Pvt. Eddie Slovik Executed for Desertion, Only U.S. Soldier in 2nd World War to Suffer This Fate

 
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Pvt. Eddie Slovik Executed for Desertion, Only U.S. Soldier in 2nd World War to Suffer This Fate

Pvt. Edward Slovik, c. 1943-44
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: January 31, 1945

While today's story is not about a great battle, or devoted to a well-known general or Medal of Honor recipient, the man at its center is still remembered – for good or ill – more for the circumstances of his death. Even 73 years after his death, the story behind his story is still a source of discussion.

Background

Edward Donald Slovik was born February 18, 1920 in Detroit, Michigan. As a minor, he was arrested frequently. Slovik's first arrest was at 12 years old when he and some friends broke into a foundry to steal brass. Between 1932 and 1937, he was caught for several incidents of petty theft, breaking and entering, and disturbing the peace. In October 1937, he was sent to prison but was paroled in September of 1938. After stealing and crashing a car with two friends while drunk, he was sent back to prison in January 1939.

Slovik was paroled again in April of 1942, and shortly afterwards he found a job at a plumbing and heating company in Dearborn, MI. There he met his future wife, Antoinette Wisniewski, who was working as a bookkeeper for the company's owner. They married on November 7, 1942, and lived with her parents.

Wedding portrait of Eddie and Antoinette Slovik, November 1942; Image courtesy of https://rixxblog.wordpress.com/2011/11/01/private-eddie-slovik
Wedding portrait of Eddie and Antoinette Slovik, November 1942
Image courtesy of https://rixxblog.wordpress.com/2011/11/01/private-eddie-slovik/

Because of his criminal record, Slovik was initially classified 4-F for the wartime draft. However, shortly after his first wedding anniversary, he was reclassified 1-A (available for unrestricted military service). [The explanation is probably that the U.S. armed forces were beginning to gear up for the Normandy invasion, and the war in the Pacific was becoming more intense. Therefore, just about any able-bodied American male would be needed.]

Slovik arrived at Camp Wolters, TX for basic military training on January 24, 1944. In August, he was dispatched to join the fighting in France. Arriving on August 20, he was one of twelve replacements assigned to Company G of the 109th Infantry Regiment, 28th Infantry Division.

Desertion

While en route to his assigned unit, Slovik and Private John Tankey, a friend he met during basic training, took cover during an artillery attack and became separated from their replacement detachment. This was the point at which Slovik later stated he found he "wasn't cut out for combat." The next morning, Slovik and Tankey found a Canadian military police unit and remained with them for the next six weeks. Tankey wrote to their regiment to explain their absence before he and Slovik reported for duty on October 7, 1944. [The US Army's rapid advance through France had caused many replacement soldiers to have trouble finding their assigned units, and so no charges were filed against Slovik or Tankey.]

On October 8, Slovik informed his company commander, Captain Ralph Grotte, that he was "too scared" to serve in a front-line rifle company and asked to be reassigned to a unit in the rear area. He told Grotte that he would run away if he were assigned to a rifle unit, and asked his captain if that would constitute desertion. Capt. Grotte confirmed that it would, and he refused Slovik's request for reassignment and sent him to a rifle platoon.

Consequently, the next day Slovik deserted from his infantry unit. His friend, John Tankey, caught up with him and attempted to persuade him to stay, but Slovik's only comment was that his "mind was made up." Slovik walked several miles to the rear and approached an enlisted cook at a headquarters detachment, presenting him with a note which stated:

I, Pvt. Eddie D. Slovik, 36896415, confess to the desertion of the United States Army. At the time of my desertion we were in Albuff in France. I came to Albuff as a replacement. They were shelling the town and we were told to dig in for the night. The following morning they were shelling us again. I was so scared, nerves and trembling, that at the time the other replacements moved out, I couldn't move. I stayed there in my fox hole till it was quiet and I was able to move. I then walked into town. Not seeing any of our troops, so I stayed over night at a French hospital. The next morning I turned myself over to the Canadian Provost Corp. After being with them six weeks I was turned over to American M.P. They turned me loose. I told my commanding officer my story. I said that if I had to go out there again I'd run away. He said there was nothing he could do for me so I ran away again AND I'LL RUN AWAY AGAIN IF I HAVE TO GO OUT THERE.

— Signed Pvt. Eddie D. Slovik A.S.N. 36896415

The cook summoned his company commander and an MP, who read the note and urged Slovik to destroy it before he was taken into custody, which Slovik refused to do. He was brought before Lt. Col. Ross Henbest, who again offered him the opportunity to tear up the note, return to his unit, and face no further charges. After Slovik again refused, Henbest ordered Slovik to write another note on the back of the first one, stating that he fully understood the legal consequences of deliberately incriminating himself with the note and that it would be used as evidence against him in a court martial.

Slovik was taken into custody and confined to the division stockade. Slovik was offered a third and final opportunity to rejoin his unit in exchange for the charges against him being suspended. He was also offered a transfer to a different infantry regiment where no one would know of his past and he could start with a "clean slate." Slovik, still convinced that he would face only jail time (which he had already experienced and considered far more tolerable than combat) declined these offers, saying, "I've made up my mind. I'll take my court martial."

Court Martial

Slovik was charged with desertion to avoid hazardous duty and tried by court martial on November 11, 1944. [Slovik had to be tried by a court martial composed of staff officers from other U.S. Army divisions, because all combat officers from the 28th Infantry Division were fighting on the front lines.] The prosecutor presented witnesses to whom Slovik had stated his intention to "run away". Slovik's defense counsel announced that the defendant had elected not to testify.

Maj. Gen. Norman Cota; Date and photographer unknown
Maj. Gen. Norman Cota
Date and photographer unknown

At the end of the day, the nine officers of the court found Slovik guilty and sentenced him to death. The sentence was reviewed and approved by the division commander, Major General Norman Cota. General Cota's stated attitude was "Given the situation as I knew it in November, 1944, I thought it was my duty to this country to approve that sentence. If I hadn't approved it – if I had let Slovik accomplish his purpose – I don't know how I could have gone up to the line and looked a good soldier in the face."

On December 9, Slovik wrote a letter to the Supreme Allied commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, pleading for clemency. However, desertion had become a systemic problem in France, and the surprise German offensive (the Battle of the Bulge) through the Ardennes which began on December 16 inflicted severe U.S. casualties, straining the morale of the American forces to the greatest extent yet seen during the war.

Eisenhower confirmed the execution order on December 23, noting that it was necessary to discourage further desertions. The sentence came as a shock to Slovik, who had been expecting a dishonorable discharge and a prison term, the same punishment he had seen meted out to other deserters from the division while he was confined to the stockade. As he was an ex-convict, a dishonorable discharge would have made little further impact on his civilian life as a common laborer, and military prison terms for discipline offenses were widely expected to be commuted once the war was over.

Execution

The execution by firing squad was carried out at 10:04 a.m. on January 31, 1945, near the village of Sainte–Marie-aux-Mines in the French region of Alsace. The unrepentant Slovik spoke to the soldiers whose duty it was to prepare him for the firing squad before they led him to the place of execution: "They're not shooting me for deserting the United States Army, thousands of guys have done that. They just need to make an example out of somebody and I'm it because I'm an ex-con. I used to steal things when I was a kid, and that's what they are shooting me for. They're shooting me for the bread and chewing gum I stole when I was 12 years old."

Slovik, wearing a uniform stripped of all insignia with a GI blanket across his shoulders against the cold, was led into the courtyard of a house chosen for the execution because it had a high masonry wall. The commanders did not want the local French civilians to witness the proceedings. Soldiers stood him against a six inch by six inch post. The soldiers strapped him to the post using web belts. One went around and under his arms and hung on a spike on the back side of the post to prevent his body from slumping following the volley. The others went around his knees and ankles. Just before a soldier placed a black hood over his head, the attending chaplain said to Slovik, "Eddie, when you get up there, say a little prayer for me." Slovik answered, "Okay, Father. I'll pray that you don't follow me too soon." Those were his last words.

Twelve picked soldiers were detailed for the firing squad from the 109th Regiment. They used standard issue M1 rifles with just one bullet for each rifle. One rifle was loaded with a blank. On the command of "Fire", Slovik was hit by eleven bullets, at least four of them being fatal. The wounds ranged from high in the neck region out to the left shoulder, over the left chest, and under the heart. One bullet was in the upper left arm. An Army physician quickly determined Slovik had not been immediately killed. As the firing squad's rifles were being reloaded in preparation for another volley, but before the rifles were completely reloaded, Slovik died. He was 24 years old. The execution took 15 minutes.

Aftermath

Slovik was buried in Plot E of the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery and Memorial in Fère-en Tardenois, alongside 95 American soldiers executed for rape and/or murder. Their grave markers are hidden from view by shrubbery and bear sequential numbers instead of names, making it impossible to identify them individually without knowing the key. Antoinette Slovik petitioned the Army for her husband's remains and his pension until her death in 1979.

Footnote #1: Slovik's case was taken up in 1981 by former Macomb County Commissioner Bernard V. Calka, a Polish-American World War II veteran, who continued to petition the Army to return Slovik's remains to the U.S. In 1987, he persuaded President Ronald Reagan to order their return.  Calka raised $5,000 to pay for the exhumation of Slovik's remains from Plot E and their transfer to Detroit's Woodmere Cemetery, where Slovik was reburied next to his wife.

Grave marker of Eddie Slovik, Woodmere Cemetery, Detroit MI; Image courtesy of https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/3134/eddie-slovik
Grave marker of Eddie Slovik, Woodmere Cemetery, Detroit MI
Image courtesy of https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/3134/eddie-slovik

Footnote #2: Antoinette Slovik and others petitioned seven US presidents (from Harry S Truman through Jimmy Carter) for a pardon for Slovik, but none were granted.

Footnote #3: During the Second World War in all theaters of the war, the U.S. military executed 102 of its own soldiers for rape and/or unprovoked murder of civilians, but only Slovik was executed for the military offense of desertion.

Footnote #4: A member of the U.S. Army's Judge Advocate General's Office noted that of the 2864 Army personnel tried for desertion for the period January 1942 through June 1948, 49 were convicted and sentenced to death, and 48 of those sentences were voided by higher authority.

Martin Sheen as the title character of <em>The Execution of Private Slovik</em> (1974); Image courtesy of https://alchetron.com/Eddie-Slovik
Martin Sheen as the title character of The Execution of Private Slovik (1974)
Image courtesy of https://alchetron.com/Eddie-Slovik

Footnote #5: Slovik's story was first told in the book The Execution of Private Slovik, written by William Bradford Huie in 1954. Frank Sinatra became interested in filming the book in 1960, but was persuaded to drop the project, as he was campaigning for John F. Kennedy for President. It was not until over a decade later when the book was filmed for TV. Premiering on March 13, 1974, the TV movie starred Martin Sheen as Slovik, and co-starred Ned Beatty and Gary Busey. Sheen was nominated for an Emmy for Best Lead Actor in a Drama. He stated in advance that if he won, he would not accept the award, because he did not believe actors' performances could be compared. [He lost to Hal Holbrook.] Many critics consider this performance as Sheen's best.

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News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.