When the United States entered the Second World War, eighteen-year-old enlistees were routinely assigned temporary duties and not sent into battle until they turned nineteen. But as the fighting dragged on, America was eventually forced to draft younger men into combat to replace wounded troops—and following the Battle of the Bulge, more than 300,000 eighteen-year-olds were sent as replacements to the army’s decimated divisions.
In The Eighteen-Year-Old Replacement, Richard Kingsbury brings an often-overlooked perspective to the annals of World War II. Torn from an ordinary teenager’s life in the Midwest, young Dick was drafted six weeks after D-Day and rushed with other eighteen-year-olds to the Siegfried Line to bolster Patton’s 94th Infantry Division. His reminiscence provides a moving, diarylike account of what he endured both physically and emotionally—and tells how he went from boyhood to manhood almost overnight.
In prose that is both succinct and evocative, Kingsbury recounts his experiences as a rifleman during the final bloody battles in Germany, giving readers a real feel for what combat was like for a raw recruit. He recalls his first night in a foxhole on the front line and the “unbelievable luxury” of sleeping in a barn’s hayloft. He relives freezing cold at the Bulge, which permanently damaged his legs, and the pounding of enemy artillery during Patton’s breakthrough of the German West Wall, which affected his hearing for life.
More poignantly, Kingsbury shares his anxieties over killing—as well as the distinct possibility of being killed as Wehrmacht tanks mercilessly blasted individual foxholes at Bannholz Woods. He vividly recalls Patton’s attack on Ludwigshafen, on the west bank of the Rhine, where he took a German bullet in his chest—and where three of the six newly arrived eighteen-year-olds were killed.
Interspersed with the accounts of battle are letters between Dick and Mary Jo, his sweetheart back home, capturing the blossoming of romance that transcended both distance and bloodshed. His book casts a new light on war—and courtship—in an era when boys were rushed from the home front to the front lines. By showing how crucial the contribution of these young men was to the war effort, this book gives the eighteen-year-old replacements the recognition they have long deserved.