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Remembering the replacement soldier

Editor's note, Thursday, March 20: I just received word that Eddie Sessions, the World War II veteran I wrote about as “The replacement soldier” last summer, died today. He was 88.

He’d been battling numerous health problems over the past year, said his wife, Shirley.

Mr. Sessions is one of the most remarkable people I’ve met in my journalism career, and I spent nine months researching and reporting his experience as a young infantryman in the war.

He was stubbornly matter-of-fact about his experiences, and even when I visited with him last fall, said he never quite understood why I was so interested in his story.

I received many notes from readers after the story ran, but this was one of the best: “What a wonderful chronology of a true citizen soldier that left me in awe of a member of his generation that helped save the world from a terrible human tragedy.”  Below is the Personal Journeys article published in June 2013.
 

Decorated veteran Eddie Sessions of Carrollton reveals what it was like to serve in Patton’s Army as a ‘replacement’ soldier during World War II. AJC Editor Kevin Riley tells his surprising story of survival — and helps Sessions solve a 69-year-old mystery.
 

Private Eddie Sessions flops face down and motionless in a field of frozen mud in northeast France. The ground shudders beneath him from German machine gun bullets hitting within inches of his head.

When he opens his eyes, he can see the tracer rounds. Soldiers around him moan. Sessions, 19, has been on the front lines only a few days, but he knows that when they writhe in pain, they are shot again. He freezes.

“Sessions, are ya hit?” someone yells.

Surprised that anyone knows his name, he doesn’t respond for fear of attracting the German gunners.

It is November 1944. Allied forces under Gen. George Patton’s command are pressing to within miles of the German border near the French city of Metz.

American casualties are high and teenagers like Sessions, so-called replacements for the wounded and the dead, have been thrown at the front with almost no preparation.

“His luck finally run out,” someone says.

He doesn’t move.

He waits until he hears a desperate sergeant order a charge.

Stiff from lying in the cold so long, Sessions staggers forward into some woods about a hundred feet away.

He crawls, looking for cover and a good vantage point.

He finds one, but realizes he’s atop a concrete German bunker.

A German soldier rushes toward him, determined to join his comrades inside. But the German doesn’t see Sessions and pauses to reload his weapon.

Sessions stands, aims his rifle and squeezes the trigger.

The Legion of Honor

It’s sixty-eight years later and Sessions, long since retired from a job in the federal government and living quietly in Carrollton, joins 11 other veterans in a Buckhead office.

He’s to be awarded the National Order of the Legion of Honor, France’s most prestigious medal decorating, among others, those who liberated France from the Nazis.

Weeks earlier, I’d intervened to fix a problem with the Sessions’ newspaper subscription. Sessions’ wife, Shirley, mentioned the ceremony.

I’ve always been fascinated by World War II history but in recent years my interest has quickened. World War II vets are passing on, taking with them the individual stories that shaped world history.

I wanted to meet Sessions, learn about his combat experiences and perhaps tell his story.

The veterans took their places at the front of the room, facing a quiet crowd of about 150 people. Sessions, a short man wearing thick glasses, sat off to the right, away from the center of attention.

The Consul General of France introduced each veteran and read a brief synopsis of his service.

Some sounded like pieces of movie scripts. Several veterans received the Silver or Bronze Star. Two stormed Omaha Beach on D-Day. Another flew in B-17 bombers.

Finally, the consul came to Sessions. He served in the 95th Infantry Division, participated in the Battle of Metz and later entered Germany with his division. He won a Purple Heart.

The consul also mentioned Sessions’ division earned the nickname “The Iron Men of Metz.”

I jotted that down and waited for more details.

But then the consul moved on to the next veteran.

That’s it, I thought? Nothing more on Sessions?

“You are true heroes,” the consul concluded. “You will be our heroes forever. We the French will never forget what you did to restore our freedom.”

One by one, each veteran stood as the consul pinned on their lapels the Legion of Honor — a white enameled medal with green accents hanging from a bright red silk ribbon.

As they received their medals, most struggled unsteadily to their feet. Several cried. They took turns saying a few words.

A medic told of treating young German soldiers in the aftermath of a battle in France, emphasizing that the Germans sent young boys off to war, too. Another described how the people in French villages rang church bells to let the Americans know that the Germans had evacuated their town.

Through tears, another said he accepted his medal “for those who never came back.”

Each had something to say, except one. Over on the right, Sessions stayed rooted to his chair, stoic and silent.

That was odd, I thought. No memory or emotion to share? Did he not remember?

In the din of the room after the ceremony, the 87-year-old was reticent, subdued and hard to hear. He shared a couple of combat experiences, but it was clear I needed more time to learn his story.

Shirley, an assertive advocate for her husband and several years his junior, said she had a journal in which she’d written down some stories through the years.

Impulsively, I asked for it.

The French hadn’t fully told his story; at that moment I decided I would.

Wartime memories

Shirley’s journal, written nearly 50 years after the war, and another brief memoir by Sessions, tell how a naive farm boy from Mississippi was thrust into combat as an Army infantryman.

Sessions was drafted in 1943, while still in high school. His parents, Martin Luther and Ozzie, had four children. His older brother, Percy, went to war before him, serving in an air force unit.

The Army inducted Sessions at Camp Shelby near Hattiesburg, Miss., and then sent him by rail to basic training at Fort McClellan in Anniston, Ala. He’d never been away from home before.

The Army gave him one weekend pass, and he went home. The 17 weeks of training, he wrote, was “full field packs, steel helmets, hiking in the rain.” He hated it.

Eventually, Sessions arrived in New Jersey and was assigned a ship for the long journey to Europe. Before he left, he wandered New York City for an evening and “gawked.”

He reached Omaha Beach several months after D-Day as a replacement soldier, destined to fill the boots of an American infantryman who’d been killed or wounded in combat. An American cemetery with “a large expanse of small white crosses” was one of his first impressions.

From there, he marched, boarded trains, rode in trucks and camped in the rain, mud and snow across France, his destination a mystery. He groused about the lousy food and the bitter cold. One night, he and a guy from Montana stole some hay from a farmer to stay warm. Another time, the guys in his railcar pilfered a stove so they’d have heat.

As he neared the front lines, the tone of his recollections changed: He described an abandoned prison camp and captured German weapons.

When he heard artillery, he knew he was nearing combat. After a march, he was there.

“Metz. Infantry Co.! Scared men,” he wrote.

He didn’t know it then, but he’d arrived at one of history’s great crossroads, a teenager about to join in one of World War II’s bloodiest battles.

At his well-tended brick home in Carrollton, where one hallway is decorated with his war medals and a map of France, we sat around his dining room table and talked about what he could remember of his experiences.

Some memories tumbled out freely but in no particular order; others remained locked away, impervious to his efforts to release them.

He described days of intense combat and said he operated with 60 to 70 other infantrymen behind enemy lines to locate German positions. By his estimate, about half of the Americans were killed or wounded each day.

In one story, Sessions’ unit had driven the Germans out of a church. But a massive door, locked or barricaded by the Germans, blocked the Americans’ way out.

Someone — perhaps an officer — asked who could handle a bazooka. Sessions volunteered and blasted through the door.

The Germans were waiting on the other side. As his fellow soldiers rushed out, Sessions said: “They were just being mowed down.”

Some of his stories defy logic, like bad dreams. And he recalled even terrifying situations matter-of-factly, never implying heroics.

In one story, he and fellow soldiers were checking a house, sure that Germans were inside. They heard noise in the basement and aimed their weapons.

Instead of soldiers, terrified women and crying children emerged. Sessions broke into hysterical laughter, and said he doesn’t know why.

Even as I took notes, it was clear that Sessions’ stories rambled, and lacked context. At times, he appeared confused. He drew a complete blank on dates, places and names. With some research, I hoped that I could connect them to the historical record and fill in the details.

Shirley, a determined partner in the search to complete the story, organized binders and folders full of papers. One piece of information became my focus: the specific company — the basic unit of an infantry division — Sessions served in. With that information, I had a chance to use historical sources to place Sessions’ stories among the chaos of battle.

A handwritten note among the journal pages read: “Maybe 377?” That clue pointed to Sessions as a member of the 377th Regiment — one of three regiments — of the 95th Division. Military and historical sources mention that group’s role in the battle and beyond.

I put a digital recorder in front of Sessions.

So what unit were you in?

“I don’t know.”

Was it the 377th?, I prompt.

“I don’t know.”

Persistent and repeated questions. Names and numbers of units. Descriptions of army movements. The answers were the same: Sessions didn’t know or couldn’t remember.

This was a roadblock I hadn’t anticipated: If I can’t identify Sessions’ unit, I won’t be able to find more about his service.

Shirley dug into her binders and put several pieces of paper on the table: Sessions’ discharge papers, Purple Heart citation and some sort of pension form. They indicated Sessions was in Europe on Nov. 3, 1944, and wounded Nov. 29, placing him near Metz during the height of the battle. None mentioned any unit beyond the 95th Division, an outfit of 14,000 men.

An organizational chart of the 95th Division showed regiments, battalions and companies; it provided the names of some officers, including company commanders. Sessions recognized none of them.

And how about some of the names of key towns, the ones mentioned repeatedly in descriptions of the battle?

He shook his head after hearing each.

Shirley agreed to write a letter to the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, a part of the National Archives that houses military records — in hopes that something would reveal Sessions’ unit and verify details of his combat experiences.

Beyond the gaps in his memory, I’m surprised how troubled, almost angry, Sessions sounded when sharing his stories. He came across as a courageous but scared young man, still scarred by his experiences nearly seven decades later.

He remains upset by the risks he was ordered to take, and he called his unit a “poorly run operation.”

“It was dangerous,” he said. “I resented being subject to all this fire. I’m still resentful of it. I didn’t see the rationale for it.”

Disdain for officers finds its way into many of his descriptions.

“I never saw but one time any officer at all,” he said of his days in combat.

And he was afraid of disobeying an order: “They’d probably send me out on a suicide mission.”

The names of comrades didn’t come up when he described a combat situation; his recollections didn’t include an experienced hand who showed him the ways of the battlefield.

There were no classic references of foxhole buddies or intense loyalty to his unit. He never mentioned the death or wounding of a close friend.

“Half of them were gone every day. I didn’t even know who knew my name,” he said.

There was lingering animosity at his low status as a replacement soldier called up to fill the ranks of the dead and wounded.

By his own reckoning, Sessions was no hero. He was cannon fodder.

“I was just a replacement,” he said before I left. “A lot of my cohorts didn’t survive.”

The hunt for records

Shirley sent her letter off to St. Louis and got a quick acknowledgement that said she should expect to hear back in four months.

That was too long to sit still, so I called a historian at West Point.

He was skeptical of Sessions’ description of his unit as operating behind enemy lines, and shared my surprise that Sessions didn’t know what unit he was in or specifics about its mission. He warned that many veterans inaccurately claim to have been part of Patton’s army, and they confuse their combat memories with old television shows and movies. He suggested that maybe Sessions acquired his tales from watching “Combat,” the 1960s television series starring Vic Morrow.

He warned me to avoid accepting Sessions’ stories at face value.

The conversation filled me with doubt. What if he was right? Maybe Sessions was confused, and his story was a dead end — or even untrue. Maybe that’s why the French consul had no details. At this point, I had scant verification of anything.

Unwilling to let Shirley down, especially after asking for her journal, I sent an email to James E. Archer, a retired general who leads the 95th Infantry Division Association, a sort of alumni group. It was a long shot, but Archer responded the next morning, offering to help.

In a phone call, Archer listened to some of Sessions’ accounts and judged them believable and similar to other veteran experiences. He explained his confidence in Sessions’ recollections:

As a replacement soldier, Sessions entered the battle during a high-casualty period and would have engendered scorn from combat veterans. To a seasoned soldier, a replacement represented risk and bad luck — and someone to be avoided. “He was alone and scared to death,” Archer said.

It was unlikely that Sessions actually operated behind enemy lines, unless he was part of a specialized unit — something he would almost certainly be aware of. Instead, young infantrymen lacked perspective and operated in confusing situations. Their sergeants didn’t explain strategy to them; they were just told where to go. To Sessions, it would often seem he was behind enemy lines.

It was typical of World War II veterans to have had very “localized” memories. They can remember intense combat situations but are unable to recall the place or time.

Archer encouraged pursuit of Sessions’ unit identity. With that information, he promised to find knowledgeable people to help — including other veterans who might know him.

But bad news arrived in a letter from The National Personnel Records Center. Sessions’ records were lost in a 1973 fire. His military history was gone.

The center found three pages of information created from medical records, which document Sessions’ wounding. But it looked like the end of the line.

When Archer heard this, he asked to see the information.

A few days later, a Sunday morning, he sent an email: “I now have proof that Sessions was a member of L Company, 3rd Battalion, 377th Infantry Regiment (95th Division).”

Deep in the records center document, he spotted a line that said “377.”

He located a book, published by the 377th Regiment just after the war, and he sent a copy on CD. The regiment included a roster of nearly every man who served in it.

Pvt. Eddie Sessions was listed on Page 217.

The Battle of Metz

Archer provided a path to two rich sources of information about Sessions’ time in combat.

First, he invited Sessions and his wife to the annual reunion of veterans of Company I of the 377th Regiment. While not Sessions’ company, Company I often fought alongside Company L.

Archer knew the veterans, and said they were in similar combat situations. Perhaps interacting with them would jog Sessions’ memory; they might even know men who served with him.

I suggested to Eddie and Shirley that we go together, and I offered to drive them to Memphis, where the Company I veterans planned to meet this year.

Over the years, Shirley never convinced Sessions to attend reunions, or go on a trip to revisit Normandy, as she had wanted. And she didn’t succeed this time; so I planned to go on my own.

Knowing Sessions’ company, and his dates of service, I pursued the other source of information that Archer suggested: daily “morning reports” from the field of combat.

In these reports during WWII, officers documented the unit’s location, strength and activities for the day. They also recorded casualties in stilted military prose.

A free-lance researcher in St. Louis told me he could obtain copies for Company L during Sessions’ combat service.

They arrived a week later.

In the morning report for Nov. 17, 1944, “Pvt. Eddie Sessions” appeared on a roster of 40 replacements assigned to Company L.

The day before Sessions arrived, Company L was suffering. It reported 35 men wounded and two killed during intense fighting at a fort outside Metz. The company had just 128 enlisted men and three officers available for duty. As a rifle company, at full strength it should have had about 190 men, and it needed fresh bodies to throw into action.

At 7 p.m. the day Sessions marched in, Company L again attacked German positions outside Metz, continuing the American offensive.

“Gains were made through heavy enemy fire,” the Company L report said; 13 men were wounded as the unit advanced three miles closer to Metz.

Still undermanned, Company L got 30 more replacements the next day. It was now at about full strength; it attacked at 10 a.m. that day, and advanced about a mile and a half.

In two days with Company L, Sessions was on the attack almost nonstop.

Small wonder he didn’t recall places and names; he barely knew where he was.

My trip to Memphis, mingling with other veterans, also helped me understand how replacements such as Sessions experienced combat.

Replacements took the place of a veteran’s wounded or dead buddy. Hardened veterans learned to avoid developing bonds with someone who might be gone tomorrow.

Veterans also saw replacements as unprepared, the guys who were likely to do something dumb and get themselves — or someone else — killed.

“Why should I be killed when I’ve been here three months?” one vet told me in Memphis. “Let him get killed.”

In his WWII history “Citizen Soldiers,” historian Stephen Ambrose writes that half of all replacements became casualties within the first three days of combat, arriving, in the words of one soldier, “good boys with the strength of a mule and the ignorance of old maids.”

“Being a replacement is just like being an orphan,” said one veteran, quoted in Ambrose’s book. “You are away from anybody you know and feel lost and lonesome.”

Sessions spent only 13 days with Company L, a period that included fierce moments in the Battle of Metz, the city’s surrender and the Americans’ subsequent drive into Germany.

“They kept us charging,” he said. “They’d always find a few more recruits to replenish the lost by the end of the day.”

The morning reports showed that Company L actually lost men more rapidly than it could replace them; a total of 92 replacements came to Company L during Sessions’ time, but the unit lost 111 men.

Yet this 19-year-old, who stood 5-feet-7½ inches tall and weighed just 140 pounds, managed to survive in spite of the chaotic mission and daily dangers.

He recognized how expendable he was and developed the attitude of a lone wolf, doing what he had to do under violent circumstances.

“The group all thought I was wild and reckless,” he said.

But he believes he stayed alive by going off on his own, often to the unit’s right flank.

“I was always separate from the main group,” he said. “I’ve always been sort of independent. I was then, and I am now.”

Why leave the protection of his fellow soldiers?

German machine guns and mortars were more likely to target a large cluster of men, and worry much less about a lone soldier, even if they noticed him.

“I think it helped me survive,” he said. “If I get in a group, it’s likely that I get shot.”

In short order he adopted a veteran’s attitude, knowing that less savvy soldiers — including the new guys — could put him at risk.

“I didn’t talk to many of them. I didn’t know them,” he said. “I didn’t want to be where I’d have to defend them, I had to defend myself.”

On Nov. 22, five days after Sessions’ arrival, the Germans surrendered Metz.

But there was little rest for Company L. During the next six days, the unit stayed on the attack and drove the Nazis back over the German border, with mounting casualties.

On Nov. 29, Sessions said an officer ordered him and others to charge a trench occupied by Germans. The Americans pushed the Germans out, and they were ordered to keep advancing, he said.

As Sessions climbed out of the trench, he was hit in the hand by shrapnel.

“Artillery got me finally,” he said, but, he noted, not before he’d made it into Germany.

No longer able to hold and fire his rifle, Sessions was sent to a field hospital.

“My injuries were so minor compared to what most of the men had,” he said.

He was one of 19 men wounded on Nov. 29, including three men who joined Company L on the same day he did.

Sessions didn’t know it, but his time in combat was over.

Epilogue

Sessions ended up in a military hospital in Hampshire, England, where the shrapnel was finally removed from his hand. In Army parlance, he’d gotten a “million-dollar wound,” one that would keep him from reassignment to the front.

His older brother, Percy, tracked him down, surprising him at his bedside one day. Percy worked as a barber on an air force base in Suffolk, England, and cut the hair of many officers.

Somehow he arranged for Sessions to be transferred to the same base, and Sessions got a job that included processing air force reconnaissance photos.

“It was like Christmas,” Sessions said of his new duties in the photo lab, compared to life on the front lines. The two brothers spent most of the rest of the war together.

Sessions eventually returned home, finished high school and earned two master’s degrees. He enjoyed a career in vocational services, establishing programs that taught nurses and physicians’ assistants.

I visited him and Shirley again in their home in Carrollton, giving them copies of all of the reports and documents on his service — the record of the long trek to tell his story.

Shirley thanked me and teared up.

Sessions called the new information “interesting.”

I asked him if any of it jogged his memory, or if there was anything more about his story he wanted to share.

“I’m about out of information,” he said.

At that moment, it became clear that he was satisfied with his story, even before I came along and got so interested in it.

For me, Sessions’ recollections told an important tale of the replacement soldier, an experience at odds with more glorified accounts of the war; less feel good, but more real — and more common than most popular recollections of World War II.

By some accounts, nearly half of the infantrymen who served in Europe were replacements. Like Sessions, many were injured within their first days in combat, and their stories stand apart from our familiar history of the war.

Veterans’ stories come to us as facts and figures placed amidst history, but Sessions’ saga shows the things most worth knowing involve understanding those stories for their impact on human beings.

Sessions can’t know for sure the fate of the German soldier he saw from atop the bunker. He fired his rifle and heard him scream. Three Germans inside surrendered after American soldiers found Sessions and tossed in a grenade.

Even after nearly 70 years, the moral consequences of Sessions’ combat experiences remain with him.

As we parted, I thought about something he’d said during one of our visits.

“You never know who you’re shooting — whether they’re decent people.”

 

HOW WE GOT THE STORY

Four million American soldiers served in Europe during World War II. Eddie Sessions was one of them. He was a farm kid from rural Mississippi when he was sent to the front lines in France. He helped the Americans win a key battle and drive the Nazis back into Germany. Atlanta Journal-Constitution Editor Kevin Riley set out to tell Sessions’ story after meeting him at a medal ceremony in Atlanta last fall. The war was long over, and Sessions was not eager to relive the past. But Riley felt in his gut that Sessions had a story to tell. He was right. Today’s Personal Journey captures the experience of a “replacement” soldier, teenagers by and large who were sent to the European front to take the place of dead and wounded foot soldiers. They had little preparation and survived with the wits they brought from home. It’s an important story about how the war shaped the Greatest Generation, and I’m proud to share it with you in the AJC as we celebrate our nation’s independence this week. You won’t find it anywhere else.

Ken Foskett
Assistant Managing Editor

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