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Let’s Red Ball the vaccines

My father, Capt. George Weber, commanded a field company of what was known as the Red Ball Express in World War II. Formed to sustain continuous supply lines for Gen. Patton’s Third Army and other American forces as they raced across Europe toward Germany, the Red Ball Express took men like Dad with strong organizational skills, removed them from their original Army outfits and gave them top-priority access to essential fuel and equipment at coastal loading depots. Those supplies — up to 12,000 tons of fuel and materiel per day — were then loaded on thousands of trucks whose drivers had orders to do whatever was necessary to move them quickly to the front for direct use in the war effort.

Most of those drivers were African Americans, who relished the opportunity to take on crucial responsibilities, free of menial duties in the segregated Army of the time, and who served with great distinction in their new, often hazardous roles.

The Red Ball Express responded to a critical U.S. need with speed and admirable efficiency under hostile conditions of war, enemy snipers, uncertain terrain and often impassable roads. They did so with a unified line of command leading from field operations to Gen. Eisenhower’s HQ to the White House, where FDR led the armed forces and the nation. Through challenges, setbacks and the fierce German counterattack at the Battle of the Bulge, that command structure adapted, responded and ultimately succeeded.

There are many reasons I wish my father were still around: for him to enjoy the fruits of his service, to know my sons and their children, to talk. However, I am glad that he is not here to see the mess that we are in with our failed response to COVID-19 and, more particularly, the disorder surrounding efforts to distribute and put to use life-saving vaccines. First and foremost, he would be sickened to see our national death toll from the coronavirus in just one year surpassing the total American military losses — over 400,000 killed — in all of WWII. But he would be fundamentally disturbed by the lack of competent U.S. leadership, coherent plans and the organizational ability to implement the timely delivery of vaccines to combat the virus. FDR and Eisenhower had all of that and more. And they didn’t have to wait to see if New York or Florida would help load and drive the trucks that sustained the final push across Europe. America was at war. A true wartime president took charge and responsibility. Americans from across the nation — including those who suffered from gross inequality on the home front — joined forces to surmount great obstacles, confront a common enemy and succeed.

We are at war with a deadly new enemy. My father would be deeply perplexed — and angry — at our failed response to COVID-19. He’d no doubt say we could learn a thing or two from the Red Ball Express. With a new federal administration in place, it is time to provide a unified command structure, coherent plans, clear communications and fully mobilized resources with a singular focus on the rapid delivery of vaccines from the labs to people’s arms.

William Weber is a year-round resident of Johnsburg in the Adirondacks, part-time lecturer at the Yale School of the Environment, and lead author of “In the Kingdom of Gorillas.”

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