Replacement Depot shoulder patch (U.S. Army)
D-Day was just the beginning. Once a foothold was established the Allies began their march across western Europe to defeat the German army on its own homeland.
But D-Day had cost the Allies dearly. Nearly one of every two men in the first wave of the assault on Normandy was a casualty. Some divisions were nearly wiped out – the 116th Division took 90 percent casualties (D-Day, Ambrose), and some “infantry divisions saw 100 percent losses in rifle strength in the two months after D-Day.” (Military History Online). To allow a front line unit to continue fighting, the Army needed more men.
Enter the Replacements.
In previous wars, military units were held in reserve to reinforce others in the field. This practice resulted in front line divisions becoming weaker and weaker as casualities mounted, thereby becoming less and less effective, until they were replaced by the reserves. In WWII, General Marshall changed the practice and implemented the policy of immediate replacement of vacancies, thus ensuring each fighting unit was kept at full strength. He created Replacement Training Centers (RTC) around the country where new inductees were given 17 weeks of training, then shipped off to the theater of operations. “By March 1941, twelve RTCs were set up to provide Infantry, Field Artillery, Coast Artillery, Cavalry, and Armor.” (S. Carolina History)
Once they were flown to the theater, the replacements (also called “casuals” (Time, 1944) were assigned to Replacement Depots (“Repple Depples”) where they waited. Eventually they were joined by veterans who had been injured and recovered enough to fight – but not with their original units. Instead, they became part of the pool of replacements.
Once a casualty occurred, a replacement with similar skills would be sent to the front to fill the vacancy. In contrast to the men in veteran divisions who had trained together, fought together, and learned how to trust each other, the replacements were looked at with disdain, and rarely embraced. “As casualties left, replacements came in. However, the reality became that replacements came in, and with no combat experience and no one in their new unit looking out for them (the “I don’t know him and don’t want to know him, he’s only gonna be a casualty” syndrome), they quickly became casualties.” (Military History Online)
Nevertheless, to the Replacements the war was just as real, and no less brutal as for those who had already experienced combat. And the Replacement philosophy had an impact on the Germans. “When a division in action loses a pan or parts (a technical sergeant, a second lieutenant, a platoon, a whole company), the replacement is promptly suppliedâ€”how promptly was revealed by the entries in a captured German officer’s diary. Having battered a U.S. division to pieces, the Germans laid plans for a knockout in the morning. But by morning the astounded Germans discovered that they were faced again with a U.S. division fighting at full strength.” (Time)
While touring the WWII museum in New Orleans I found myself standing next to an elderly man, both of us looking at photos of Point du Hoc. He was a Navy Chief who had served as a replacement at Normandy. As he stared at the picture, his eyes moistened and he recounted his feelings as he landed there on D-Day plus one. To him and thousands of other Replacements like him, the war was very real. Without them, divisions that had been decimated on June 6 would not have been able to continue. But with them, the Allied juggernaut rolled all the way to the outskirst of Berlin, and victory.