The Execution of Private Eddie Slovik: A Story from the Second World War

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Soldiers under fire, from a cartoon in Yank, the Army Weekly, 1945

D-Day, 6 June, 1944: Allied forces stage the largest amphibious military invasion in world history on the coast of Normandy. A combination of organisation, technology, and sheer determination allowed them to establish a beachhead and begin the push across western Europe in a drive to unite with the Red Army and finally end Nazi rule in Europe. D-Day was costly: how costly, no one actually knows. German casualties have been estimated at 4000-9000, Allied casualties at 10,000, of which more than 4000 died. Civilian casualties for the first two days of the landing are estimated at 3000. War is a deadly business.

In spite of the jubilant headlines ('Allies' Smashing Drive into France'/'Slight Opposition, Losses Small'), the Second World War was far from over. There would be nearly a year of fierce fighting, often house-to-house in cities, towns, and villages, before peace finally settled in over the devastation. The failure of the plot to assassinate Hitler, which top German military leaders undertook six weeks after D-Day, meant that surrender wasn't an option. They had to keep fighting. And Allied forces had to keep throwing ground troops into the hellscapes of the Battle of the Bulge, the Hürtgen Forest, and the Rhineland campaign.

Soldiers from the United States, often as young as 18, were finding themselves very far from home and light years away from anything they'd ever experienced or anticipated. As the need for ground troops rose in this last year of war, America had upped its draft numbers and relaxed its requirements: as one writer put it, 'Don't look into their eyes, just count them.' They died in droves in places their families couldn't pronounce. Or they survived to become the decorated heroes of the 'Greatest Generation'. But what has often been overlooked in telling the story is that not all of them faced the challenge selflessly or enthusiastically.

In other words, desertions were far more common than is generally supposed. In spite of the fact that Eisenhower and his generals were worried about what would happen if more soldiers refused to fight, only one man was actually executed for desertion. Private Eddie Slovik was the first (and so far, the last) American soldier to be shot for desertion since the US Civil War. This decision remains controversial.

Some Facts and Figures

During the Second World War, the US inducted 10,110,113 men into the service. They rejected 1,532,500 as physically or morally unfit. Of those inducted, 2,670,000 were trained for ground combat. In the European campaign, 40,000 deserted. Of these, 2864 were court-martialled. 49 of them were sentenced to death. Only one sentence was ever carried out: that of Eddie Slovik, private, who was executed by firing squad on 31 January, 1945 in Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines, France.

Who Eddie Slovik Was

The only luck I had in my life was when I married you. I knew it wouldn't last because I was too happy. I knew they wouldn't let me be happy.

– Eddie Slovik

Eddie Slovik grew up in Detroit, Michigan during the Great Depression. His father, a Polish immigrant punch-press operator, was often out of work. His parents drank heavily and the home life of Eddie, his brother, and his sisters was far from stable. Eddie grew up poor and hungry, which is probably why his first brush with the law, at the age of 12, involved stealing bread from the bakery where he worked. He later got in trouble for 'embezzlement', which meant pilfering candy, cigarettes, and loose change from the shop where he was a clerk, to the tune of about $59 over six months.

Eddie, who was known as a 'good-hearted kid' with a conspicuous lack of malice, tended to go along with his friends. When his friends got drunk one night and decided to take a car for a joyride, Eddie went along. The unlicenced drivers didn't have a chance to return the automobile because they smashed it into a building. This was why Eddie spent the next several years in the reformatory at Ionia.

The reformatory was a positive experience for Eddie: he was safe, he got fed, and his supervisor, Harry Dimmick, was the father figure he'd been looking for. Dimmick taught Eddie to play by the rules. In spite of a 75% recidivism rate, Dimmick felt that Eddie would 'make it', as long as he got a good job, stayed away from bad influences, and found a woman who would keep him steady.

In 1942, manpower was scarce because of the war. Eddie did, indeed, find a job. He also found a steadying influence in his wife Antoinette. The two settled in Dearborn, Michigan and began living what they thought of as the American Dream: they had their own apartment, with new furniture. They had a car, which Antoinette drove because, as a paroled felon, Eddie couldn't get a driving licence. They worked hard. With Eddie automatically classified as 4-F – unfit for military service – the war was very far away for them and their neighbours who were riding the wartime boom.

The couple did have problems. Eddie was a slight man with childhood injuries. His legs had been broken by doctors to straighten their growth, which still caused him pain. He didn't have a lot of stamina. Antoinette had even more health problems: epileptic seizures, for example. She walked with a limp because she was born with one leg shorter than the other. During their first year of marriage, Antoinette suffered two miscarriages. Still, the two were happier than they had ever been in their lives. The couple were each other's whole world. They called one another 'Mommy' and 'Daddy'. They still hoped to start a family.

The draft notice arrived on their first wedding anniversary. Just as they were moving into a new apartment. The couple were devastated: their American Dream had disappeared in an instant. Throughout Eddie Slovik's time in the service, he and Antoinette ran from one authority and agency to another, trying to get Eddie released from the military as a hardship case. Antoinette couldn't work because of pregnancy complications and epilepsy. The allowance the army sent wouldn't cover expenses. The Red Cross worker told Antoinette huffily that there was a war on: everyone had to 'do their bit'. She should sell the new furniture they'd worked and saved for and move in with her mother. The Sloviks felt hard done by. This is evident in the letters they wrote each other. (Eddie wrote 372 in the space of a year.)

Honest, honey, I don't like it here. ...It's just like being in jail. Only in jail it isn't this bad.

– Eddie Slovik

Desertion

On 7 August, 1944, Eddie Slovik was sent to Europe aboard the Aquitania, which was being used as a troop ship. His bunkmate later reported that, while they were cleaning their rifles, Eddie remarked that he was never going to use it. (He didn't.)

Here is a timeline of what happened next:

  • 14 August: The troop ship landed in Scotland. The soldiers were taken by train to Plymouth, where they received a two-day instruction course in hedgerow fighting.

  • 20 August: The troops arrived at Omaha Beach in Normandy.

  • 25 August: Eddie and 11 others were assigned as replacements to G Company, 109th Infantry Division, located near Elbeuf, Normandy. They set out in jeeps, driving down a road littered with the corpses of German soldiers and dead horses. The non-mechanised column had been attacked from the air. The sights, sounds and smells were a shocking introduction to war.

    When shelling began, the replacement soldiers were ordered to dig in. They dug trenches and took shelter through the night. Towards morning, they were ordered to move out. Ten of them did. Slovik and his friend, Private John Tankey, either did not hear them (Tankey's story) or were too frozen with fear to obey (Slovik's account). They stayed behind and were scooped up the next morning by the Canadian 13th Provost Corps.

Communications were difficult during this stage of the war. While the Canadians tried to get a message through to the Americans about their lost soldiers, Slovik and Tankey spent a happy six weeks behind the lines, cooking and cleaning for the Provost Corps, who were policing signage in the liberated area. The Canadians enjoyed the company. Among other helpful things, the two Polish Americans from Detroit scrounged ingredients and made them potato pancakes – a welcome change from their monotonous diet of bully beef.

On 8 October, the idyllic interlude came to an end. The US Army caught up with the two strays. They were brought to Rocherath, Belgium to join their unit, the 109th Infantry Regiment. John Tankey was assigned to a unit. He said goodbye to Eddie Slovik, assuming that he would see him again. He didn't learn what happened next until years after the war.

Eddie Slovik simply walked away from his assignment. The next day, he turned himself in, with a laboriously written note explaining that he was terrified of going to the front, that this was why he ran away, and that if they made him go to the front he would run away again. The officer in charge tried to talk him into retracting this damaging confession, but he refused. Slovik was arrested: charges were filed, the case was officially investigated, and on 11 November, he was put on trial.

The trial lasted from 10.00 am to 11.40 am. The court martial found him guilty and sentenced him to death. This wasn't unusual: death sentences had been handed out before. Nobody – not Eddie, and not the officers at the court martial – believed sentence would be carried out. Soldiers who went AWOL or deserted outright expected to be jailed and then released after the war. And all but one of them were.

I never expected Slovik to be shot. ... But I thought that if ever they wanted a horrible example, this was one. From Slovik's record, the world wasn't going to lose much.

– Colonel Sommer, Division Judge Advocate

So why was Eddie Slovik executed by firing squad on 31 January, 1945? What led to this unusual action?

Clemency Denied

His unfavorable civilian record indicates that he is not a worthy subject of clemency.

– Brigadier General EC McNeil, senior Army lawyer, European Theater of Operations (ETO), 1945
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 twelve years old.

– Eddie Slovik

In late 1944, the fighting in western Europe was desperate and bloody. Units were losing men at a vast rate. The replacement method – of sending raw troops into the bloodiest battles with units where everyone was a complete stranger – was causing cases of shock and what they called 'battle fatigue' and we usually call PTSD. Desertions were mounting. Deserting soldiers endangered, not only military objectives, but also the survival of the other soldiers around them, who couldn't count on their comrades to back them up. The generals looked to set an example.

Eddie Slovik was a likely candidate on paper. While his civilian past wasn't taken into account during the court martial, it was a decisive factor in his appeal for clemency. Generals, including Eisenhower, looked at his 'rap sheet' and decided Eddie Slovik was a career criminal undeserving of consideration. They insisted he be shot.

This view of Eddie Slovik as a hardened criminal came as a shock to anyone who knew him, even briefly, during the war. He was almost always described as 'kind-hearted'. 'He would do anything you told him to,' one sergeant said. The day he was sentenced to death, he voluntarily swept out the barracks where he was imprisoned, so that the other prisoners (who had been sentenced to twenty years) wouldn't have to get up early.

Forty-two witnesses were summoned to the execution, which took place in 15 inches (38 cm) of fresh snow. A Catholic chaplain helped Eddie Slovik through the ordeal. The chaplain also counselled the unhappy firing squad.

The rules about firing squads were so old that the word 'musketry' was used. These weren't muskets. They were M-1 rifles. The trick of loading one of the weapons with a blank cartridge so that no one would know for sure if he'd fired the fatal shot? It didn't work with an M-1 rifle. A live round caused a heavy recoil, but a blank didn't. Those soldiers knew who had the blank, but they didn't tell anyone else.

Antoinette Slovik wasn't informed of her husband's execution. She was merely told he'd died in Europe. She spent years vainly trying to collect his life insurance.

The Story Lives On

The story of Eddie Slovik might have gone untold had not William Bradford Huie, a journalist and D-Day survivor, taken up the trail. His 1954 non-fiction book The Execution of Private Slovik includes interviews with almost every individual involved who survived the Second World War. One notable exception was Dwight D Eisenhower, who was president of the US at the time the book came out. He repeatedly refused to comment on the execution, which was ultimately his command decision. Huie, who was politically quite conservative and had supported Eisenhower for president, was accused of trying to make the Republican leader 'look bad', a charge he denied.

In 1960, singer/actor Frank Sinatra tried to have Huie's book turned into a film starring himself. He was dissuaded by the Kennedy administration because Sinatra was a known supporter of theirs. The book was reissued in 1970, the year after Eisenhower's death. At that time, it became more popular. There were a lot more deserters in the Vietnam conflict – 503,926 of them, according to the Pentagon. None were shot. The Execution of Private Slovik was finally made into a television film in 1974. It starred Martin Sheen.

By this time, William Bradford Huie was obviously disappointed in Dwight Eisenhower. In his 1970 epilogue, he quotes in full an answer Eisenhower gave to a historian's question about the execution in a 1963 interview. After pointing out the factual errors in Eisenhower's version of events, which included the misapprehension that Slovik was hanged, Huie concludes:

Eisenhower lived by the Army's staff system, and even after he became President he expected every problem to be 'briefed' for him. He didn't read much, and he preferred bridge and golf to reflection. So the truth may be that he just never really gave much thought to the execution of Private Slovik. Not in 1945, nor in 1954, nor in 1963, nor at any time.

Author Kurt Vonnegut must have read Huie's book on its original release. In 1969, he included references to it in his novel Slaughterhouse-Five, which also deals with the fire-bombing of Dresden in the Second World War.

Vonnegut is also responsible for Eddie Slovik's appearance in the musical world. In 1993, he was commissioned by New York Philomusica to write a new libretto to accompany Stravinsky's The Soldier's Tale, Vonnegut rejected the Russian folktale involving a fiddling soldier and a deal with the devil. Instead, he wrote a libretto about Eddie Slovik. Music critics were unhappy, and so were Stravinsky's heirs, who kept the libretto entangled in legal disputes for a decade.

A different musical version of the Eddie Slovik story, with narration by Vonnegut, can be heard on the album Ice-9 Ballads by Dave Soldier.


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