The Execution of Private Eddie D. Slovik

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.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Frank Blackstone June 1, 2017 at 12:24 am

Always said and stand by it Eisenhower was a Hypocrite and a Coward to have allowed this to go on..Typical Upper Echelon read of any Danger with a disgusting attitude everyone should die for there Cowardly attitude

Shirley April 4, 2017 at 12:49 pm

Sgt Bergdahl deserves what he should get!
The death penalty!

Bridget Niehus March 26, 2017 at 1:15 am

I’m looking for the name of the Catholic priest who gave Private Eddie D. Slovik his last rites in the Catholic Church .

Lee Hackle November 17, 2015 at 11:28 am

Mr Halls’ moral relevance on this issue would be entertaining if applicable. Despite the “what if’s”, MG Cota’s position is the most understandable. Not executing the other deserters would be no excuse for not executing Slovic.

Editor February 1, 2015 at 11:31 pm

I do agree that an even wider perspective is necessary to reflect the war “properly”. As well as the Chinese perspective it has been hard to find material (relatively readily available in English) from Hungarians, Romanians, non Russian members of the Soviet Union, the civilian perspective of European occupied countries, the contribution made by African and Indian troops in both Europe and the Far East and the many nationalities or ethnic groups that suffered under the Japanese (No accounts from Korean ‘comfort women’ for example), to suggest just some of the omissions here. Hopefully over time it will be possible to expand the site to be even more representative.

James Hall February 1, 2015 at 10:26 pm

A general thought – you seem to see WWII as a mostly euro-central event at the same time that many of us see the real beginning of WWII in China years earlier with the Japanese attempt to conquer China. Why not treat that as a pre-cursor and fill a few holes in a large knowledge gap for all of us? Thanks for all your efforts; I have read your postings almost every day with great interest

James Hall February 1, 2015 at 10:19 pm

Rather silly to follow this WWII solder’s judicial murder with the thought that Bergdahl should suffer the same fate. I would imagine that there are many Americans whose own cowardice was not tested, and it is difficult to believe that the previous writer is at all fair minded. As a former Air Force Officer, I can only say that I could never have made a similar decision, any more than I could have dropped a nuclear weapon on civilian targets as a result of a political order. Politicians almost always survive their own “mistakes”.
Should the 43 Israeli special forces soldiers today be shot for refusing an order? Should the lone Israeli Major who refused to continue an unprovoked attack on the U.S.ship “Liberty” in 1967 have been shot. We admire a sniper who killed many people (perhaps as many civilians as enemies) from a great distance. Why not stretch out a bit and admit that some people are just not ready to kill others and bow to the mostly overpowering urge to simply survive?
Cowardice and Bravery are easiest seen from afar.

Charles Kimberl February 1, 2015 at 2:32 pm

Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl should absolutely face the same fate for his actions. Not only did our country trade a coward for five dangerous Taliban commanders we lost several good soldiers scouring the countryside looking for Bergdahl.

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