The Sad Story of Private Eddie Slovik
Of all the U.S. soldiers charged with desertion during World War II, only one was executed–Private Edward “Eddie” Donald Slovik. It happened just after the Battle of the Bulge.
Only in a technical sense was Eddie Slovik a member of the 28th Infantry Division, and that was for just one day. It would seem then that his story should not really be regarded as part of the history of a proud division that suffered a total of 26,286 battle casualties–2,146 of whom were killed in action or died of battle wounds. Unfortunately, however, Private Slovik and the 28th Infantry Division figure together in the overall picture of the war in Europe.
Eddie Slovik was born in 1920 in a poor neighborhood of Detroit. He quit school in the ninth grade at age 15. He had several brushes with the law, the first in 1932, when 12-year-old Eddie and some friends broke into a foundry to steal some brass. Between 1932 and 1937, he was arrested several more times for crimes such as petty theft, breaking and entering and disturbing the peace. He was never a leader, but he was apparently a willing accomplice. Slovik first went to jail in October 1937, for stealing candy, chewing gum, cigarettes and change from a drugstore where he was working. He was paroled in September 1938, but in January 1939 he and two buddies got drunk, stole a car and accidentally wrecked it. Slovik was sentenced to 2 1/2 to seven years in prison but was paroled again, this time in April 1942. His prison record led him to be classified 4-F in the draft.
Two good things happened to Slovik when he was released from prison. First, he got a job in Dearborn, and second, he met and married Antoinette Wisniewski. Slovik was a personable, good-looking young man, but he needed a strong person to help and guide him. To those who knew the couple, it seemed that person was Antoinette.
The meat grinder of war eventually forced American draft officials to lower their standards in order to meet demands for replacement troops. As a result, Slo-
vik’s draft classification was changed to 1-A in November 1943. He was drafted into the infantry in January 1944.
During training, Slovik earned the reputation of being a good-natured buddy and learned to fire a rifle (which he hated) and other weapons. He arrived in France on August 20, 1944. Five days later he was assigned to Company G, 109th Infantry Regiment, 28th Infantry Division.
En route to the front, when his group of replacements was fired on, they stopped and dug in. Somehow Slovik and a friend became separated from the others, who moved on in the night. The two men soon came upon the encampment of the Canadian 13th Provost Corps and “joined” it, staying until October 5. Slovik finally joined Company G on October 8, but he deserted about an hour later, ignoring the pleas of a friend not to leave.
A day later, Slovik voluntarily surrendered to an officer of the 28th Infantry Division, handing him a signed confession of desertion. He went on to state in that document that he would run away again if he had “to go out their [sic].” The officer warned the private that his written confession was damaging evidence and advised him to take it back and destroy it. When Slovik refused to do so, he was confined in the division stockade.
On October 26, the division judge advocate, Lt. Col. Henry P. Sommer, offered Slovik a deal under which the court-martial action would be dropped if he would go back to his unit. Slovik refused. As a result, on November 11, 1944, he was tried and convicted of desertion, although he pleaded not guilty at the trial.
Because of the seriousness of the charge, the court voted by secret ballot three different times. The sentence of death was voted unanimously each time. It is important to note that Slovik’s police record could not have influenced the court, which did not have that information.
Slovik wrote a letter to General Dwight D. Eisenhower on December 9 pleading for clemency, but no basis for clemency was found. On December 23, in the midst of the Battle of the Bulge, Eisenhower confirmed the death sentence. One month later, he ordered Slovik to be executed by a firing squad from the 109th Infantry Regiment.
A few officers were concerned that some members of the firing squad might be repulsed by this onerous duty. They need not have been concerned. The sentence was carried out at 10:04 a.m. on January 31, 1945. Not one member of the firing squad flinched. At the end, Eddie Slovik was braver in facing the rifles of the firing squad than he had been in facing the Germans.
No doubt influenced by “guardhouse lawyers” (other military prison inmates), Slovik had apparently believed that he would not be executed but rather imprisoned until some time after the war ended–when he would be able to return to his beloved Antoinette. Three key factors influenced the decision to execute him. One was that his police record was included in the clemency deliberations, and it counted against him. Another was that desertion had become a problem for the U.S. Army in the European theater. General Eisenhower and other commanders felt something had to be done about it. Finally, Slovik’s case reached the point when it had to be reviewed and acted on by Eisenhower’s headquarters just as the U.S. Army was heavily engaged in its bitterest and bloodiest campaign of the war in Europe–the Battle of the Bulge.
Two members of the firing squad later summarized what many front-line soldiers thought about the execution of Eddie Slovik. One reportedly declared: “I got no sympathy for the sonofabitch! He deserted us, didn’t he? He didn’t give a damn how many of us got the hell shot out of us, why should we care for him?” The other soldier said, “I personally figured that Slovik was a no-good, and that what he had done was as bad as murder.”
Slovik’s widow spent the rest of her life pleading with the U.S. Army and the federal government to pardon her husband. She died a few years ago, having failed in her lifelong struggle to erase the shame from her husband’s memory.
It was, and is, a very sad tale.
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