Local veteran served in little-known supply unit

Published 12:00 am Saturday, December 3, 2011



LAPLACE – In 1942, at the age of 19, LaPlace resident and River Parishes native Frank Brow Jr. volunteered to go overseas to contribute to the Americans’ campaign in Europe. Little did he know that just years later he would become part of a transport outfit that would prove to be a significant contribution to the Allies victory.

“I reached Europe in 1943,” Brow said. “We started out in England, crossed the channel into France, then traveled into Belgium, Luxembourg and eventually into Germany. I was part of a trucking outfit that transported prisoners from the front line under Gen. (George) Patton.”

Brow, now 88, was a technician in the 3410th Quartermaster Regiment, a group that would eventually join other trucking outfits to become part of the Red Ball Express, a vital lifeline that convoyed bullets, food and other supplies to the front line.

According to the Army Transportation Museum, the Red Ball Express was created under the direction of Patton in August of 1944 as a means of getting vital supplies to some 28 American divisions that had made their way into Europe from the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. The “Red Ball” moniker was borrowed from the railroad symbol for “express freight.” The system stretched from St. Lo in Normandy to Paris and eventually to the front along France’s northeastern borderland. The route was marked with red balls.

“We took the place of disabled rail lines,” Brow said. “The operation ran from France through Belgium and into Germany. We had to get supplies to the front liners and we traveled around the clock.”

Nearly 75 percent of all Red Ball Express drivers, like Brow, were African American. This is because during the war, U.S. commanders in general believed African Americans had no mettle or guts for combat. Consequently, the Army relegated blacks primarily to “safe” service and supply outfits, and the Navy assigned them as mess stewards.

At the peak of its operation, the Red Ball Express consisted of as many as 5,900 vehicles carrying more than 12,000 tons of supplies to the front daily. Brow said drivers were constantly fighting both the enemy and the elements as they made deliveries.

“We had to make repairs on the fly and switch drivers while trucks were still rolling,” Brow said. “Trucks got flipped, sank in mud and veered into ditches, but we had to keep moving.”

Brow recalled one particular mission he and another fellow troop member undertook during the Battle of the Bulge, a major turning point in the war in Europe.

“It was late in the year and commanders wanted two volunteers to come from Germany to France to get blankets for the troops,” Brow said. “It was me and another guy from Kentucky named Alvin Bridgewater. We made our way to France, but on the way back we had no way of knowing that the Germans were seeing some success. We had no radio contact at all. We were carrying so much fuel that if we had taken on fire, we would have been done.”

Brow said the drives were slow and almost always done at night with no headlights to guide the way. Most drivers were ordered to observe at least 60-yard intervals at a speed of 25 miles per hour.

More than 140 truck companies would eventually join the system, with a round trip taking 54 hours across 400 miles.

“It was harrowing and very intense,” Brow said. “But we did what we had to do to get the job done.”

Outside of his work as part of the Red Ball Express, Brow said he never witnessed much combat but said he vividly recalled watching bombs fall on St. Lo as the Allied forces ended German occupation of the small town.

“There are a lot of images I’ll never forget,” Brow said.

Following the war, Brow returned home to LaPlace to the same home his father purchased in the 1920s when he moved the family from St. James Parish to St. John Parish.

“The home was on the former Woodland Plantation,” Brow said. “My father was a farmer, and I used to drive the tractor for him.”

Brow would eventually go to work as an 18-wheeler driver for Kroger Supermarkets. His route went through Memphis and Little Rock, as well as parts of Louisiana.

“I had a lot of experience as a driver, you might say,” Brow said.

Brow said he recently donated some of his artifacts from the war to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans for eventual display. Various ribbons, five battle stars and a Red Ball Express patch went to the museum as part of its collection.