Sporting events run deep in rituals. We sit, stand, chant, and move in some sort of way that’s related to the game we’re watching. For instance, when Anaheim’s Corey Perry scored his third in game goal, his “hat trick” was acknowledged by way of a few hundred hats thrown from the stands to cover the ice. Players and coaches are notoriously superstitious about some of these rituals too. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish for example, have a tradition of slapping a sign that reads “Play Like a Champion Today” as they leave the locker room and take the field. Tim Brown, Rocket Ismail, and Ricky Watters have all participated in the 29 year old thumping of the wall.
Perhaps the most common tradition is the rendering of the “Star Spangled Banner” to kick off the event. Originating from the Francis Scott Key poem “Defence of Fort M’Henry”, the song evolved from his 1814 battle view during the war after which it was named. Some 40 years later, a congressional resolution signed by President Hoover recognized Key’s poem set to the music of John Stafford Smith as the National Anthem. Since September 11, 2001, the song has taken an even greater patriotic tone.
As we celebrate Memorial Day this week, ballparks and arenas will pay special attention to the men and women who have served this country in various capacities. Personally, I see the face of my uncle Billy, who served in Vietnam and my Granddaddy. (Affectionately called Pop-Pop in our family.)
Grandaddy was part of the “Greatest Generation” having served in the 4021st Quartermaster Truck Company in the U.S. Army during World War II. Primarily stationed in Europe, he was one of 50,000 African American soldiers permitted to serve in armed combat during that time.
During one of our many fishing excursions, he shared stories about belonging to the Red Ball Express- a major truck convoy system covering 400 miles from St. Lo Normandy to Paris. Over 75 percent of all Red Ball Express drivers were African American. Granddaddy and his band of drivers, mechanics, minesweepers and other operators hauled an estimated 413,000 tons of gasoline, food and supplies while taking enemy fire.
It was a vast logistical nightmare. Red Ball drivers faced tremendous danger plowing through dark skies and cluttered civilian streets. Trucks traveled in convoys consisting of at least five vehicles each. As to correct an initial problem of getting caught in civilian traffic, a priority route was established. The Express eventually rerouted to travel on parallel highways between the Normandy beachhead and the city of Chartres. Being a Red Baller was particularly dangerous as the trucks reached a top speed of 25 mph. Soldiers had to be agile too. Grandaddy described having to jump across the vehicle to switch seats in mid travel.
The route was marked with red balls and littered with dead bodies by war’s end. In all, it transported more than 500,000 tons of supplies. Most importantly, the Red Ball Express allowed rear echelon support teams to complete building up the railroads, port facilities, and pipelines needed to withstand the final drive into Germany. Have my Granddaddy tell it, “Red Ballers did the little things that led to big things happening in the war.”
Prior to being honorably discharged on December 8, 1945, as a Technician Fifth Grade, Granddaddy was decorated with a Purple Heart, Good Conduct Medal, American Defense Service Medal, World War II Victory Ribbon, American Theater Ribbon, and a European African Middle Eastern Theater Ribbon. As the final battles waged in the European Theater, Granddaddy saw what he referred to as his version of the “dawn’s early light”, a moment in which sunlight once again revealed all that happened the night before. He bowed his head and prayed for the men that were next to him, but were no longer alive to fight another day. He was also shot by a bullet that would remain embedded in his right hand for most of his life.
So, maybe the next time you hear a rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner” you’ll think of the thousands of men and women who did a few little things that surmounted into a very big deal for all of us.
God speed to the soldiers and families currently in service.