‘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 don’t really have the answer to that. All I do know is that the manner of his death sucked, both in its pointlessness and in the lack of mercy shown.
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
“Injustice wrapped in a flag … is one of the worst injustices of all.” Well said, David. Attitudes have changed with regard to how soldiers who won’t/can’t take up arms are treated but in the heat of the moment anything can happen. And timing often makes the difference. This is a tragic story.
Excellent post about this sad story. I remember when I was a kid seeing a TV movie where Martin Sheen played Slovik. I found it incredibly moving, so much so that I’ve never forgotten about what happened to him.
I’ve heard of the movie, but never seen it. You’re right, it is such a sad story.
What a sad, tragic story. Surely there were ways he could have served that would have been meaningful.
Yes, his death was a terrible waste… like so many others
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So many people have vilified NFL star Michael Vick because he killed dogs who failed to display “fighting heart” but Norman “Dutch” Cota and his ilk committed the same atrocity against a living human being. As a nation we are so reluctant to execute those who have killed but Pvt. Eddie Slovik died for refusing to kill. In the near future I will address this gross injustice much more creatively, and hold to account those who want the issue to die along with Slovik and his murderers.
It is a strange quirk with some people that they get upset a the death of an animal but are totally unmoved when a person suffers the same fate. What happened to Eddie Slovik was a terrible injustice. Good luck with your project, Ken.
I’d like to comment on regards to your actual comment on “injustice wrapped in a flag” I was a soldier in the army and I served in Iraq 08-09 in various cities over northern Iraq. That’s not important just letting you all know at least the opinion and facts I state next can be credited. There was no injustice done for Mr slovik here we uphold a stiff military code of justice called the uniformed code of military justice and in that there is a code that states if your a deserter to your unit and your country in a time of war you are held in court and tried and with that being said maximum punishment is up to ones life. That is a time example of our military doing what we do with our standards without the liberal thoughts of the civilians who don’t understand the ethos us soldiers take upon draft or not.
I applaud you for your service to your country, Steve, and I understand that once you enlist you must abide by the rules – and the punishments. However, it still feels hasrsh to me that as late in the war as December 1944, Slovik was the only desserter out of 50,000 to face a firing squad. What made im so ‘special’ other than timing? You’re right, it is easy for civilians who have never experienced military life to complain about its harshness, but in this instance I think that complaint is valid. Thanks for taking the time to comment.
I appreciate your quick response and as a comment to follow my previous I will now state my opinion on such matter. You identified the key thing that drives me absolutely nuts about this case. We did in fact have thousands of soldiers who were apprehended and confined for the very same thing and to think that they only used Pvt. Slovik for an example is disheartening for me as a soldier as well as fellow soldiers I’m sure if they were here to comment. As you do know the most beautiful thing about our nations military is the genuine discipline each and every soldier has within themselves to conduct themselves either in a time of war or in peace time back in garrison with honor dignity and full on integrity. You can’t get the same out of all of them and for our chain of command (being Eisenhower) to not follow through and execute each and everyone of the deserters was absolutely uncalled for on a soldier to soldier standpoint especially when leadership is supposed to be the backbone and structure to our very existence as men of honor. It really be as as if he was hand picked out of the variety and maybe so because he had previous trial records. I can easily see the injustice there so I am with you on that. For the readers to come please don’t think our military is as harsh in decision making such as this HOWEVER upon arrival in boot camp I was educated on this very thing as a means to keeping structure and law in place to control the mass number of soldiers just like with our regular civilian laws we are expected to follow except it has to be something as harsh that because of the simple fact war is not an easy thing experience and with one deserter who gets away many to follow. Its all very sad to act on taking ones life before its theyre time believe me in that one. I hope that for all they have found peace with themselves and for PVT Slovik to have reached that warm welcome in the heavens. This is a very important key thing you’ve written seeing as in the present day we are now under trial for bergdahl (excuse my spelling) I was in Iraq at the time of his disappearance and the importance of such an event made it all the way to my ears the very same day. In my opinion this case is different because they had to send search parties out which stopped the current mission and put fellow soldiers lives at stake. My personal opinion in this matter is that he was treated with fairness by the enemy and should be further investigated on giving information to terrorists. If he is found guilty of that I see it fit he gets the same punishment Mr Slovik did in my eyes that seems a bit more justifiable. That ks for taking the time again and I appreciate the opportunity to share my thoughts with all of you. God bless
Thanks Steve. Hope you come back again
Unfortunately , I am going on 81 years old, I had many relatives in the service in the European Theater of War who served bravely and honorably for more years than they would have liked.
And I still remember the day I saw the movie and didn’t understand then (even now) how that punishment was just. I agree with the people in charge in theory and their determination that he be used as an example to deter others who felt the same way. But he understood that he didn’t feel he could be effective as a “foot soldier” now they call them “Contentious Objectors”. But he didn’t really desert, just wrote a letter of request ,to an officer in the field, to serve out his time in prison. How horribly sad for he and his family. I had forgotten for which crime he ultimately was courtmartialed ,but he was right about being made an example in the extreme. At that time it really must have gotten the attention of others who decided to share their plans for desertion with anyone other than God. The movie ended with the music playing “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” by Bing Crosby. I still can’t hear, think or talk about that song without tears falling.
Very moving comment Arlene, and so well expressed. I agree, shooting Eddie Slovik was a shocking waste of a life, at a time when so many others had been lost fighting for freedom… freedom to say that one doesn’t agree with something, no matter who or what body is saying it.
I agree. I saw this movie a very long time ago and the memory of the injustice has never let me.
Such dreadful behaviour on the part of the state would make you wonder what sorts of ideals the allies were actually fighting for. Thanks for dropping by, Linda