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.
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.
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.
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.