The liberator's widow
Battle of Metz anniversary prompts an emotional expedition for the wife of World War II replacement soldier.
By Kevin Riley | The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Shirley Sessions troops down a two-lane road in the chill autumn air, walking toward Germany. The road runs through northeast France, but it looks and smells like any two-lane in Georgia: the occasional car whooshes past; smelly exhausts hang over the pavement; roadside litter perches in the weeds.
How we got the story
You don’t meet many people as persistent as Shirley Sessions.
For decades, she pursued details of her husband’s time in World War II. I joined the pursuit, and wrote about it in 2013.
When she finally got the story of Eddie’s service and survival in the war, she had less than a year with him until he died last March.
How did she handle her grief? She took a trip to Europe, so that she could see for herself the places where he fought.
And I went with her.
I watched a widow confront her grief, and pay an inspiring tribute to her husband. This is the story of that trip.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
A woman of 75 has no business here. The cars come too close. The overgrown grass on the shoulder makes the footing uncertain. But she insists on walking this highway in the middle of nowhere. Exactly 70 years ago, in World War II, her husband almost certainly trudged along this same road and under far worse circumstances.
Eddie Sessions fought his way into Germany from this place. Walking these same dark soils as her husband did so many decades ago, speaking with the remaining old men who survived the battles, seeing the endless white geometry of the headstones in the war cemetery, Shirley has come to understand how easily Eddie could have been killed. They would never have met, never married, never built a life spanning a half-century.
Shirley was younger than Eddie by 14 years, which means she was only 5 when he went overseas to fight the Nazis. They were married 20 years after the war, and in all their time together, Eddie didn’t tell her everything about the bloody Battle of Metz. But he did tell her his “tree” story.
Marching through cold and rain and muck and gunfire, the Mississippi farm boy would pick out a tree in the distance and tell himself, “I can make it to that tree.” When he got there, he’d spot another far-off tree and tell himself the same thing – over and over until he got orders to stop for rest or had to take cover from enemy fire.
“It’s a good thing to have my feet on the same ground,” Shirley said in the days leading up to this walk.
She was making a pilgrimage to the places where Eddie survived terrifying episodes of combat, where he huddled against freezing rains, where he rooted around for food – and where he refused to ever return. This corner of Europe, all these years later, would give up secrets about Eddie that five decades of marriage hadn’t revealed.
She was seeing the places he described, filling in details from some of his most poignant stories and meeting men who had their own incredible tales.
A change of heart: ‘I’d like to go’
Months earlier, Shirley had sent me a small package from her home in Carrollton. It wasn’t unusual for me to get notes and email or an occasional call from her. We’d become friends over the past couple of years, thanks to our mutual pursuit of her husband’s remarkable story.
Published in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in June 2013, “The Replacement Soldier” chronicled my nine-month effort to uncover Eddie Sessions’ tale. It told of his experience as a “replacement,” a young infantryman sent to the front to take the place of the dead and wounded. Most replacements were unprepared for combat; many died within a few days. But Eddie survived the intense fighting near Metz, France, and was later wounded.
I wrote his obituary when Eddie died this past March, and I saw Shirley at the funeral home. She’d taken care of him through failing health for about a decade and now she grieved for the man she’d lost and for the 50 years that bound them together.
By summer, she had finally mustered the energy to sort through Eddie’s belongings.
A note accompanied the parcel she sent me: “This is his Army-issued compass. He may not know the path he traveled, but his compass kept him going the right way forward. I consider it an honor, and so would he, to pass this on to you.”
In a small velvet satchel, she bequeathed to me Eddie’s brass World War II compass — and she’d tapped into powerful emotions of mine.
Shirley didn’t know that by the time I received her gift, I’d already decided to attend the 70th anniversary commemorations of the Battle of Metz scheduled for November.
When I researched Eddie’s amazing story, I’d met a small group of veterans, fellow members of Eddie’s 95th Infantry Division — “The Iron Men of Metz.” Gregarious, friendly and persuasive, these men invited me to France for the events they were putting together. I just couldn’t resist the chance to see the places I’d spent so much time trying to understand, and to spend a week immersing myself in their stories.
Also, I had lost my mother the previous year, something that is never far from my thoughts. About the same age as Shirley, she’d been interested in Eddie’s story, too. In fact, she’d asked me about Eddie and Shirley during a visit the weekend before she died. I believed she would’ve urged me to take this trip.
After Shirley sent me the compass, I thought again of inviting her along. I hoped she would go, but I didn’t want to urge her to make a journey she wasn’t prepared for at such a precarious emotional time.
I’d grown close enough to her by now, though, that she’d want to know of my plans, in part because she’d spent decades tracking down details of her husband’s service before we’d even met.
She was thrilled to hear I was going but said she couldn’t face the trip; she was still struggling with the loss of Eddie.
A few weeks later, though, she had gathered her strength and changed her mind.
“I’d like to go,” she told me on the phone. A friend who’d lost her husband years ago convinced her.
You’re going to be sad wherever you are, the friend told her. Have this experience and it will help.
Our conversations that followed would send off the two of us to an undiscovered country — the landscape of Eddie’s war.
Just before we left, my sister sent me an email.
“Mom would be so proud of you for doing this. She’d probably want to come along with you.”
Welcome to les libérateurs
The plan for the trip had two parts.
First, we’d participate in all of the town-by-town activities planned by the 95th Division Association and veterans. Second, we planned to retrace Eddie’s steps, as best we could, based on research about his unit’s activities during the war. We had the day-by-day locations of his company from 1944, some with current street addresses.
The French towns and their citizens provided almost endless receptions, gifts, food and music.
In the Alsace-Lorraine region of France these veterans – and Shirley, as the only widow in the group – were rock stars. Their pictures were in the local newspapers almost every day. Schoolchildren, excused from class, cheered them. Parents took photos of the Americans holding their babies. Bands seemed to be constantly playing the “Star Spangled Banner” in honor of les libérateurs — a term they use over and over for American World War II veterans. The liberators.
One American veteran, Ceo Bauer of Michigan, reveled in the attention, seeming to hug every French man or woman he met and presenting dignitaries with his personal memoir of the war.
“To them, we are America,” he said, explaining that he holds himself personally responsible for tending to the relationship between the two countries.
Shirley ended up with more bottles of wine, medallions and gifts than she could carry. But it was retracing Eddie’s path that created the trip’s most moving moments — some quick, some lingering, some overwhelmingly emotional. I was privileged to be at Shirley’s side as she created remarkable memories for herself — and for me. I had expected simply to chronicle her story, but she made me part of it.
One moment came in a neighborhood on the outskirts of Metz.
It was here that Eddie, having joined Company L of the 377th Regiment just the day before, would have engaged in the “street fighting” that he’d later describe to Shirley. The company, in this spot for three days, fought doorway to doorway until, on Nov. 22, 1944, the Germans gave up the city.
To me, the neighborhood seemed to offer little that would inform us about Eddie’s time there. It looked as if it had been built after the war: apartment buildings and homes, a park and a playground. Glass bottles rattled as a resident dumped them into the neighborhood recycling bin.
Trace Eddie Sessions’ path through France, and the journey of Kevin Riley and Shirley Sessions 70 years later, with this interactive map.
Shirley, drawn to an older, vine-covered home, saw something more.
She lingered before the house, pointed out its architectural features and studied it with her interior designer’s eye, noting that it would’ve been built well before the war.
Eddie often told her of staying in abandoned French homes during his time in combat.
“I wonder if this house wasn’t spared,” she said. “I think it stands alone because the Americans chose it to shelter in. It became a good place for them to stay overnight. I don’t know if Eddie was one of them.”
She didn’t know whether any of that was true, but this had suddenly turned into an emotional, almost spiritual moment.
That happened again later, when we went to the small town of Coincy.
Eddie spent a rainy and cold Thanksgiving Day 1944 in Coincy. The military histories say turkey was delivered to the soldiers on the front lines the next day, but Eddie told Shirley he never got any — that he never even saw any. It reminded her of one of his favorite war stories.
As an infantryman on the move, he was constantly looking for something to fill his stomach.
He once “found” an egg — Shirley’s pretty sure he stole it — and cooked it, in the shell, on a spoon over a small fire. It was one of the best meals he ever had, Eddie said. But he couldn’t remember where he was when he got that egg.
As she looked over the pastoral town, Shirley focused on an old stone barn with chickens milling about, clearly built before World War II. She knew Eddie would’ve been cold and hungry that day in Coincy.
“He was probably in that barn,” she said of her farm-boy husband. “He would have seen this barn from a long way off. He would have known the possibilities for his survival. He would have been at home there — almost.”
I’d heard his stories, too. And I realized in that moment that he might’ve cooked that egg right there.
‘I’ll get you through the first few days’
Shirley became a key and comfortable part of the veterans group in a short time, her initial hesitancy about the trip long forgotten.
“They just took me in like I was one of their own,” she said of the veterans and their families. “They said, ‘We now consider you a sister among us.’ ”
She joined them for the 30-kilometer bus ride to the city of Crehange on the second morning of our trip, passing through beautiful French countryside that looked just as Eddie had described it — small towns, church steeples and farms.
World War II gathers dust in American history books nowadays — just another set of test questions for U.S. schoolchildren — but here in northeast France, where so many died, reminders of the war are common.
At a reception in Créhange, Shirley sat between two generals — the current and former commanders of the 95th Division. And that wasn’t even the highlight of her day.
That came when we discovered yet another reminder of the war: the Club Lorrain de Vehicules Milataria Allies – a group that acquires and restores U.S. military vehicles from the war. The members even wear vintage WWII American uniforms. Shirley sought out one dressed as a private, her husband’s rank, and got a picture with him.
The club and the town had a parade planned, and the veterans and Shirley were invited to ride in the vehicle of their choice. Without hesitation, several laughing Frenchmen wearing American uniforms hoisted Shirley into the back of a classic “deuce-and-a-half” truck and offered her a wooden box to sit on. “They told me it was dynamite,” she said. (It was actually a vintage box that was used to transport cigarettes.)
As Shirley took off as the center of attention of the group of uniformed men, it was easy to see her as the beautiful, charming young woman Eddie met and married.
Photos: In France with Shirley Sessions
- Seventy years later: Shirley Sessions stands with Don Fuesler outside City Hall in Metz as a French military band plays “The Star Spangled Banner” in honor of the 95th Infantry Division. The 95th, which included Fuesler, fought in 1944 to liberate the city. Photos by RYON HORNE / RHORNE@AJC.COM
- Kevin Riley and Shirley walk to the security checkpoint at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on their way to visit the French-German border city of Metz, where Shirley's late husband Eddie Sessions fought and was wounded 70 years ago. Photo by HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
- The Lorraine American Cemetery and Memorial near St. Avold, France holds the largest number of World War II American graves of any site in Europe -- more than 10,000. RYON HORNE/RHORNE@AJC.COM
- Shirley Sessions is greeted by the mayor of Metz at The Cathedral of St. Stephen of Metz. RYON HORNE / RHORNE@AJC.COM
- Children in the small town of Créhange, France watched as American veterans of the 95th Infantry took part in a parade to celebrate the city's liberation from German forces during WWII. RYON HORNE / RHORNE@AJC.COM
- The Lorraine American Cemetery and Memorial near St. Avold, France holds the largest number of World War II American graves of any site in Europe -- more than 10,000. RYON HORNE / RHORNE@AJC.COM
- A road sign points the way to Metz. RYON HORNE / RHORNE@AJC.COM
- Children wave American and French flags in front of the Cathedral of St. Stephen of Metz. RYON HORNE / RHORNE@AJC.COM
- Shirley Sessions, the widow of Eddie Sessions, at the wheel of a fully restored WWII U.S. truck. Sessions took part in a parade for the veterans in the small town of Créhange, France. RYON HORNE / RHORNE@AJC.COM
- Kevin Riley congratulates Shirley after she receives a commemorative coin during a reception honoring veterans of the 95th Infantry in France. RYON HORNE / RHORNE@AJC.COM
- Shirley uses her husband’s compass at the first stop of her journey to retrace Eddie’s steps during his time fighting to cross from France into Germany. “He may not have known where he was going,” Shirley wrote, “but his compass kept him going the right way forward.” RYON HORNE / RHORNE@AJC.COM
- Dignitaries staged a ceremony to celebrate the liberation of Metz at The Cathedral of St. Stephen of Metz. RYON HORNE / RHORNE@AJC.COM
- Shirley, with Kevin Riley, reaches Ittersdorf, Germany, the final destination of her journey and very near the spot where her husband was wounded in World War II. She marks the occasion by claiming a small German rock. RYON HORNE / RHORNE@AJC.COM
- Shirley stood in for her late husband as veterans of the 95th Infantry were honored at a ceremony Maizieres le Metz. RYON HORNE / RHORNE@AJC.COM
- Kevin Riley and Shirley stand in the same area where Eddie spent a cold and rainy Thanksgiving Day on the battlefield 70 years before. According to military histories, Eddie’s unit was fed turkey the following day, but he had told his wife he never saw any. RYON HORNE / RHORNE@AJC.COM
- Shirley Sessions looks towards open farm land near the town of Coincy, France. In this same area, her husband spent Thanksgiving here 70 years ago during World War II. RYON HORNE / RHORNE@AJC.COM
- Shirley takes a ride in the back of a fully restored “deuce-and-a-half” — a WWII U.S. Army truck. She took part in a parade for the veterans in the small town of Créhange, France. RYON HORNE / RHORNE@AJC.COM
- Aerial view of the city of Metz, the scene of ferocious fighting during World War II as American forces sought to dislodge the Nazis and press on into Germany; the border is just a few miles away. RYON HORNE / RHORNE@AJC.COM
They rumbled off to prepare for the parade back into town. For some reason the club members went all the way back to their garage and were gone an hour, creating confusion and starting the event late, both of which happen a lot in France.
The parade finally proceeded in the cold and rain and Shirley, now aboard a jeep, and her companions tossed gum to the French children lining the street — reminiscent of the American liberators who had doled out gum, chocolate and cigarettes 70 years before.
The parade, music and cheering crowds made Créhange feel as if it were being liberated all over again.
But when the celebrations died down, the veterans could remind you that liberating these French towns came at a terrible cost. They each had stories of tragedies they witnessed, no story more gripping than that of Don Fuesler.
He told the tale of a replacement soldier he knew; hearing it was a reminder of how fortunate Eddie was to survive.
Fuesler, too, was part of the 95th Division’s bloody assault on Metz and its thrust into Germany. Casualties were high, and replacements came often to the lines. Fuesler remembered one in particular.
A friendly, fresh-faced kid from Washington state arrived late one day. The replacement and the Nebraska-born Fuesler spent the evening together, and the new guy bragged on his state, calling it “God’s country.” He insisted that Fuesler visit after the war.
But he finally got to what was on his mind.
“What’s it going to be like tomorrow? Is it scary?”
Fuesler first joined the 95th when it trained in the United States and was experienced in combat, so he told him the truth: yes, it would be scary. But he offered to help.
“Stay two steps behind me and to my right,” he told the boy. “Do everything I do. If I fire my rifle, fire yours. If I run to a tree, you run to a tree.”
The next morning, they went together to get chow and to collect their ammunition.
“Don’t do anything on your own,” Fuesler told him. “I’ll get you through the first few days.”
But before his company organized their attack, Fuesler lost track of the replacement. Apparently, he’d gone forward right after the shooting started, perhaps determined to face his fears.
Fuesler came upon his body a little later, in a ditch near the German lines.
About 10 years after the war, Fuesler had become a doctor and moved to Washington. He met a new patient with the same last name as that of the young replacement soldier.
He asked his patient whether any of his relatives had served in the war in Europe. The man replied that, yes, his brother had been killed on his first day of combat. He was in the 95th Infantry Division, but his family had no details.
“I knew him,” he said. “I spent the night before he died with him.”
Then he told the man everything he knew about his brother’s last hours on earth.
‘That’s probably the last time we’ll see that’
The memorial to “The Iron Men of Metz,” an imposing stone eagle, sits before the walls of one of the city’s ancient forts, and on this cool, sunny morning a crowd gathered around it to honor veterans of the 95th Infantry Division.
It was a big day of ceremonies and meetings — Shirley would meet the mayor — and she looked forward to it. But it would also be a day when the now vivid scenes of her husband’s wartime struggles overwhelmed her and magnified the pain of his absence from her side.
It was cold in the shadows around the memorial, so cold that some veterans sat under blankets as they waited for the program to begin.
The first ceremony was formal, with French troops and an American honor guard, generals inspecting the troops, dignitaries laying wreaths at the foot of the monument. A French military band played the national anthems of each country four times each during the proceedings.
Each time they heard the first notes of the “Star Spangled Banner,” the old veterans would stand to salute. Some of their salutes were sharp, but a few worked hard simply to lift hand to head. For them, a motion that once was reflexive had become a very conscious struggle. Some of the men hunched over, one stayed seated in a wheelchair. Shirley put her hand over her heart.
When the ceremony before the stone eagle ended and the Americans headed for their buses to City Hall, one veteran remarked: “That’s probably the last time we’ll see that.” It was his way of acknowledging that these veterans, most about 90, likely won’t make it here for the 75th anniversary of the battle.
More of the same in the square outside City Hall. Troops, honor guards, generals, dignitaries, a wreath. Again, four renditions of “The Star Spangled Banner” and “La Marseillaise.” And again, aged veterans struggled to their feet to salute.
After the celebrations moved inside, Shirley listened attentively to the speeches but eventually slipped out in search of some food. To avoid the crowd, she went out a side door and unexpectedly found herself in the middle of an eerie historical display. The side room was full of mannequins dressed as American soldiers and staged in realistic scenes from World War II.
The first one she saw was a GI at a fire frying eggs in a skillet. He looked like Eddie.
“I could just see him trying to cook this egg on a spoon,” she said.
For a moment she took comfort in the scene before her. But in the next moment, the comfort fled, pushed out by a welling of profound and unexpected emotion: her husband was gone, buried back home in Georgia, but here he was again, young and whole and in mortal danger. In minutes, this boy by the fire would walk outside and into the gun sights of a desperate enemy.
She had to turn away.
But as she did her eyes fell on another GI mannequin. Eddie on his stomach, aiming a gun from behind a bale of hay.
She turned away again, only to find another GI on a stretcher.
They were all Eddie. A vulnerable 19-year-old trying to survive.
She rushed back to her chair at the reception and began sobbing.
Seeing and instantly understanding, the wife of one of the American veterans put her arms around Shirley and held her as she wept.
About the reporter
Kevin Riley is the editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a position he was named to in January 2011. He started his journalism career in 1983 at the Dayton Daily News in Ohio while a student at the University of Dayton. He rose through the ranks there and was named editor in 2007. He is a native of Cleveland, Ohio, and is married to Tracy, his wife of 28 years. They have three children. His usual contribution to the newspaper is his column, which appears on the Sunday Opinion pages.
Shirley later told me that one recent night, she placed a large pillow in Eddie’s spot in their bed. She reached out to it, hoping it would seem as if he were there. But she realized that she couldn’t touch him anymore. And so she cried that night, too.
The episode at City Hall was like that. She could feel Eddie, but he wasn’t close enough to touch. And there was no way she could comfort that 19-year-old boy, to tell him he would survive this horrible war.
“It just moved me to tears, remembering all the hardships that he had,” Shirley said.
‘I wanted something tangible that I could hold’
The Lorraine American Cemetery and Memorial near St. Avold, France, holds the largest number of World War II American graves of any site in Europe – more than 10,000.
Shirley, the veterans and their families began this day in the cemetery’s memorial and chapel, which overlooks the impeccable grounds and the rows and rows of white grave markers. The cemetery contains hundreds of men from the 95th Division, 151 unknown soldiers and 28 sets of brothers, who are buried side by side.
Several of the veterans looked for the graves of men they served with. Ceo Bauer, a few days ago hugging Frenchmen at a parade, paused at seven graves and faithfully told the stories of the young soldiers buried in each.
Eddie, of course, met a better fate than those buried here, and Shirley quietly spoke of his good fortune.
“He could have been one of them,” she said. “He knew that every minute. No matter how hard he fought or how fast he ran or how well he hid, it could all end in the next few seconds. He knew some of it was luck.”
After the cemetery visit, Shirley headed to the spot that had been on her mind since she left Georgia: just over the German border, where Eddie’s unit records say he was wounded on Nov. 29, 1944.
This was the ultimate goal and emotional summit of Shirley’s trip.
It looked as Eddie described it. Shirley stood amid muddy farm fields in a chilling light rain with barns, trees and small towns in sight.
Eddie always told her about the mud: “It was black and sticky and soft” when it wasn’t frozen.
“I thought I had been very understanding of what he’d gone through,” she would later say. “But now it’s almost like I was there.”
About the photographer
Ryon Horne is an award-winning filmmaker and video journalist. Spending the past 15 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, he has been the company’s video and audio producer for eight years covering breaking news, entertainment, sports and features.
As Shirley took in the scene, she saw several spots that would’ve fit the circumstances he described of his wounding. He was climbing out of a ditch when shrapnel struck him in the hand. There’s no way to know his precise location, but there are plenty of ditches around. Shirley knows that piece of shrapnel might have easily have killed him. But his combat ended here, and death finally quit chasing him in the rolling farmland just inside Germany.
As it turned out, Eddie’s wounds were enough to get him sent to a hospital in England. He was later transferred to an air force base in Britain and spent the rest of the war there.
Shirley had seen the place where in an instant her husband’s life might have ended, or taken some other terrible course — all years before they even met.
But she suddenly set her reflections aside.
“I need to have a little souvenir from here,” she said, and she stepped off of a path and walked out into that black, sticky mud.
She ventured out into the field a short way and then stopped, bending over to pick up a small rock. Then she returned to the path, holding that small piece of Germany over her head and smiling.
“I wanted something tangible, that I could hold in my hand,” she said. “It’s something that’s concrete evidence that I picked up from the area where Eddie was wounded and where his time in war ended.”
She planned to put it alongside his medals back in Georgia. I hugged her.
On our last day in France, Shirley and I were both exhausted from the daily trips to memorials and battlefields. She suggested we tour the Cathedral of St. Stephen, the major landmark in Metz and a classic European Gothic church. It was just a 10-minute walk from the hotel.
At one point, we each paid one euro to buy and light votive candles. As we sat quietly in the dark cathedral, I knew she was thinking about Eddie. I was thinking about my mom.
And we realized what a remarkable journey we’d taken.
“It has been a week like I’ve never known before,” she’d said earlier.
I was reminded of a photograph of Eddie that Shirley gave me before our trip. He appears to be in his 30s, a smiling, handsome guy in a suit and tie. She wanted me to have the picture so I could see Eddie as a young man, the man she married. She was concerned that I’d met him when he was old and sick and would only think of him that way.
As we talked and reflected on our trip, she said she was glad she’d come to see the places that had such a big impact on Eddie’s life.
“He told me so little,” she said. “I definitely know him better now.”
So do I.
Presentation by Shane Harrison.