Edward Donald "Eddie" Slovik (February 18, 1920 – January 31, 1945) was a US Army soldier during World War II and the only American soldier to be executed for desertion since the Civil War.
Slovik was born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1920 to a Polish-American family. As a minor, he was a troublemaker and had contact with the police frequently. He was first arrested at 12 years old when he and some friends broke into a foundry to steal brass. Between 1932 and 1937, he was arrested several times for offenses which included petty theft, breaking and entering, and disturbing the peace.
In October 1937 he was sent to prison, but was paroled in September 1938. After stealing and crashing a car with two friends while drunk, he was sent back to prison in January 1939. Paroled again in 1942 he got a job at a plumbing and heating company in Dearborn, Michigan. There he met the woman who became his wife, Antoinette Wisniewski; they married on November 7, 1942 and lived with her parents.
Slovik's criminal record made him classified as morally unfit for duty in the military but, shortly after the couple's first wedding anniversary, he was reclassified as fit for duty and subsequently drafted by the Army. After completing basic training, in August, 1944, he was sent to join the fighting in France.
While en route to his assigned unit, Slovik and Private John Tankey, a friend he met during basic training, took cover during an artillery attack and became separated from their replacement detachment. This was the point at which Slovik later stated he found he wasn't cut out for combat.
The next morning, the two found a Canadian military police unit and remained with them for the next six weeks. Tankey wrote to their regiment to explain their absence before the pair reported to their unit for duty on October 7, 1944. The Army's rapid advance through France had caused many replacement soldiers to have trouble finding their assigned units, and so no charges were filed against them.
The following day, October 8, Slovik informed his company commander that he was too scared to serve in a front-line company and asked to be reassigned to a rear area unit. He also advised his company commander that he would run away if he were assigned to a rifle unit and asked if that would constitute desertion. His CC advised him it would, refused his request and sent him to a rifle platoon.
The next day Slovik deserted and his friend John Tankey caught up with him, but couldn't convince him to stay. Slovik walked several miles to the rear and approached a cook at a headquarters detachment, presenting him with a note which stated:
I, Pvt. Eddie D. Slovik, 36896415, confess to the desertion of the United States Army. At the time of my desertion we were in Albuff in France. I came to Albuff as a replacement. They were shelling the town and we were told to dig in for the night. The following morning they were shelling us again. I was so scared, nerves and trembling, that at the time the other replacements moved out, I couldn’t move. I stayed there in my fox hole till it was quiet and I was able to move. I then walked into town. Not seeing any of our troops, so I stayed over night at a French hospital. The next morning I turned myself over to the Canadian Provost Corp. After being with them six weeks I was turned over to American M.P. They turned me loose. I told my commanding officer my story. I said that if I had to go out there again I'd run away. He said there was nothing he could do for me so I ran away again AND I'LL RUN AWAY AGAIN IF I HAVE TO GO OUT THERE. — Signed Pvt. Eddie D. Slovik A.S.N. 36896415
The cook summoned his company commander and a military policeman, who read the note and urged Slovik to destroy it before he was taken into custody, which Slovik refused. He was brought before Lieutenant Colonel Ross Henbest, who again offered him the opportunity to tear up the note, return to his unit, and face no further charges. Slovik again refused, so he was ordered to write another note on the back of the first one stating that he fully understood the consequences of incriminating himself, and it would be used as evidence against him in a court martial.
The divisional judge advocate offered Slovik a third opportunity to rejoin his unit in exchange for the charges against him being dropped. He also offered to transfer Slovik to a different infantry regiment in the division where no one would know of his past and he could start with a clean slate. Slovik opted for the court martial thinking he would face only jail time.
Charged with desertion to avoid hazardous duty, he was tried on November 11, 1944. Slovik was tried by staff officers because all combat officers were fighting on the front lines. The nine officers of the court found Slovik guilty and sentenced him to death. The official sentence was : to be shot to death with musketry. The sentence was reviewed and approved by Major General Norman Cota who said if he hadn't approved it he could have gone up to the front line and looked a good soldier in the face.
On December 9, Slovik wrote a letter to General Dwight D. Eisenhower, but by then desertion had become a systemic problem in France. Eisenhower confirmed the execution order on December 23, noting that it was necessary to discourage further desertions. Slovik was shocked as he had been expecting a dishonorable discharge and a prison term, the same punishment he had seen meted out to other deserters. As an ex-convict, a dishonorable discharge would have made little further impact on his civilian life as a common laborer, and military prison terms for discipline offenses were widely expected to be commuted once the war was over.
Slovik was shot by a 12-man firing squad in eastern France in January of 1945. None of the rifleman so much as flinched, believing Slovik had gotten what he deserved. The execution was carried out at 10:04 am on January 31, 1945, near the village of Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines.
The unrepentant Slovik said to the soldiers whose duty it was to prepare him for the firing squad before they led him to the place of execution: They're not shooting me for deserting the United States Army, thousands of guys have done that. They just need to make an example out of somebody and I'm it because I'm an ex-con. 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.
Slovik, wearing a uniform stripped of all insignia with a GI blanket across his shoulders against the cold, was led into the courtyard of a house chosen for the execution because it had a high masonry wall. The commanders did not want the local French civilians to witness the proceedings. Soldiers stood him against a six inch by six inch post and strapped him to it with web belts. Just before a black hood over his head, the attending chaplain said, "Eddie, when you get up there, say a little prayer for me." Slovik answered, "Okay, Father. I'll pray that you don't follow me too soon." Those were his last words.
Twelve picked soldiers used standard issue M1 rifles with one bullet for each rifle. One rifle was loaded with a blank. On the command of "Fire", Slovik was hit by eleven bullets, at least four of them being fatal. The wounds ranged from high in the neck region out to the left shoulder, over the left chest, and under the heart. One bullet was in the left upper arm. An Army physician quickly determined Slovik had not been immediately killed. Just as the firing squad's rifles were being reloaded in preparation for another volley, Slovik died.
He was 24 years old and his execution took 15 minutes. Slovik was buried in the American Cemetery and Memorial in Fère-en-Tardenois, alongside 95 American soldiers executed for rape and/or murder. Their grave markers are hidden from view by shrubbery and bear sequential numbers instead of names, making it impossible to identify them individually without knowing the key.
His wife unsuccessfully petitioned the Army for his remains and his pension until her death in 1979. Altogether she petitioned seven US presidents: Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter.
|Graves of Slovik and his wife in Detroit|
Slovik's case was taken up in 1981 by former Macomb County Commissioner Bernard V. Calka, a Polish-American World War II veteran, who continued to petition the Army to return Slovik's remains to the United States. In 1987, he persuaded President Ronald Reagan to order their return where he was buried net to his wife in Detroit's Woodmere Cemetery.
I am unsure of the meaning of the inscription Honor and Justice Prevailed. For whom? The Army or Slovik?
Here is my personal feeling. Nobody wants to serve in combat...it's dangerous and terrifying. But, millions do it. If a man admits he can't, send him to rear where he can be useful doing something.
In the Bible when Gideon had too many men he was first instructed that whoever was afraid and trembling could leave and he lost 22,000 people out of 32,000. And, when King David's men complained about dividing the spoils of war, David told them, “We share and share alike, those who go to battle and those who guard the equipment." Slovik was not cut out for combat, so assign him to something he can do. And, why single out one man when hundreds, if not thousands, were just as guilty, but not executed?