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Breaking Point: Why Do Soldiers Desert?

By Charles Glass
4/19/2017 • World War II Magazine

Legendary lapses alone do not explain why thousands of men deserted their posts. The untold stories are the important ones.

By his own admission, Eddie Slovik was the unluckiest man alive. Nearly 50,000 American and 100,000 British soldiers deserted from the Allied forces during the Second World War, but the 25-year-old ex-convict from Detroit, Michigan, was the only one to be executed for his crime. Slovik’s desertion in northern France on October 9, 1944, was atypical. While 80 percent of deserters were frontline infantrymen escaping after long periods of continuous combat, Slovik never fought in battle. Nor did he go on the run as most deserters did. His mistake was to make clear that he preferred prison to battle. Instead a court-martial condemned him, under the Articles of War that then prescribed the forms of military justice, to “death by musketry.”

Of the 49 Americans sentenced to death for desertion during the Second World War, Slovik was the only man whose appeal for commutation was rejected. The timing of his court-martial, amid the November fighting in the Hürtgen Forest that caused 6,184 casualties among the 15,000 troops in Slovik’s 28th Infantry Division, militated against clemency. So did the coincidence in January 1945 of his appeal of his death sentence and the German counteroffensive known as the Battle of the Bulge, when the U.S. Army in western Europe was fighting for its own survival. That was not the moment for Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower to be seen condoning desertion.

Correspondence among senior commanders documents their belief that Slovik had to die to prevent others from following his example. They nonetheless decreed that secrecy envelop his execution in the remote French village of Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines. Even if soldiers at the front had known that the young private was shot for desertion on the morning of January 31, 1945, the Battle of the Bulge had by then ended in an Allied victory. The urgency for lethal deterrence had disappeared, as the Allied armies resumed the offensive that would topple the Third Reich four months later. Concealment of Slovik’s execution extended to informing his wife, Antoinette, only that her husband had died in the European Theater of Operations.

Journalist and novelist William Bradford Huie uncovered the cause of Slovik’s death in 1948, but the issue was still so fraught that in writing about it for Liberty magazine, he obscured the condemned man’s identity as “a 25-year-old American white man—call him Lewis Simpson—a replacement in the 28th Division.” Huie’s article raised fundamental questions about why only one deserter among many thousands was put to death.

The article also cast doubt on Americans’ willingness to fight. Huie, who served in the U.S. Navy during the war, noted that psychiatrists had permitted 1.75 million men—one out of every eight examined—to avoid military service for “reasons other than physical.” Despite this rigorous screening, soldiers suffered nervous breakdowns, mental trauma, and “battle fatigue” that rendered them unfit for combat. Huie observed, “During the Second World War approximately 38,000 officers and men—about 10 percent were officers—were tried by army general courts-martial for seeking to evade hazardous duty by some dishonorable means.” The sentences of those convicted ranged from five years to life imprisonment with hard labor.

Apart from Slovik’s, sentences were less onerous than the hardships endured by comrades who fought on. Huie considered this an outrage: “If a sound-bodied, sound-minded American soldier who deserts his comrades on the eve of battle deserves only comfortable detention, subsequent pardon, and a college education under the G.I. Bill of Rights, then why should any man ever again risk death in combat for this country?” Most, in the event, received dishonorable discharges that deprived them of benefits under the G.I Bill. Huie insisted, however, that “by ‘abolishing cowardice’ the psychiatrists had tended to relieve all Americans of the individual responsibility to fight.”

Most soldiers did fight. Desertions were almost nonexistent in the Pacific Theater, where a man seeking to avoid danger had nowhere to hide. In Europe, the total of those who fled the front rarely exceeded one percent of manpower. However, desertion reached alarming proportions among the 10 percent of men in uniform who actually saw combat. Allied commanders debated means to stanch the flow. General George S. Patton wanted to shoot the “cowards,” and in Sicily he twice slapped soldiers he accused of malingering. In North Africa and Italy, senior British commanders pleaded with their government to restore the death penalty for desertion, which had been abolished 11 years after the First World War.

Other commanders, whose views prevailed, favored providing psychiatric as well as traditional medical care at forward aid stations. They recognized that the mind—subject to the daily threat of death, the concussion of aerial bombardment and high-velocity artillery, fear of land mines and booby traps, malnutrition, appalling hygiene, and lack of sleep—could suffer wounds as real as those to the body. Providing shattered men with counseling, hot food, clean clothes, and rest was more likely to restore them to duty than the threat of a firing squad.

Many broke under the strain of constant battle. Unit cohesion was poor because replacement soldiers at the front were distributed individually to assorted companies and divisions rather than as units of men who knew and trusted one another. Poor leadership by under-trained junior officers, many of whom stayed back from combat, left young soldiers without inspiration to endure daily artillery barrages along often-static front lines. High desertion rates in any company, battalion, or division indicated failures of command and logistics, for which blame pointed to leaders as much as to the men who deserted. Some soldiers deserted when all the other members of their units had been killed and their own deaths appeared inevitable.

Those who showed deserters the greatest sympathy were fellow frontline soldiers. They had, at one time or another, felt the same temptation. It was a rare infantryman who attempted to prevent his comrades from leaving the line. The astounding fact is not that so many men deserted, but that deserters were so few.

Eddie Slovik’s identity became public knowledge in 1954, when Huie published his thoroughly researched book The Execution of Private Slovik. Twenty years later, actor Martin Sheen played Slovik in a television film of the same title. Sheen recited the words that Slovik uttered before his 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.”

Although most of the mentally and emotionally unfit men are weeded out before they get into the Army or in their early days at training camp, severe advanced training conditions and combat itself can put new strains on any man.

Psychology for the Fighting Man: What You Should Know About Yourself and Others. Penguin/Infantry Journal Fighting Forces series, 1943, pp. 294–295

If Slovik was the unluckiest deserter in the U.S. Army, Wayne Powers was probably the most fortunate. Private First Class Wayne Powers was 23 and an army truck driver when he landed in France three days after D-Day. In November 1944, he met a dark-haired French girl named Yvette Beleuse in Mont-d’Origny, a village near the Belgian border. Powers, born in Chillicothe, Missouri, spoke no French, and Yvette did not know English. As the newspaper France Soir later wrote,“She gave him a woman’s smile after months of murderous combat.” In early December, Powers was ferrying supplies to the Belgian border when his truck was hijacked, probably by deserters. Alone, on foot, and unable to find his unit, he went back to Mont-d’Origny and Yvette. Unable to marry without revealing his existence to the police, Powers hid in the Beleuse family house while Yvette worked in a textile factory nearby. The couple had five children, who were forbidden to tell anyone who their father was.

The Second World War ended. The Korean War came and went. Powers’s commander, General Eisenhower, became president of the United States. All the while, Powers remained a wanted man. American military police and French gendarmes raided the house twice without discovering his hiding place under the stairs.

Four years after Huie’s book made the Slovik case a cause célèbre, Wayne Powers became front-page news. In March 1958, a car crashed outside the Beleuse house and Powers made the mistake of looking through the curtains. Policemen saw him and turned him over to American military police. When the story of Wayne and Yvette hit the newspapers, the American embassy in Paris received 60,000 letters in three days—all demanding clemency for a young American who had fallen in love with a French girl. A court-martial found Powers guilty of desertion and sentenced him to 10 years at hard labor, quickly reduced to six months. The Judge Advocate General’s office in Washington, D.C., reviewed his case and released him. Two years later, Powers and Yvette married in Mont-d’Origny. By then, their sixth child had been born.

Each man, no matter how strong mentally and physically, has his limits beyond which the strongest will cannot drive him.

Psychology for the Fighting Man, pp. 320–321

Those who told the stories of Slovik and Powers did not connect them to the wider phenomenon of mass desertion. The vast majority of the 150,000 American and British soldiers who deserted the ranks during the war were unlike either Slovik or Powers. Slovik was the only one shot for his crime, and Powers was one of the few convicted deserters let off almost scot-free. The real story of Second World War deserters lies elsewhere.

A serendipitous encounter in London led me in the right direction. In March 2009 I was promoting my book Americans in Paris: Life and Death Under Nazi Occupation at the Frontline Club for war correspondents in London. A courtly, well-dressed American in the audience asked pertinent questions. He was that person any speaker fears: someone who knows what he’s talking about. It became obvious that his knowledge of the French Resistance was more intimate than mine. A red rosette, discreetly pinned to his lapel, marked him as a member of France’s Legion of Honor. It turned out he had been one of the few American regular soldiers to fight with the Resistance in 1944.

We met for coffee later near his house in South Kensington, where he regaled me with tales of life in la Résistance and asked what I was working on. I told him I was writing a book on American and British deserters in the Second World War, and asked if he knew anything about it. “I was a deserter,” he said.

We ordered more coffee, and my friendship with Steve Weiss— decorated combat veteran of the U.S. 36th “Texas” Infantry Division, former Resistance fighter, and deserter—was born.

Until then, my research had led me from archives to libraries, from court-martial records to old V-mail letters, from fading documents to myriad academic studies. Steve Weiss infused the war and the deserters’ dilemmas with fresh vitality. We went together to the moss-grown foxholes that he and others like him had dug. I pestered him often with questions to which he unfailingly and candidly responded. Although born in 1925, he retained the robust health and enthusiasm of the 17-year-old who had volunteered in 1942 to take part in Eisenhower’s crusade.

Private Steve Weiss fought as an infantry replacement in the Italian Campaign, where the 36th was called the “hard luck” division due to its deployment on a series of suicidal missions, such as the failed crossing of the Rapido River. After advancing north to Siena, Weiss landed under fire with the Texas Division in the south of France on August 15, 1944. The 36th advanced swiftly up the Rhône Valley, liberating town after town. During the battle for Valence, the 36th was ordered to withdraw. But no one told Weiss and seven other men of Charlie Company, who woke up in a ditch surrounded by German troops. Their own ingenuity and a timely rescue by the Resistance saved them from death or capture. They spent the next month fighting as guerrillas until the Office of Strategic Services Operational Group Louise recruited the strays for sabotage and commando fighting.

It was only when ordered back to the 36th Division and a company commander he distrusted that Weiss’s morale collapsed. Ignored by his officers and under constant bombardment along a static front, he wandered off the line one night as if in a dream. After stealing a few days’ sleep in a barn, he reported back. He was reprimanded and put back into the line until his spirit broke. One night in October 1944, Weiss and four other men from his company deserted. By this time command and logistical failures had left the 36th Division with the highest desertion rate in Europe. A few days later Weiss turned himself in and was court-martialed. At his trial, Weiss was asked if he had made up his mind not to fight anymore. “I have not made up my mind, sir,” he answered. “I feel I’m losing my mind.” The court sentenced him to hard labor “for the term of your natural life.”

At his detention barracks near Paris, Weiss met an army psychiatrist who concluded that Weiss had experienced a nervous breakdown that deprived him of a rational choice about deserting. His sentence commuted, he returned to service. He had been awarded the Bronze Star, three battle stars, Victory Medal, Conduct Infantry Medal, and Good Conduct Medal. France gave him the Croix de Guerre with bar and the Médaille de la Résistance, and made him a French citizen—a rare honor.

After the war, Weiss’s life became a long exploration of the effects on him and others of combat, military conformity, and prison. Years in therapy led him to become a psychologist. His experience heightened his empathy for patients with traumas similar to and often more disabling than his own.

‘Giving up’ is nature’s way of protecting the organism against too much pain.

Psychology for the Fighting Man, p. 347

A minority deserted to make money, stealing and selling the military supplies their comrades at the front needed to survive. From 1944 to 1946, Allied deserters ran the black market economies of Naples, Rome, and Paris. Their plundering of Allied supply convoys, often at gunpoint, deprived Patton of fuel as his tanks were about to breach Germany’s Siegfried Line. In Italy, deserters drove trucks of looted Allied equipment for the Italian-American Mafioso Vito Genovese (who concealed his Fascist past and made himself indispensable to Allied commanders in Naples).

Military police in Rome chased the notorious Lane Gang of deserters for most of 1944. The gang’s head, who used the pseudonym Robert Lane, was a 23-year-old private from Allentown, Pennsylvania, named Werner Schmeidel. His mob terrorized the military and civilians alike in a spree of murder, robbery, and extortion. After military police captured them in November 1944, they made a daring Christmas Eve prison break and hid in the Roman underworld. Recaptured many weeks later, Schmeidel and his top henchman were hanged for murder in June 1945. One week after their accomplices’ hangings, two at-large members of the Lane Gang hijacked an army safe with $133,000 in cash on its way from Rome to Florence.

In France, American deserters collaborated with Corsican hoodlums in the theft and sale of cigarettes, whiskey, gasoline, and other contraband. French civilians compared the German troops’ supposedly “correct” behavior during their four-year occupation to the terror American deserters wrought.

In Paris, especially, the lure of women and wealth beckoned to any American GI or British Tommy willing to desert. Sergeant Alfred T. Whitehead, a Tennessee farm boy who had earned Silver and Bronze Stars for bravery in Normandy, became a hoodlum in liberated Paris, living with a waitress and robbing Allied supply depots, restaurants, and ordinary citizens. His type of deserter, who operated in what the French press called Chicago gangs, worried the Allied command more than deserters who simply went into hiding. In November 1945, New York Times correspondent Dana Adams Schmidt wrote that “American Army deserters hijack trucks on the open highway and fight gun battles with the American military police.” Hunting deserters became a fulltime job for police from most Allied armies.

Such a sufferer from war shock is not a weakling, he is not a coward. He is a battle casualty.

Psychology for the Fighting Man, p. 353

The military in both Britain and the United States understood that some men would collapse mentally under the strain of combat. Much study was devoted to discovering which men were likely to break down and which were not. Leading psychologists, led by Harvard professor Edwin Garrigues Boring, cooperated with the military to produce in 1943 Psychology for the Fighting Man. A kind of guidebook to mental survival in battle, it was intended for every soldier going into combat and quickly sold 380,000 copies. Its overarching dictum about the average soldier who breaks down under pressure: “He is not a coward.”

There were almost as many reasons for deserting as there were deserters, and cowardice was rarely an adequate explanation. In my exploration of their motives, I discovered that the deserters were as important to understanding the combat soldier during World War II as were the great majority who soldiered on.

 

Adapted from THE DESERTERS: A Hidden History of World War II by Charles Glass. Copyright © Charles Glass, 2013. Reprinted by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

Originally published in the October 2013 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.

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