Ralph W. Hotchkiss: The Infantry Replacement System

The effort and sacrifice of the infantry replacement men in the war effort was huge. The only thing many lacked were belonging to and training with established combat units. I believe the survival rate was low and more should be said about the system good or bad. As for myself, my experience was not that of some heroic infantry replacement, but some one who seemed to have an angel protecting him throughout this time. Just don't forget the average Gl replacement was a major factor in winning this war. In March of 1943 I enlisted in the Army Reserve. When I turned 18 in June, I was called up and sent to camp Upton, Long Island. After classification we were put on an old train complete with swinging chandeliers and food from a boxcar. The stove was in a sand box and served beans and wieners. About 3 days later we arrived at Ft. McClellan, Alabama for basic infantry training. I was trained in heavy weapons, machine guns, mortar, rifle, etc. After this training I was sent to Ft. Meade, Maryland for advanced training. There was very little training but a complete change of clothing and equipment. No arms of any kind were issued. Also when a replacement changed bases, he had to make new friends.

In December I was sent to Camp Shanks, an embarkation center outside of New York City. The new shoes we were issued looked like Little-Abner foot wear. They were yellow with the felt side out, smooth side in and were easily spotted by the MP's on pass to New York City. Between Christmas and New Years of 1943, we boarded the Il de France for England. With about 12,000 on board it was not a luxury liner. Arriving in Scotland we were sent by train to a small camp in the town of Chard, England. There I experienced my first air raid and ended up in a slit trench full of ice cold water. After a couple of weeks a group of us were sent to the American school of England outside Swindon. I think the English called it Sandhurst. We spent 6 weeks there, under very strict discipline, learning headquarters work. We were then sent to a camp outside of Taunton next to a large Spitfire fighter base. It was interesting watching the high flights of bombers heading out in the a.m. Some of the American and English planes made emergency landings. The fighter planes were quite active and at night the German bombers loved to pinpoint the field and Taunton with regularity.

Some time in March we heard the Ranger battalion at Litchfield was asking volunteers. Another fellow and myself decided that was for us because we were tired of waiting around for assignment. We were met at the truck by a top sergeant who I had never seen. He informed us in strong terms of how stupid we were. If we were bored he would find something for us to do. Nyguist and I spent the next three weeks on KP garbage detail, and guard duty. I only saw that man the one time but I think he did me a great favor.

The first part of April things begin to get quite interesting. Elements of the 28th Division moved into camp. My group's soft life came to a screaming halt. We were issued new rifles, bayonets, gas masks and impregnated clothing. Training began with the 28th with field maneuvers. Most of the exercise was at night, which left little time for sleep. One cold, rainy day the fighter planes had developed wing stripes, and we found out D-Day was on. They swarmed in and out of the airport like bees. Shortly after this we were inspected by a colonel from Litchfield. I will never forget him. It was raining hard so we stood at attention in our rain slickers with rifles slung over our shoulders in the down position. The officer was short and would stand on tip-toe, put his face up to ours and tell us now that training was over we were going to face hell and death. Did we have guts enough to die? After the inspection, we were told to put everything in our duffel bags except what was required for full-field packs complete with blanket rolled in a shelter half. Our officers said the duffel bags with our belongings would catch up with us. We never saw them again and always wondered who made out with the things we left behind.

In a couple of days we were on our way to an English embarkation coastal camp. There we were issued two bandoleers of rifle ammo and K&D rations. The next afternoon we boarded a LCI ship and were on our way. At daylight the next morning, we were in a big convoy, complete with barrage balloons and fighter plane cover. Soon we were off the French coast and told to go to stations and get ready to go down the nets into the landing barges. (I am telling you the sea was rough and those barges were bouncing up and down 5 to 6 feet.) Try dropping into one of these with full packs, rifle, etc., with out breaking your neck. You could also fall between the barge and the ship. I expected the landing barge to take us onto the beach. No way, the ramp dropped and we were in chest deep water. We were at Utah beach. On the beach jeeps carrying wounded in litters were lining up so they could be taken back to England. Orders were given to stay on marked paths due to the mines. Groups of men were formed each one having an officer assigned to them. We were quickly marched down this 5 or 6-mile causeway that had flood land on either side. With a load I was carrying I was pooped. MBPS herded us into an open field with orders to stay put and settle down for the night. Armed with Thompson subs they were quick to fire over our heads if any light was spotted. The next day trucks moved us to a wooded area close to the front lines. We were told to find a slit trench and make ourselves comfortable. That night a German plane started buzzing overhead and I found out we were located next to an AA outfit. They started blasting away and, you know what goes up must come down. The fragments fell like rain through the trees. Making yourself as small as possible did not help. A tiny piece caught me in the right thigh and felt like a bee sting. I guess its still there since it never caused any trouble. The planes kept flying and with no searchlights the AA kept shooting. It seemed like a waste of ammo to me.

We were soon moved to a replacement center area around St. Mare Eglise-Carentan. There we were told to spread out along the hedgerows and find a slit trench or dig one for shelter. I do not know how they found anyone, but shortly my name was called to report to the depot headquarters. It was very hard to say goodbye to my friends from England, but I packed up my gear and along with 5 or 6 other fellows, who were temporarily assigned to this headquarters group. Our job was working nights pulling MOS files and assigning replacements to front line units. Some of the things I remember were:

1. An OSS team working nearby with a huge mound of German weapons, rifles, bayonets, MGs, helmets, etc.
2. In a field near St. Mare Eglise scores of English and American gliders that crashed through poles that had been planted there.
3. Bodies being found, but few parachutes. The word was the French took most of them.
4. Across the road from my slit trench was the burying ground. Trucks would line along this road loaded with the body bags. At one time there was a lot of high brass assembled. I was informed some general was being buried. This cemetery must have been moved later to Omaha beach.
5. P-38s and P-47s constantly flying overhead during the daylight hours. At dark the Germans flew around.
6. The replacements waiting for their time to go into combat. That front was a boiling cauldron of action.
7. The dead cows starting to bloat, feet up.
8. The flights of bombers hitting St. Lo with bombs making the ground shake.

After the breakout, the replacement depot followed the 1st Army. We were trucked through St. Lo. Talk about complete devastation, it was. Tanks, trucks, dead horses and all kinds of equipment scattered about. By stages we moved to Averanches, then to the Mortain area. It was there the Germans tried to drive us back and spit the lines. One evening their planes dropped cluster flares and then flew underneath strafing. I found out a little of what the Germans went through with our planes.

After Mortain our group was no longer needed. We were all assigned to different outfits. I went to the 2027 POW detachment being formed up at LeMans and started again to meet new people. Most of the group was made up of combat veterans returning to duty. Many should have been sent home, as any sharp noise would upset them. Over the next few weeks many got medical attention.

In October we were transported by rail through Paris, with no stops, to the town of Bolbac north of Le Havre. It took us 3 days in those 40-8 cattle cars. We were told to billet in an old chateau and we thought we had it made, finally getting off the ground...the place was loaded with rats, whose beady eyes stared at us in the dark. I wanted to go back to sleeping outside which to me was better than rats and a hard floor. The area had been a major German communication center. Underground tunnels and mines covered the area. I believe the mines were left as a deterrent to POW's who might try to escape. Some tried but did not get very far. Engineers built 4 cages. Each cage would hold 3000 to 4000 POW's. There was another cage built in Le Havre where the Waffen SS were sent to be transported to Canada or the U.S. At first we pulled guard duty, but as the camp grew more help was needed. Free French were brought in but quickly proved unsatisfactory, as they had no discipline of any kind. They had a habit of dropping their weapons to the ground when coming off a tower or just disappearing altogether. A deactivated AA battalion was assigned to the camp and helped carry the load. I made many trips, particularly to the Third Army area helping escort prisoners. Many of them were 55 and some of us wanted to put the rifle barrel (you know where) to curtail some of their cockiness. They still believed they were winning the war.

When the Battle of the Bulge occurred, a group of us were trucked to Belgium through a blizzard and zero degree weather. I do not know the name or the area of the bridge we were to guard. Three weeks of sitting behind a machine gun and freezing my butt off is still very real to me. During that time nothing happened so we were finally trucked back to camp.

A note on Le Havre; not all French were happy with the English and the Americans. Remember they lived for a few years with German occupiers who did not kill them or destroy property. As I understood it, when the Germans occupied the city, they were asked by the English who were advancing to make LeHarve an open city. Ther Germans evacuated but did not let the allies know. American and British bombers destroyed the city and killed approximately 15000 of the French civilians. They had no love for the English and many held us equally responsible. Some of our trucks shot at between there and Dieppe. Not all Frenchmen felt that way but there were some. After my time guarding that "ridge", I was assigned to camp supply. I only made a few trips for supplies and 3 or 4 times escorted prisoners to different places. One trip was to the Supreme Command in Belgium with a load of musicians. Other times I delivered cooks or laborers, but not more working the front to bring them in. Strange as it may seem, I did not know everyone in my detachment. We were scattered to different duties throughout the camp, and did not hold regular formations. By the end of the war we had 16 cages plus the one in LeHarve totaling about 55,000 prisoners of war. The prisoners did most of the work under our supervision. The compound was completely under canvass complete with a bakery that produced the bread supply. In June guess who ended up in charge of that little old bakery? Army life turned out pretty good and I drove the 1st Sergeant crazy because he never know where or what I was doing. He was new and never did know what was going on.

In November with good points (3 campaigns. 2 years overseas plus a couple of other things), I was sent to the 89th at one of the cigarette camps. I do remember one fellow in that squad tent, a Sergeant Murphy, who played a guitar and said he played with Red Foley in Nashville. How he kept that guitar through the war, I never knew. I found out he waq a good card players. I went home broke. From ther to South Hampton, England and the Wasp to For Dix for discharge. You know, for all the traveling I did, I never set foot on German soil.

I might just add I had a hard time getting back into Civilian life. Particularly after I found a large portion of my friends from England never made it home.