1661: Oliver Cromwell, posthumously 1968: Nguyen Van Lem

1945: Private Eddie Slovik, the last American shot for desertion

January 31st, 2009 dogboy

On January 31, 1945, Private Edward Donald “Eddie” Slovik became a curious outlier of World War II: he was executed by firing squad by the U.S. Army for desertion. He is the only person to have been so punished for that crime since the Civil War.

Pvt Slovik was, by all accounts, quiet and helpful, by no means a coward, and more than willing to aid in the effort of World War II, traits which would have put him among a large class of that war’s veterans. Unfortunately, he was also immobilized by shelling. Equally unfortunately, he knew it, and he decided to do something about it.

Slovik and a friend, Pvt John F. Tankey, first separated from their detachment under artillery fire in late August 1944, shortly after being shipped to France. The pair hooked up with a Canadian unit and spent six weeks pitching in. Having recused themselves from the hard shelling others were experiencing on the front line, they opted to rejoin their regular U.S. unit: Slovik and Tankey sent a letter to their commanding officer explaining their absence and returned on Oct. 7.

But the front lines were not a place for Pvt Slovik.

After his assignment to the rifle unit, which would face imminent danger during shelling, Slovik asked to be placed in the rear guard, indicating he was too scared to remain in front. His request was refused. He then reportedly asked whether leaving the unit again would be considered desertion, was told it would be, and opted for the seemingly safer route of, well, deserting. One day later, Slovik was back at a U.S. camp, this time turning himself in to the camp cook. He had drafted a letter explaining his actions and indicating that he knowingly deserted, permanently recording his guilt on paper.

It’s not clear whether Pvt Slovik was acting on principles or out of an understanding of the U.S. military judicial system. He was by no means the only soldier without affinity for the conditions of war, particularly on the allied side. During the war, thousands of soldiers were tried and convicted in military courts for desertion, but up to then, all had received only time in the brig. What is clear is that Slovik was repeatedly offered opportunities to return to the line, and he equally repeatedly refused.

The case was adjudicated on Nov 11 by nine staff officers of the 28th Division, none of whom had yet been in battle. One of those judges, Benedict B. Kimmelman, wrote a stark and intriguing account of his role in the story of Pvt Slovik, capturing the scene thusly:

Five witnesses were heard. The cross-examinations were perfunctory. The defense made no closing argument. The court recessed for ten minutes, resumed, and retired almost immediately afterward. Three ballots were taken in closed court, the verdicts unanimously guilty on all counts. In open court once more, the president announced the verdict and the sentence: to be dishonorably discharged, to forfeit all pay and allowances due, and to be shot to death with musketry. The trial had begun at 10:00 A.M.; it was over at 11:40 A.M.

As with all court martial cases, Slovik’s was sent to a judge advocate for review. His criminal record, including everything from destruction of property to public intoxication to embezzlement, did not endear him to the reviewer. More importantly, though, the advocate felt Slovik could be made an example:

He has directly challenged the authority of the government, and future discipline depends upon a resolute reply to this challenge. If the death penalty is ever to be imposed for desertion, it should be imposed in this case, not as a punitive measure nor as retribution, but to maintain that discipline upon which alone an army can succeed against the enemy.

Strangely, Pvt Slovik was the only person who would be exemplified this way.

Though the military tried 21,000 desertion cases and passed down 49 death sentences for desertion during the war, it carried out only Slovik’s. And in the war’s final battles, with Germany collapsing, his execution seemed like a surreal throwback. As Kimmelman notes, hundreds if not thousands of soldiers were strictly guilty of dereliction of duty and desertion in the waning days of 1944.

They’re not shooting me for deserting the United Stated Army — thousands of guys have done that. They’re shooting me for bread I stole when I was 12 years old. (Source)

Three weeks after his conviction and three weeks before the Battle of the Bulge, Slovik’s execution order was confirmed by the 28th Division’s commander, Major General Norman “Dutch” Cota. Cota was disturbed by Slovik’s forthrightness in confessing to the desertion, and, as a front line commander who had sustained severe casualty rates in the Battle of Hurtgen Forest, had no sympathy for the crime.

After an appeal to the deaf ears of Dwight Eisenhower shortly before the sentence was to be carried out, Slovik was out of options. He was taken to the courtyard of an estate near the village of Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines and shot by 11 Army marksmen* at 10 a.m. By 10:04, as they were reloading, he was declared dead. His body was interred at a French cemetery, and after decades of lobbying the U.S. government, his remains were returned to Michigan in 1987.

Because he was dishonorably discharged, Slovik was not entitled to a pension, and his wife, Antoinette, stopped receiving payments. Curiously, though the Army managed to communicate this to her, they omitted the bit about the execution. She found out in 1953 from William Bradford Huie.

Huie was a journalist who took immediate interest in Slovik’s story, popularizing it with his book The Execution of Private Slovik, which was released in 1954. Twenty years later, the book and title were requisitioned for a well-received TV movie starring Martin Sheen and funded by Frank Sinatra.

* The firing squad included 12 marksmen, but one was given a blank. Despite their skill, the 11 remaining shooters did not manage to kill him instantaneously.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Desertion,Diminished Capacity,Execution,France,Guest Writers,History,Milestones,Military Crimes,Other Voices,Shot,Soldiers,U.S. Military,USA,Wartime Executions

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62 Responses to “1945: Private Eddie Slovik, the last American shot for desertion”

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  1. 51
    Nomi Says:

    I have always thought what happened to Eddie Slovik was a tragedy. I think it was something that should have never happened(his death). In “peacetime” to kill someone is usually considered murder. However in his case, he met his death, because he felt he could not kill someone. What a sad irony that is.

  2. 52
    Greg Kowalski Says:

    I am writing a book on Hamtramck, Mich. Eddie Slovik lived in Hamtramck at one point, and I am trying to locate a photo of him. Is the photo on this apge copyrighted? If so, do you know who I can contact to obtain reproduction permission?

  3. 53
    ExecutedToday.com » 1967: Aaron Mitchell, Ronald Reagan’s first and only execution Says:

    [...] And Reagan’s minuscule career execution count was hardly the anomaly that it might now appear. Prior to Reagan, the last Chief Executive who had actually entered the White House having previously forwarded any fellow to the executioner was … Dwight Eisenhower. [...]

  4. 54
    tae Says:

    I am an American and a combat decorated US Marine. I was scared, terrified, and trained to suppress my imagination to the horrors I was experiencing. I did not develop PTSD. I could have run and hid; I did not. I could have feigned any number of illnesses; I did not. I chose not that path. Slovik did and put his comrades to task do his job. I see no reason why Slovik should be pitied.

  5. 55

    I first learned of Eddie Slovik when the TV movie was aired. No one should pity Slovik. He was a coward and deserved what he got. The question should be, why was he the only one? All of the deserters should have been shot. If the Army had a policy of shooting deserters, there would have been very few. Only someone who has been in combat understands the bigger picture. Slovik let down every other soldier in his unit. An Army can only succeed if it operates as a cohesive unit. I served two tours in Vietnam. It is not unheard of, but seldom talked about, guys who ran under fire and somehow got shot in the back as they ran off. No trial was necessary.

  6. 56
    Vert Says:

    @tae For one, he was drafted while you likely volunteered. That right there speaks of the different mind sets involved and why you can’t use your personal experience to judge the actions of Slovak. But even if he wasn’t, it’s a shame to kill a man simply because he lacks the necessary austerity to participate in a war. What he did wasn’t honorable, but many, like myself, do not think it was deserving of death.

  7. 57
    Dutch McAllister Says:

    Slovik was very unlucky. He deserted at a time when the Germans were heavily attacking U.S. forces in Belgium. The battle is called the battle of the “Bulge.” Eisenhower was concerned that the U. S. could still lose the war, and he ordered the execution to be carried out. After that battle, winning the war was never in doubt, and no other death sentences were carried out. Slovik was a loser. Getting all worked up about it today is pointless.

  8. 58
    Malcolm Duncan Says:

    Mark Twain deserted twice from combat during the American Civil War,once from the Confederate Army and once from the Union Army. Perhaps he,too,could have been shot.President Lincoln pardoned many such deserters,allowing them the chance to honorably return to duty.

  9. 59
    Malcolm Duncan Says:

    Flying with the 9th Air Force on the Italian front in World War Two 98 America pilots and aircrew deserted with their aircraft by flying to the neutral countries of Switzerland and Sweden.They were interred there for the remainder of the war.
    Far away from the battlefield these men lived in luxury,,living in hotels,eating fine foods,no rationing.They were given an allowance and could even buy gifts to send home.
    After the war was over these men were sent back to America and received a slap on the wrist from the military.They were reduced in rank and required to pay a small fine,then given a General Discharge.

  10. 60
    buckeyeman Says:

    I would have liked the article better if it had done some stories about the men in Slovik’s unit who were killed in action while he was running and hiding.

  11. 61
    Dutch McAllister Says:

    During the Jimmy Carter administration, Annette Slovik’s lawyers tried to get a pension for her through an appeal to the Board for Correction of Military Records. The board turned the appeal down, and she received no money. I was in the Army at the time, and I thought feelings against a pension for Slovik ran high among soldiers. She died not long afterward.

  12. 62
    Tom Mcc Says:

    This article fails to mention the letter after his SECOND desertion stated that he would refuse to go back to combat. He was offered the chance to tear up the letter several times. He was then offered the chance to return or join another combat unit repeatedly, at almost ever stage of the process. He absolutely refused to return and explicitly wanted to be court martialed believing he would just be imprisoned. He had severed time before. It is one thing to show mercy to deserters who show some contrition (even if feigned), it is another for them to think they can game the system for a safe and “relatively” confortable cell over the danger and hardship of combat.

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