’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.’
As final words go, those are pretty harrowing. They came from the trembling lips of World War II Private Eddie Slovik, who on January 31, 1945, took on a peculiar claim to fame – that of being the first US soldier to be executed for desertion since the American Civil War.
It is estimated that 50,000 GIs deserted during World War II. Of the 21,000 who were sentenced for their offence, there were 49 who were given the death penalty. It was unfortunate for Eddie that his would be the only one that was carried out.
In his teens, Eddie Slovik had led a life of petty crime – stealing cars, breaking and entering, disturbing the peace, but then he met a girl, Antoinette Wisniewski, and tried to settle down. They married in November, 1942, and just over a year later Eddie was drafted, becoming Private 36896415.
He arrived in France in August, 1944 – two months after the D-Day landings – as one of 12 replacements assigned to Company G, 109th Infantry Regiment.
While en route to his new posting he and another soldier were separated from the rest of the group and had to shelter during an artillery barrage. That experience confirmed something inside of him – mainly that he was not cut out for warfare.
When he finally did arrive in his new unit, Eddie told his Company Commander that he was ‘too scared’ to serve on the front line and that he would run away if he was assigned to a rifle company.
The next day Eddie was as good as his word. He walked several miles to the rear and presented a note to a cook at headquarters in which he expressed his desire not to fight. An MP and an officer were summoned. Both tried to persuade him to return to his unit. However, the 24 year-old declined and seemed happy to face the consequences of his actions.
Eddie was court martialled on November 11, 1944. The sentence was death, but he never believed things would come to that. Why should they – no one else had ever been shot for desertion, surely his case wouldn’t be any different?
But this is where timing came into play. On December 9, Eddie wrote to the Supreme Allied Commander, General Eisenhower, to plead for clemency. On December 18 the Battle of the Bulge began – Hitler’s last throw of the dice of an advance through the Ardennes forest.
Eisenhower’s men were up against it. For a time it was touch and go whether they could stem the Nazi attack. GIs were undergoing terrible hardship and the Supreme Allied Commander could not be seen to be soft on deserters. Consequently, on December 23, he rejected Eddie’s plea, thus setting the stage for the final, tragic act.
As a deserter Eddie had never gone on the run, instead he had handed himself in and simply stated that he preferred prison to battle. That wish was denied him and instead, on January 31, 1945, he was executed by firing squad.
As he was tied to his execution post, Eddie said something else: ‘They’re not shooting me for deserting the United States Army. They just need to make an example of somebody and I’m it because I’m an ex-con.’
A few moments later eleven bullets put paid to Eddie Slovik’s life and gave him a unique place in American military history.
Had his case not come up just as GIs were undergoing their final test at the hands of Hitler’s army, then Eddie would probably have got his wish and served out his time in prison. The brutal truth is, though, his timing was lousy.
Millions died during World War II so why should we feel anything special about the loss of one fearful GI who never even pulled a trigger in battle?
I know… I know…life isn’t fair, but Eddie Slovik’s fate rankles. It was injustice wrapped in a flag, which, to me, is one of the worst injustices of all.
For more on this subject, check out The Deserters: A Hidden History of World War II, by Charles Glass http://goo.gl/RIjCG