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Edward Donald Slovik
February 18, 1920
|Died||January 31, 1945 (aged 24)|
|Cause of death||Execution by firing squad|
|Penalty||Death by firing squad|
|Allegiance||United States of America|
|Service/||United States Army|
|Years of service||1944–1945|
|Unit||Company G, 109th Infantry Regiment, 28th Infantry Division|
|Battles/wars||World War II|
CEdward Donald Slovik (February 18, 1920 – January 31, 1945) was a United States Army soldier during World War II and the only American soldier to be court-martialled and executed for desertion since the American Civil War. Although over 21,000 American soldiers were given varying sentences for desertion during World War II, including 49 death sentences, Slovik's death sentence was the only one that was carried out.
During World War II, 1.7 million courts-martial were held, representing one third of all criminal cases tried in the United States during the same period. Most of the cases were minor, as were the sentences. Nevertheless, a clemency board, appointed by the Secretary of War in the summer of 1945, reviewed all general courts-martial where the accused was still in confinement, and remitted or reduced the sentence in 85 percent of the 27,000 serious cases reviewed. The death penalty was rarely imposed, and usually only for cases involving rape or murder. Slovik was the only soldier executed who had been convicted of a "purely military" offense.
Early life and education
Slovik was born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1920 to a Catholic Polish-American family, the son of Anna and Josef Slowikowski. As a minor, he was a troublemaker and had contact with the police frequently. Slovik 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.
In April 1942, Slovik was paroled once more. He then obtained a job at Montella Plumbing and Heating in Dearborn, Michigan. While working there, he met the woman who became his wife, Antoinette Wisniewski. She was working as a bookkeeper for Montella Plumbing's owner, James Montella. 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 U.S. military (4-F), but, shortly after the couple's first wedding anniversary, Slovik was reclassified as fit for duty (1-A) and subsequently drafted by the Army.
Slovik arrived at Camp Wolters in Texas for basic military training on January 24, 1944. In August, he was dispatched to join the fighting in German-occupied France. Arriving on August 20, he was one of twelve replacements assigned to Company G of the 109th Infantry Regiment, U.S. 28th Infantry Division.
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, Slovik and Tankey 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 he and Slovik reported to their unit for duty on October 7, 1944. The U.S. Army's rapid advance through France in the early fall of 1944 had caused many replacement soldiers to have trouble finding their assigned units, and so no charges were filed against either soldier.
The following day, October 8, Slovik informed his company commander, Captain Ralph Grotte, that he was "too scared" to serve in a front-line rifle company and asked to be reassigned to a unit in a rear area. He then told Grotte that he would run away if he were assigned to a rifle unit, and asked his captain if that would constitute desertion. Grotte confirmed that it would, refused Slovik's request for reassignment, and sent him to a rifle platoon.
The next day, October 9, Slovik deserted from his unit. John Tankey caught up with him and attempted to persuade him to stay, but Slovik's only comment was that his "mind was made up". Slovik walked several miles to the rear and approached an enlisted 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 took Slovik to an MP, then his company commander, who read the note and urged Slovik to destroy it before he was taken into custody. 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. Henbest instructed Slovik to write another note on the back of the first one stating that he fully understood the legal consequences of deliberately incriminating himself, and that it would be used as evidence against him in a court-martial.
Slovik was taken into custody and confined to the division stockade. The division's judge advocate general, Lt. Col. Henry Sommer, offered Slovik a third and final 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, still convinced that he would face only jail time (which he had already experienced and considered far more tolerable than combat) declined these offers, saying, "I've made up my mind. I'll take my court martial."
The 28th Infantry Division was scheduled to begin an attack in the Hurtgen Forest. The coming attack was common knowledge in the unit, and casualty rates were expected to be high, as the prolonged combat in the area had been unusually grueling. The Germans were determined to hold terrain, and weather greatly reduced the usual American advantages in armor and air support. A small minority of soldiers (less than 0.5%) indicated they preferred to be imprisoned rather than remain in combat, and the rates of desertion and other crimes had begun to rise.
Slovik was charged with desertion to avoid hazardous duty and tried by court-martial on November 11, 1944. Slovik had to be tried by a court-martial composed of staff officers from other U.S. Army divisions, because all combat officers from the 28th Infantry Division were fighting on the front lines. The prosecutor, Captain John Green, presented witnesses to whom Slovik had stated his intention to "run away". According to his defense counsel, Captain Edward Woods, Slovik had elected not to testify. At the end of the day, the nine officers of the court found Slovik guilty and sentenced him to death. The sentence was reviewed and approved by the division commander, Major General Norman Cota. General Cota's stated attitude was "Given the situation as I knew it in November, 1944, I thought it was my duty to this country to approve that sentence. If I hadn't approved it—if I had let Slovik accomplish his purpose—I don't know how I could have gone up to the line and looked a good soldier in the face."
On December 9, Slovik wrote a letter to the Supreme Allied Commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, pleading for clemency. However, desertion had become a systemic problem in France, and the Battle of the Bulge, a surprise German offensive through the Ardennes, began on December 16 with severe U.S. casualties, bypassing and surrounding many units and straining the morale of the infantry to the greatest extent yet seen during the war.
Eisenhower confirmed the execution order on December 23, noting that it was necessary to discourage further desertions. The sentence came as a shock to Slovik, who had been expecting a dishonorable discharge and a prison term, the same punishment he had seen meted out to other deserters from the division while he was confined to the stockade. As he was 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.
The execution by firing squad was carried out at 10:04 a.m. on January 31, 1945, near the village of Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines. The defiant 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.
As required by military custom, Slovik's uniform was stripped of all identifying military insignia, buttons, and any other accoutrements. He was wrapped with a GI blanket over his shoulders to protect him against the cold, and led into the courtyard of a house chosen for the execution because of its high masonry wall, which would deflect errant bullets and discourage the local French civilians from witnessing the solemn proceedings. Soldiers stood him against a six inch by six inch (15 × 15 cm) post. He was then strapped to the post with web belts, with one wrapped around and under his arms and hung on a spike on the back side of the post to prevent his body from slumping following the volley, and the others securing his waist and knees. Just before a soldier placed a black hood over his head, the attending chaplain, Father Carl Patrick Cummings, said to Slovik, "Eddie, when you get up there, say a little prayer for me." Slovik replied with his last words: "Okay, Father. I'll pray that you don't follow me too soon."
Twelve hand-picked soldiers from the 109th Regiment were detailed for the firing squad. The weapons used were standard-issue M1 Garand rifles, eleven of them loaded with just one round and one rifle loaded with a blank round. 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. As the firing squad's rifles were being reloaded to fire another volley, Slovik died. He was 24 years old. The entire execution took 15 minutes.
Slovik was buried in Plot E of Oise-Aisne American Cemetery and Memorial in Fère-en-Tardenois, alongside 95 American soldiers executed for rape 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. Antoinette Slovik petitioned the Army for her husband's remains and his pension until her death in 1979.
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. In 1987, Calka raised $5,000 to pay for the exhumation of Slovik's remains from Row 3, Grave 65 of Plot E and their transfer to Detroit's Woodmere Cemetery, where Slovik was reburied next to his wife. Slovik's military service record is now a public archival record available from the Military Personnel Records Center.
Antoinette Slovik and others petitioned seven U.S. presidents (Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter) for a pardon, but none was granted.
In militaries around the world, courts-martial have imposed death sentences for offenses such as cowardice, desertion, insubordination, and mutiny. In France during World War I, from 1917 to 1918, the United States Army executed 35 of its own soldiers, but all were convicted of rape or unprovoked murder of civilians and not for military offenses. During World War II, in all theaters of the war, the United States military executed 102 of its own soldiers for rape or unprovoked murder of civilians, but only Slovik was executed for the military offense of desertion.
Colonel Robert C. Bard of the judge advocate general's office noted that of the 2,864 army personnel tried for desertion for the period January 1942 through June 1948, 49 were convicted and sentenced to death, with 48 of those sentences commuted by higher authority. At least one of the members of the tribunal came to believe that Slovik's execution was an injustice in light of all the circumstances, and was an example of disparate treatment from a flawed process.
In popular culture
Slovik's execution was the basis for a 1954 book by William Bradford Huie.
In 1960, Frank Sinatra announced his plan to produce a movie titled The Execution of Private Slovik, to be written by blacklisted Hollywood 10 screenwriter Albert Maltz. This announcement provoked great outrage, and Sinatra was accused of being a Communist sympathizer. As Sinatra was campaigning for John F. Kennedy for President, the Kennedy camp became concerned, and ultimately persuaded Sinatra to cancel the project.
In 1974, the 1954 book was adapted for a TV movie starring Martin Sheen, also called The Execution of Private Slovik. Some dramatic license occurs, including during the execution. There is no evidence, for example, that the priest attending Slovik's execution shouted "Give it another volley if you like it so much" after the doctor indicated Slovik was still alive.
Kurt Vonnegut mentions Slovik's execution in his 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five. Vonnegut also wrote a companion libretto to Igor Stravinsky's L'Histoire du soldat (A Soldier's Tale), which tells Slovik's story.
Slovik also appears in Nick Arvin's 2005 novel Articles of War, in which the fictional protagonist, Private George "Heck" Tilson, is one of the members of Slovik's firing squad.
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According to United States Army records, thirty-five soldiers were executed for murder, mutiny, and rape in World War I.
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- Report of Slovik's execution
- Eddie Slovik at Find a Grave