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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83 thoughts on “1945: Private Eddie Slovik, the last American shot for desertion”

  1. 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. 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. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. Edna says:

    Given the swap of Bergdahl & the reports that he was a disserter and ashamed of being an American, what say the board on whether he should be courtmartialed?

  13. Sean Thoman says:

    Edna: I think he should be punished to the maximum to include firing squad. Not only did he desert, but he provide aid in the form of intelligence on our soldiers techniques, tactics, weak points, etc and comfort to the enemy. Not including the lives that were lost looking for him. To me that is treason also, an example should be set for future generations about desertion under fire and treason. He took an oath and was a volunteer, there are no excuses.

  14. K. Brady says:

    You state categorically that Slovik was “no coward”, yet the excuses he gave for his repeated desertion was that he was “too scared”. He was also a cynical street-wise thief who had determined that you could desert with very few consequences, and that any sentence he would be given would be commuted at the end of the war. He did in fact lie when he said he was being executed for stealing “bread and chewing gum” when he was 12. Actually he broke into a foundry in Detroit at 12 and stole brass for resale. Jean Valjean he was not! Perhaps he read Hugo while in jail. And though you state that he was executed during the war’s final battles and Germany was collapsing, the Battle of the Bulge was actually in full bloom when the papers came before Eisenhower. Ike had seen enough dead men and graves of honorable men; to shoot a deserter would certainly save lives by letting those similar to Slovik know that there would be consequences for deserting in a shooting war. Eisenhower had the moral courage to allow the execution to be carried out. Such courage will not be found in the Obama administration.

  15. Meaghan says:

    I have no opinion re: Slovik, but I would like to point out that (at least as far as I know) it’s only desertion during wartime that’s a death-penalty offense. And we are not, technically, at war with anyone.

  16. Edna says:

    The take on Eddie is interesting. thank you for your input. As far as our most recent alleged disserter, Bowe Bergdahl, I am very curious to see how barack’s spin is going to progress on this. I am not opposed to bringing this man home, but I am against it being done based on lies by barack, susan rice & jay carney, e.g., his health. I would encourage barack and his cronies to start being truthful and honoring the oath of office he took to uphold our Constitution and not destroy our country.

  17. Bj Caracciolo says:

    “he provide aid in the form of intelligence on our soldiers techniques, tactics, weak points, etc and comfort to the enemy.”

    Sean Thoman: there has been not ONE indication or official announcement by the DoD that any of what you say has been substantiated.

    If you want his head, do it with truth. Lies already got us into that mess.

  18. edna says:

    BJ, I have no idea what you are talking abt or if it was directed at me…Edna. I will say if you reference Bowe Bergdah, it is PROVEN and substantiated by the Pentagon that he left his post w/o approval, e.g., AWOL at best, dessertion most probably. I don’t know if you are an obama zombie, but get real, you have been snookered for 8 years…time to think of our country and not barack & mickey obama.

  19. Liberals suck says:

    Once again the idiot, phucktard, liberturd, hang wringers, judging the past actions of great men, compared with their degenerate, depraved, reprobate mental states of today, is not only completely asinine, it’s just plain wrong. Leave it to the Libturds to cry over the spilled blood of a deserter. No wonder they love the petulant, purple puss potentate of the Potomac so much.

  20. edna says:

    I wish for the truth to come out re whether bergdahl is a desserter or traitor and gave comfort & aid to the enemy. Meanwhile, it seems too much talk is now given to bringing this man back to the USA and under a bad swap for sure. But that is a done deal and now we have to face the consquences & hope these 5 terrorist masterminds will not return to their plans for mass killings. We need to now ask why Susan rice & jay carney, etc went on national TV telling lies and why barack honored the bergdahls and their son w/ a ceremony/celebration in the rose garden when so many other truly honorable men who served w/ distinction are ignored.

  21. mark harris says:

    Slovik was forced to be in combat and was executed because he refused to do so.. Is it a new form of slavery?

  22. peggy says:

    I understand from a source that was published some years after the television movie was made that Eddie Slovik was illegally drafted. Is that true?

  23. Kevin M. Sullivan says:

    Slovik was legally drafted.

    He faced the firing squad apparently without fear, and he should have picked up his weapon and faced the Germans the same way. He had a good chance of surviving in combat, but no chance of surviving the firing squad.

    He owed it to every other young man on the line facing the enemy to do his duty. He failed to do so and was killed for it.

  24. pam says:

    He was owed a fair and legal trial and was not given one. All evidence was not presented and it should have been ruled a mistrial.

  25. Kevin M. Sullivan says:

    It was a military tribunal and it was fair. Pvt. Slovik should have picked up his weapon and done his duty. He was shot for his failure to do so. That’s all there is to it.

  26. Pam says:

    You need to read the true story buddy…nuff said!

  27. Kevin M Sullivan says:

    I did, Pam. :)

  28. pam says:

    that being said, we will have to agree to disagree. What I am watching in current time is how pvt bergdahl has been treated as a hero & waiting to see how fairly they treat him by giving him a fair trial & not a rush to judgement and execution & do a complete investion, something slovik was denied. This bergdahl case will be a measure to compare the two cases. If it is proven that bergdahl not only disserted but his loyalties went to the enemy then he should be executed. Do we at least agree on that?

  29. Kevin M. Sullivan says:

    You now, I think Bergdahl has something wrong with him mentally. I could be wrong but I don’t think so. In my view, if it’s proven Bergdahl did these things, I believe a long stretch in the brig is what he needs.

    See ya,

    Kevin

  30. Kevin M. Sullivan says:

    I mean “You know…” lol!

  31. pam says:

    you may be right Kevin as I think he’s so brainwashed that his loyalties lie w/ the enemy. All the more reason to execute him as a traitor. He really did worse than Pvt. Slovik b/c his loyalties were w/ the enemy. Execute him is what I say if he is proven to be a enemy sympathizer.

  32. Meaghan says:

    Well, no matter what you guys think, Bergdahl will NOT be executed. You can only get the DP for executions during wartime and we are not, technically, at war with anybody.

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