Mettle without Medal
The Story of the 4009th QM Truck Company
The Quartermaster Review – March/April 1946
FROM the Normandy invasion to an occupation assignment in conquered Germany is a long and not uncommon stretch of duty for any organization. But when that duty is coupled with participation in some of the most important operations that occurred in the battle for Western Europe, as was the case with the 4009th Quartermaster Truck Company, the record deserves closer examination.
The 4009th was a Negro unit. They went into action in the early days in Normandy and stuck with it through the first hellish weeks in that sector. They inaugurated the now-famous Red Ball truck highway. They were trapped in the Ardennes offensive and helped reduce the Ruhr pocket. They were strafed, bombed, and subjected to heavy artillery fire; yet throughout all this violent conflict and through one dangerous assignment after another, the company escaped without a single loss of life.
In January 1944 the 4009th arrived in England, where they set the operational tempo that was to carry them successfully through such intense activity later on. They worked the docks at Liverpool in a round-the-clock shuttle movement, transporting supplies and equipment into the inland depots where the rapidly mounting stacks of materiel clearly foretold at invasion of the Continent was soon to become a reality. In slack moments they furnished transportation for newly arrived troops. For more than four months they operated over the British left-hand road network, through fog, snow, and rain, and during the period chalked up one of the most enviable records for operations and maintenance of any truck company in that area.
In May 1944 the unit moved to the marshaling area in England, where they joined the 6th Engineer Brigade, which, at that time, was preparing to embark on one of the most crucial and hazardous tasks of the war-“Operations Overlord”-better known as the invasion of Normandy.
On D plus 3 the 4009th was awaiting landing orders aboard a naval vessel which lay just off the Normandy coast. For two days their truck drivers, mechanics, and clerks filled in as ammunition carriers for the antiaircraft crews whose job it was to beat off enemy air attacks in order to protect the highly vulnerable convoys. When they finally landed at Omaha Beach on D plus 5 they found themselves assigned as a unit to the 1st Army but working directly with the 13th Port. Thirteenth Port authorities welcomed them with open arms because the 4009th was the first truck company to be placed at their disposal. After a night of constant readying their trucks by stripping off the waterproof covering from protected parts and giving the vehicles a thorough checkup, they commenced, on the next day, the feverish activity that never let up until Germany’s downfall.
For the first week they were the only truck company operating with the 13th Port, and until the 3583rd and 3584th Quartermaster Truck Companies joined them at its end, the work-load was staggering. After that time the situation became highly competitive. When the smoke cleared, the 4009th was on top by a safe margin, in spite of the fact that all operations were carried out under intermittent bombing attacks, nightly accidents on narrow roads, blackout driving conditions, and sudden rushes of the coastal tides, which frequently spilled trucks and cargoes.
During the time the organization worked the Normandy beachhead one of the biggest problems encountered was maintenance. Just before they left England they were ordered to turn in their standard 6×6’s, with which all personnel were familiar, and received in return an equal number of cab-over-engine units, with which they were not familiar. Since the 4009th’s cab-over-engines were among the first to arrive in Europe, they soon found to their dismay that even the Ordnance outfits knew little about them. Every truck in the company was needed twenty-four hours a day. To have even a single vehicle deadlined for several hours or days, whether from the deteriorating effects of salt water and sand or from missing parts, meant a noticeable drag on the forward flow of supplies. Although a deadline of overwhelming proportions constantly threatened, it was avoided by the ingenuity of the Ordnance and 4009th mechanics, who improvised repairs and salvaged parts from demolished and wrecked vehicles found on the beach in order to keep the trucks rolling.
After a month’s strenuous operation at the Omaha beachhead, the organization was moved into Grand Camp, a port which, though not widely known, handled a tremendous amount of tonnage. The 4009th ran the port alone. Even here their personnel and the dumps they established were subjected to constant air attack. They were so close to the enemy lines that on several occasions the drivers, misdirected by the MPs along the truck routes, ended up in Nazi territory. Their luck still held, however, and neither men nor cargoes were lost at any-time.
At 0200 one morning, some time after their arrival at Grand Camp, the entire company was alerted and the trucks were loaded with gasoline and oil. They discovered shortly afterwards that they were one of the first units to be assigned the mission of opening up the celebrated Red Ball highway, which stretched from Cherbourg, across northern France, to the borders of Germany. After only four days, and long before they had an opportunity to establish any sort of record, they were pulled off and moved into the British zone of operations, where with eight other truck companies, they shuttled supplies on the Bayeux-to-Brussels (known as the “BB”) run. Of the truck companies engaged in this operation, the 4009th ended second in total tonnage hauled. Had they been able to keep their full complement of trucks running steadily, as did the company which finished first, they would have emerged on top.
The continual mud and rain, the British rations, and the lack of mail in the BB sector were somewhat compensated for by the fact that the halfway point along the route was Gisors, just 75 kilometers north of Paris. On a number of occasions the commanding officer of the 4009th tactfully looked the other way when a truckload of GIs off duty made a “road test’, to the capital.
When the Red Ball highway was finally closed down, the 4009th moved back to Normandy and began the strenuous job of cleaning out the Engineer dumps in the Le Molay area and moving the supplies to the railheads for shipment to the combat areas. The weather was cold and wet and the territory in the vicinity of St. Lo and Isigny became so badly flooded that it developed into one huge quagmire. The running water available in the mess hall, the orderly room, and the pyramidal tents in which the men were quartered, became a standing joke. Despite these trying conditions, the 4009th still managed to turn in so superior a performance and finished the task so much ahead of schedule that they won a commendation from the general who commanded the sector.
Upon completion of the Le Molay assignment, the 4009th returned to Paris a much changed city, now teeming with GIs, MPs, and displaced persons. While in the capital they traded their cab-over-engines for an equal number of much-preferred 6×6’s, which they immediately placed in operation transporting POL, ammo, food, clothing, and personnel from the Paris depots to the front lines.
All was running smoothly and according to plan until December 1945 when Hitler began his last desperate counteroffensive in the Ardennes sector. This action caught the 4009th with thirty-six loaded trucks at a time when they were pushing headlong to the aid of the 101st Airborne Division trapped at Bastogne. The company was grouped together and ordered to prepare foxholes and gun emplacements. There were hours of suspense; then the attack came. A check on what happened during the confusion was made as soon as it could be-two weeks later. A total of sixteen trucks had been captured or destroyed and twenty men and one officer had been taken prisoner. During the two-week period, stragglers from the 4009th continued to hike, crawl, and fight their way back to their unit. Two enlisted men, a sergeant and a corporal received a letter from the CO of one of the 101st’s units, which showed they had distinguished themselves in the fighting at Bastogne during the bitter conflict there. The 4009th was fearful that the men taken prisoner during Hitler’s last desperate bid would never be heard from again, but in the closing weeks of the war they learned that they had been liberated by a flying Armored column after they had marched and ridden from their point of capture in Belgium to a spot near the Czechoslovakian border–a distance of almost 700 miles. Throughout the furious fighting and despite the hardships imposed on prisoners of war, not a single man bad been lost. Once again the 4009th seemed to be leading a charmed existence.
After the Battle of the Bulge, the company worked for a brief period at various depot assignments in Paris. Life in the city was restrained, due to the fear of espionage and sabotage in the rear areas. While the life of visiting GIs was restricted, the men of the 4009th found that the MPs were less cautious in checking them because, as it was correctly reasoned, it would require forceful persuasion to make an MP believe that the enemy was using Negro spies.
The Paris interlude ended abruptly with their assignment to the XXII Corps of the 15th Army, where they immediately engaged in the job of supplying units which were taking’ the Ruhr valley. Their task was a repetition of Normandy: Twenty-four-hour schedules, blackout travel, and innumerable excursions into territory that was more often in enemy hands than Allied. Once more, they never lost a man.
When the end came on May 8, 1945, the 4009th found itself almost as busy as ever, the only difference being that their work was now conducted in the comparative quiet of peacetime. They helped transport the almost endless stream of displaced persons who were struggling to get back to their homes. German crops were in a serious condition, so they hauled seedling potatoes for, planting into the areas most in need of them. After transporting the XXII Corps Headquarters into Czechoslovakia, they reported back to Germany for duty with the XXIII Corps. There they found they had the dubious distinction of being the only truck company in. the Corps; which involved hauling everything from the General’s furniture to garbage and debris. Later, when they were assigned to the task of supplying fuel for occupation troops during the coming winter and had to make a 280-mile round trip several times a week, they felt as though they might be getting back into the old familiar stride again.
The 4009th could look with justifiable pride at a record which included the successful completion of some of the toughest supply tasks of the war. They could think back on months of discomfort and monotony. They had received no Purple Hearts (though at least one soldier had been wounded), no Bronze Stars, no citations, and no publicity fanfare. But they -could take well-earned satisfaction in the knowledge that they had performed their allotted tasks creditably, and in the knowledge that it was the efforts of units such as theirs which helped so greatly to bring about the downfall of Nazi Germany.
Editor’s Note: This story is based on information furnished by the following non-commissioned officers of the 4009th Quartermaster Truck Company: John A. Boyde, 1st sergeant; John W. Brown, technical sergeant (motor); George W. Wright, staff sergeant (supply); Robert A. Simpkins, staff sergeant; Charles W. Hill, staff sergeant; Robert West, staff sergeant; Pratt L. Hubbard, staff sergeant (mess); and John H. Render, corporal, (company clerk). Most of these men served with the company from the time of activation.