging west would not have established an immediate connection with the rest of the United States. Each lasted for a very short time, and were replaced by more efficient ways of achieving their objective. Both the Red Ball Express and the Pony Express were a result of American ingenuity.



Dan Olmsted

Dan Olmsted served as a Research Historian in the Institute for the Study of War and Democracy. He started at the Museum in 2014 and, unt...
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