A common theme with respect to World War II soldiers is the strong bond of men in combat. This perception is reinforced by the media, with the scores of World War II movies over the decades and the more recent popularity of the two television mini-series Band of Brothers and The Pacific. While this image of brotherhood is accurate, during World War II the replacement policy implemented by the Army was detrimental to unit cohesion; the reality was that the bonds of brotherhood were often tested.
Replacing soldiers killed and wounded in combat units during the war was done on an individual basis, as has been the practice for most American wars. In World War II, except for those soldiers who arrived as a unit at the beginning of the war, men were sent individually to units to replace casualties. Rather than pulling battle depleted units off the line and replacing them in combat with a fresh, rested unit, Army Chief of Staff George Marshall and Gen. Leslie McNair, Commander of Army Ground Forces, implemented the individual replacement system. Unlike the German military, which replaced entire decimated units with similarly trained units, the Americans deemed it logistically difficult to transport across oceans the equipment which would be necessary to arm an entire replacement unit. Instead, the American Army strategy was to create replacement depots, called “repple-depples” by the GIs. These depots were located near the battle fronts, so that individual soldiers could be sent by generals to companies and battalions to replace the men lost. Even early in the war, the number of replacements was high. For example, in The Deadly Brotherhood: The American Combat Soldier in World War II, John McManus noted that in Italy, in 1943, “only 34 percent of the infantrymen in line companies came overseas with their units” (p. 308), a fact which illustrates the heavy number of casualties by that point in the war.
This practice of sending individual soldiers to depleted infantry companies was often a disadvantage to both the soldier and the company. Obviously the replacement was not battle tested. In certain situations in the latter part of the war, the soldier had completed basic training, but had not been trained for infantry. Because of heavy casualties, especially in the Battle of the Bulge, attrition required that men be pulled from noncombat units and placed in combat because the numerical need was so great. The new soldiers sometimes had difficulty assimilating. They felt alienated and unwelcomed and at first resented by the battle-hardened men because they were replacing buddies who had been killed or wounded. In his book, Citizen Soldiers, Stephen Ambrose, in evaluating the policy, called it inefficient, wasteful, and possibly a cause of unnecessary loss of life. Because the new men were not always properly trained, they sometimes caused extra risk for the others, due to their lack of awareness of the reality of combat. If a replacement proved to be capable, then he would be accepted and become part of the tightly knit group. However, some replacements quickly became casualties, so there was wariness among the old-timers at first, a reluctance to even learn the name of the newly arrived soldier.
In order to mitigate the failings of the replacement system, some leaders would implement an unofficial policy to protect both the incoming soldier and the group. The unit commanders would deliberately hold the replacements back until there was a break in active combat. This was done so that the new soldiers could at the very least get some infantry training with the group in a more relaxed setting, where lives were not on the line.
Once a soldier in World War II was sent to a combat division, he was not replaced unless he became a casualty. Unlike the practice in later wars, the World War II combatant remained overseas and ready for combat until the war ended. Some divisions, like the 32nd Infantry Division who engaged in combat for 654 days in World War II, had soldiers who served for the duration of the war.
The individual replacement policy ensured that those in combat units who survived from the beginning of the war would be fighting for years, invariably with newcomers who replaced the lost men. The longer a soldier survived, the longer he fought.
Carol Schultz Vento is the author of The Hidden Legacy of World War II: A Daughter’s Journey, which weaves life with her famous paratrooper father, Arthur “Dutch” Schultz, into the larger narrative of World War II, and how veterans of the war and their families dealt with the trauma of the war.