The Example of Private Slovik


Five witnesses were heard. The cross-examinations were perfunctory. The defense made no closing argument. The court recessed for ten minutes, resumed, and retired almost immediately afterward. Three ballots were taken in closed court, the verdicts unanimously guilty on all counts. In open court once more, the president announced the verdict and the sentence: to be dishonorably discharged, to forfeit all pay and allowances due, and to be shot to death with musketry. The trial had begun at 10:00 A.M.; it was over at 11:40 A.M.

None of us in closed court had voiced any doubts about his guilt. There was brief disagreement about the nature of the death penalty to be imposed, whether it should be by hanging or firing squad, but consensus was quickly reached on the firing squad, as the less dishonorable means.

Slovik, still wordless, was escorted out under guard. We members of the court, satisfied with our morning’s work, disbanded and went our separate ways. If the too-simple procedure and the too-quick verdict stirred doubts within, I put them down, as I and probably lots of others had gotten into the habit of doing during our time in the Army. For the next several days the case and its no-nonsense disposition and verdict created some little stir in headquarters, but it was an approving stir. If there was a different reaction among the enlisted men, we knew nothing about it then.

The sentence was approved by the division commander, Maj. Gen. Norman D. Cota, on November 27, while the division was still mired in the Hürtgen Forest. On December 9 Slovik wrote an explanatory, apologetic letter to Gen. Dwight D. Elsenhower, ending with “To my knowledge I have a good record since my marriage and as a soldier. I’d like to continue to be a good soldier....” Eisenhower did not read the letter in the short time before he confirmed the death sentence. The various reviewing authorities approved the death sentence.

The execution was carried out on January 31, in a walled-in garden of an estate in a small town in eastern France, before a large group of military witnesses. Twelve expert riflemen, strangers to Slovik, were detailed to the firing squad. They were rehearsed the day before. Slovik needed no assistance and replied quietly to those trussing him up and placing the hood over his head. He stood “straight as could be” without “any sign of emotion,” in the words of one of the squad.

When the military surgeon examined the slumped body, following the volley of rifle shots, Slovik was still alive. None of the eleven bullets (one unknown rifleman having drawn a blank), fired from a distance of twenty paces by expert riflemen perfectly capable of hitting a silver dollar on a stationary target at twice that distance, had exactly hit the heart. He died as the guns were being reloaded.

Meanwhile, several of those involved in the case, myself included, had been taken prisoner in the Battle of the Bulge, which had begun for us on December 16, five weeks after the trial. The first knowledge I had of the execution followed my release from a German prison camp in the spring of 1945, when a noncom, recognizing me, cried out, “Hey, Captain, you know they shot Slovik!” We were in a souvenir shop in Paris, where I was looking for a wedding-anniversary gift to send home to my wife.

I was shaken. It was bitter bad news. My experiences in the Battle of the Bulge had totally changed my mind about the sentence.

In December 1944 I had volunteered to remain with a rearguard task force commanded by a lieutenant colonel I much respected. We were at division headquarters in a castle in the nearly surrounded little town of Wiltz, Luxembourg, ten miles east of the soon-to-befamous Bastogne. When I reported in on the morning of December 18, headquarters looked like a just-disturbed ant heap. Ominous messages were coming in from the north, east, and south; many enlisted men and officers took off without orders, some empty handed, running on foot or jumping onto and clinging to every vehicle moving out.

The perimeter of the city was being defended by “specialists”—cooks, clerks, musicians, telephone linesmen—all suddenly ordered to take up rifles, which most of them had not fired against the enemy for months, if ever. Furious and scared but obeying orders, they had never really forgotten that they were only ragmen, infantrymen who had been out on a liberal leash for a time. With them were numbers of officers, as inexperienced in this kind of situation as we all were but trying to put and hold things together. Few ever got out.

Refugees came trooping down the main road from the north, bundles on their backs, holding children and pushing carts. The mayor of Wiltz, at the head of a small group, breathlessly pushed his way to the open side door of the castle to speak to the general. He spoke good English. I heard him say, “What shall our people do? Go, or stay in the cellars? If we go, we block your roads.”

The general was on the field telephone, his back turned to them. “Tell ’em I can’t do anything for ’em,” he growled to the provost marshal, his chief of military police, standing nearby. It is hard to forget the disbelief on the mayor’s face as the provost marshal repeated the remark. The little group walked off, slowly and silently.