Soldiers of the 28th Infantry Division parade down the Champs-Élysées in Paris on August 29, 1944. The division was the first American division to enter the capital after its liberation. The 28th is the oldest Division in the US military and is known as the 'Iron Division'.

Soldiers of the 28th Infantry Division parade down the Champs-Élysées in Paris on August 29, 1944. The division was the first American division to enter the capital after its liberation. The 28th is the oldest Division in the US military and is known as the ‘Iron Division’.

Born in 1920 Eddie D. Slovik picked up three convictions for breaking and entering, theft and disturbing the peace in 1932. He was convicted of drink driving in 1939. As a minor ‘criminal’ he was classified as 4F and his draft was deferred in 1941. By 1944 the US Army was in need of manpower and he was reclassified as A1. He trained in the United States and then arrived in France with a shipload of “replacements” – it was only when they arrived in Europe that they were assigned to the regiments who needed men to replace battle casualties.

A knocked-out German PzKpfw IV tank with the burnt bodies of two of its crew in the Falaise pocket, 24 August 1944.

A knocked-out German PzKpfw IV tank with the burnt bodies of two of its crew in the Falaise pocket, 24 August 1944.

The truck carrying Slovik and fellow soldiers to the front passed through the aftermath of the Falaise Gap battle, one of the most gruesome sites imaginable. Eisenhower himself had described it:

The battlefield at Falaise was unquestionably one of the greatest “killing fields” of any of the war areas. Forty-eight hours after the closing of the gap I was conducted through it on foot, to encounter scenes that could be described only by Dante. It was literally possible to walk for hundreds of yards at a time, stepping on nothing but dead and decaying flesh.

It was not an experience likely to encourage any of the raw replacements on their way to their first combat posting.

Private Eddie D. Slovik was assigned to Company G, 109th Infantry, 28th Division. He did not last very long. On the day that he joined his rifle company they came under artillery fire in the town of Elbeuf. The next day the company moved out and he stayed where he was. It was a fairly common occurrence. Slovik gave himself up to a Canadian Provost unit and spent six weeks with them, before being returned to his unit. No action would have been taken for his absence if he had now rejoined this unit. However Slovik made his position abundantly clear, handing in a note:

I Pvt. Eddie D. Slovik No. 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 the foxhole till it was quiet and I was able to move.

I then walked in town. Not seeing any of our troops so I stayed over night at the French hospital. The next morning I turned myself over the Canadian Provost Corp. After being with them six weeks I was turned over to the 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.

Although Slovik was invited to tear up the confession he refused. Unlike the 40,000 other cases of absent without leave or desertion in the US military during the war he made no attempt to conceal or even excuse his behaviour. He even went on to endorse the statement:

I have been told that this statement can be held against me and that I made it of my own free will and that I do not have to make it.

On November 11, 1944, Slovik, charged with desertion, appeared before a nine-man general court-martial. There was very little to consider because Slovik was openly admitting the offence. At the time the 28th Division was engaged in the bloody battle for the Hurtgen Forest. The unanimous decision was that the offence called for the death penalty.

US soldiers examine the equipment in a captured German position in the Hurtgen forest.

US soldiers examine the equipment in a captured German position in the Hurtgen forest.

The case then went before Major General Norman D. Cota, Commander of the 28th Division, to review the sentence of the court martial.

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.

The case then went all the way up to Eisenhower, who reviewed the case on the 23rd December, at the height of the ‘Battle of the Bulge’. Slovak’s appeal for clemency was denied. He had apparently been offered the chance to go back to a Rifle Company, the position he was trained for. Slovik implicitly refused to do this, although he claimed he wanted to be a a “good soldier”. Eisenhower confirmed the sentence of death.

There was still one more review of the legality of the decision by the Assistant Judge Advocate General for the European Theater of Operations:

This soldier has performed no front line duty. He did not intend to. He deserted from his group of fifteen when about to join the infantry company to which he had been assigned.

His subsequent conduct shows a deliberate plan to secure trial and incarceration in a safe place.

The sentence adjudged was more severe than he had anticipated but the imposition of a less severe sentence would only have accomplished the accused’s purpose of securing his incarceration and consequent freedom from the dangers which so many of our armed forces are required to face daily.

His unfavorable civilian record indicates that he is not a worthy subject of clemency.

Eddie D. Slovik

Eddie D. Slovik

And so Eddie D. Slovik was sent back to the 28th Division for execution.

Triblive has an account of the execution on the 31st January 1945 by Nick Gozik, who had been ordered to attend as a military witness. He states that Slovik had been reconciled to his sentence of death by this time:

“I’ve seen a lot of people in the service who didn’t want to die, but he knew he was going to die. He knew what to expect, and he was going to abide by it.”

“He paid the price of several thousand people deserting during the war,” Gozik said. “Believe me when I tell you, to me, he was the bravest soldier I ever met.”

He recalls that he heard the catholic priest say Mass with Slovik immediately before the firing squad were given their orders, and then the final exchange between Slovik and the priest:

“‘Eddie,'” the priest said, “‘when you get up there, say a prayer for me.’ Eddie said he would.”

Others report that his last words were:

“Don’t worry about me. I’m okay. They’re not shooting me for deserting the United States Army – thousands of guys have done that. They’re shooting me for bread I stole when I was 12 years old.”

Although the firing squad consisted of twelve handpicked marksmen, eleven of whom had live bullets, the volley did not kill Slovik outright. The doctor who was supposed to certify death found him still breathing:

“I heard the doctor say, ‘What’s the matter with you guys? Can’t you shoot straight?’ “

Slovik then died as the firing squad reloaded for another volley. He is the only member of the US military to be executed for desertion since the American Civil War.

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Jan

30

1945

Worst ever maritime loss – the Wilhelm Gustloff

Wilhelm Gustloff in Gotenhafen (Gdynia), Poland in 1942. Gotenhafen would be the last port the Wilhelm Gustloff would sail from.

The young man next to me had fallen inside the net. He stared at me and saliva came out of his mouth. I tried to lift him up, but couldn’t. Across from me was a young seaman. He begged his comrades for one cigarette and told us about his daughter that had been born on Christmas and that he had not seen her. Then he fell backwards into the water. Finally he was gone. The remaining other two started to talk very negative – how our feet will be amputated, etc., etc. Then they complained about my feet. I tried to move to hold them still. I bumped against theirs and that hurt.

Jan

29

1945

Bitter struggle as Red Army encircles Breslau

Soldiers of the 'Volkssturm' the German 'People's army' in their trenches in East Prussia in January 1945.

We carefully removed our boots and shoes, What was left of our socks and foot-cloths had gone hard from dried blood and pus. My soles were just pus-filled flesh, but the worst pain came from inside. As I’d been running for three weeks on soles which were bumed and warped, my metatarsal was horribly inflamed. When I stood up, the pain coming from it was unbearable. In addition, my ankles had swollen badly where the top edge of my boots rubbed with every step. Our feet were a pathetic sight. In normal times, no one would have believed it possible that we could run even one more step.

Jan

28

1945

London – V2 rockets add to misery of cold Home Front

Large swathes of London were still bomb sites from the earlier blitz. The destruction around St Paul's Cathedral caused by  air raids on London is softened by a heavy dusting of snow. A mobile crane and truck can be seen at work to clear up some of the debris.

The V2 rockets also help the illusion. Four mornings in succession they have woken us up — not bangs so much as prodigious muffled explosions which resound in all quarters at once, reverberating for about ten seconds. The blast is upon us before we know it, blowing out curtains, rattling doors, and doing its usual trick of jolting up the loft trap-door. Well, trap-doors can be put back into place, so I don’t grumble, or try not to. At 4. a.m. yesterday one landed on the fringe of a spinney on Stanmore Common. I inspected it in the line of duty, the usual crater as big as a room with felled trees pointing outwards from it, like a small-scale meteoric crater in Siberia.

Jan

27

1945

The Red Army liberate Auschwitz

Liberation by Soviet soldiers surviving prisoners of Auschwitz .Above the gate of the camp is the famous sign-slogan "Arbeit macht frei",  - "Work makes you free". Concentration camp was discovered on January 27, 1945 by part of the 100th Infantry Division of General Fyodor Krasavina. 1st Ukrainian Front.

It was an enormous industrial plant, having its own branch facilities, each of which received its own special charge. In one, the processing of the arrivals took place: prisoners were made of those who, before death, could be put to work, while the elderly, the children, and the infirm were sentenced to immediate extermination. In another, a division for those who were so exhausted and worn out as to be barely fit for physical labor, they were assigned the task sorting the clothes of the exterminated, and of sorting their shoes, taking apart uppers, soles, linings.

Jan

26

1945

Audie Murphy’s single handed battle, kills 50, holds line

Winter in northwestern Europe, 1945 - conditions on the Ardennes front.

At two o’clock in the afternoon, I see the Germans lining up for an attack. Six tanks rumble to the outskirts of Holtzwihr, split into groups of threes, and fan out toward either side of the clearing. Obviously they intend an encircling movement, using the fingers of trees for cover. I yell to my men to get ready. Then wave after wave of white dots, barely discernible against the background of snow, start across the field. They are enemy infantrymen, wearing snowcapes and advancing in a staggered skirmish formation.

Jan

25

1945

POWs prepare to evacuate Stalag Luft III

General view of the huts and compound at Stalag Luft III prisoner of war camp, scene of the 'Great Escape' in 1944.

The enemy quickly launched an attack with 2 full companies of infantrymen, blasting the patrol with murderous concentrations of automatic and rifle fire and beginning an encircling movement which forced the patrol leader to order a withdrawal. Despite the terrible odds, Pfc. Valdez immediately volunteered to cover the maneuver, and as the patrol 1 by 1 plunged through a hail of bullets toward the American lines, he fired burst after burst into the swarming enemy.

Jan

24

1945

The Red Army races across Poland to German border

The troops of the 10th Tank Corps 5th Guards Tank Army 2nd Belorussian Front occupied city Mühlhausen (now the Polish city Młynary) the city was liberated from the Nazi troops January 24, 1945.

During the day we sometimes ran into horse-drawn supply columns. All the personnel and their escorts were dressed in German uniforms. Among them there were all nationalities except for the Russians — Kalmyks, Uzbeks, Tatars,Kazakhs, people from the Caucasus and Poles. Apparently, the Germans did not trust the Russians and did not “allow“ them to serve in supply units. We had different attitudes towards those men, but we did not show cruelty, did not abuse them and did not execute them. I think once we fought a supply column of Kalmyks and soldiers of other nationalities, as they tried to resist — they lost their heads and opened fire on us, and my soldiers did not like it.

Jan

23

1945

Fear and reality of the ‘Asiatic Hordes’ of the Red Army

A column of German prisoners of war in Warsaw, January 1945.

Over the next several hours, they trucked in people from nearby districts, and brought in film crews and journalists to record on film and print the city ruins, and the fear and grief of the sham residents. Even the park and its beautiful swans were destroyed: almost all the trees were burned, the swans were shot, and it was announced that the “Asiatic hordes” had killed them and eaten them.

Jan

22

1945

Murders continue as Auschwitz lies in limbo

The Auschwitz II-Birkenau main guard house and rail entrance.

They killed them all methodically, with a shot in the nape of the neck, lining up their twisted bodies in the snow on the road; then they left. The eighteen corpses remained exposed until the arrival of the Russians; nobody had the strength to bury them. But by now there were beds in all the huts occupied by corpses as rigid as wood, whom nobody troubled to remove. The ground was too frozen to dig graves; many bodies were piled up in a trench, but already early on the heap showed out of the hole and was shamefully visible from our window.