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Irving Greger, of Plainview, replacement soldier

Irving Greger, of Plainview, fought at the Battle of the Bulge in World War II. On Friday, April 24, 2015, he spoke about what happened when his tank got hit by the Germans. (Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.)

Amid a long and lonely war, where men sometimes endured years of combat away from family and familiar faces, replacement troops were the loneliest of all.

"There was this feeling, 'Don't get close to the new guy, he's going to be dead soon,' " said Irving Greger, 96, who as a replacement soldier was assigned to the 2nd Armored Division during fighting near Aachen, Germany in November 1944.

Often rushed to the front lines with no combat experience to take the place of the war's dead or wounded, World War II's replacement soldiers were considered bad company, men whose green battle skills and lack of combat instincts could get themselves and others killed.

No one was eager to serve alongside them, Greger remembers, or even to know their name.

"All of the men in my tank were replacements because none of the older men wanted to be in a tank with me," said Greger, who was sent into combat as a tank officer. "On the one hand, they wanted replacements, because you don't want to go to battle undermanned. On the other hand, they were scared you would harm them with your inexperience."

Inducted at Long Island's Camp Upton in April 1942, just weeks after he was married to a woman he met two years earlier at Coney Island, the Brooklyn native completed officer training school before reaching the European battlefield on Thanksgiving Day 1944.

Sent to replace a second lieutenant in a tank crew, he was greeted by the grim image of a battlefield littered with American armor.

"We passed an empty field with about 30 burned out American tanks," Greger recalled during an interview at the Plainview home where he and his wife Sally moved from Bayside in 1959 and raised four boys. "And this guy pointed to them and said to me, 'See what you are here to replace?' "

About 43,000 replacements per month were being sent to combat in Europe when Greger left for Europe -- just eight days after his first child was born. And rather than rotating out depleted fighting units and replacing them with intact units of fresh troops as is common practice now, the War Department opted to replace casualties with individual soldiers.

This made military orphans of replacement troops like Greger, who joined new units without the sense of camaraderie and combat trust that builds unit cohesion.

Assigned to the 2nd Armored Division's 67th Armored Regiment, Greger was ordered by a superior to follow the instructions of a battle-seasoned sergeant, even though Greger -- a second lieutenant -- outranked him.

But combat incidents during the following weeks allowed Greger to build trust among his subordinates.

Just weeks after his arrival in Europe, Greger was able to get his men out safely after enemy fire that disabled his tank during the Battle of the Bulge threatened to immolate racks of ammunition stored inside.

Greger said confidence in him grew after a German Panzer surprised his crew at a crossroad thought to have been in Allied hands. Uneasy that a shell fired by Greger's Sherman tank bounced harmlessly from the Panzer's hull, Greger's crew was emboldened when the Panzer ran, then stalled.

But there were also moments of intense sadness.

Greger said he and his crew fled for cover after a German attack disabled their tank. The tank driver volunteered to return, insisting he could get it running again.

"He asked my permission and I gave it, something I regret to this day," Greger said, struggling to maintain his composure.

German forces attacked again.

"We dragged him back to a ditch," said Greger, who remembers that his binoculars bounced wildly on his chest as he ran.

"His skull was open, and I doubt if he made it," Greger said. "I punched a brick wall with my fist."

He said he felt so burdened by guilt that he was pulled from his crew and spent time in the care of an Army psychiatrist, who put him to work evaluating the battle readiness of other soldiers suffering from combat stress.

Soon, he was leading his tank crew again. He was at the Elbe River when the American and Soviet armies reached that dividing line in late April 1945, effectively splitting a war-exhausted Germany into east and west. Adolf Hitler committed suicide in Berlin just days later.

"There was an elation that the war was over," he said, "and that we were going home."

Greger served during the postwar occupation of Germany before his military discharge in 1946. He earned a doctorate from Columbia Teachers College and was a member of the faculty of Baruch College when he retired in 1986.

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