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The Example Of Private Slovik
Of the thousands of American soldiers court-martialed for desertion in World War II, Eddie Slovik was the only one put to death. One of the judges who convicted him looks back with regret.
September/October 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 6
Days of misery, exhaustion, and near starvation followed as groups of us were marched east into Germany, through devastated villages, halting during the day in bombed-out buildings or in woods to escape strafing by American planes and trudging on during the night. The final leg of our journey was a four-day ride in crowded boxcars, in which we took turns sitting and standing, unable to stretch out.
It was nearly three weeks after capture that several hundred of us from the 28th Division came to a halt at Stalag IVB, ninety miles southeast of Berlin.
In the prison camp, after some time, there was considerable talk about the Slovik case. The harsh sentence had certainly had an impact. Some of my fellow POWs had gotten acquainted with him during his time in the stockade. They mostly liked him. “A quiet little guy, no trouble.” “Do anything for you.” Several maintained that he was not gutless at all, that he just felt helpless under heavy fire. There was a story that when he was with the Canadians, he had volunteered for the hazardous job of helping clear minefields. There had been no mention of this at the trial.
I railed against the injustice of executing one deserter while closing eyes to the raft of new offenses committed in the Battle of the Bulge.
My fellow prisoners never challenged me to defend my part in the verdict, though I at no time denied that in “throwing the book” at him, we indeed assumed that the death sentence would be carried out. No one then implied that the court had been “ordered” to find him guilty and pass a sentence of death. The consensus was that he had provoked the court-martial, gambling on receiving a prison sentence.
And there was no doubt in the minds of us POWs that he had won the gamble anyway. For the authorities could never follow through on the sentence—not now, after the Bulge debacle and all its widely witnessed large and small foulups. Indeed, some men of the 106th Division, a new outfit, were rumored to have surrendered en masse, their rearechelon baggage still in their possession. There were many in the camp from that luckless division.
I came to accept the view of Slovik’s prospects that was general in Stalag IVB. There seemed little chance that the many offenses in the Bulge debacle could or would be run down and cited for courtsmartial. That would be bad publicity. This being so, “they” could not in good faith execute this one offender. By strict interpretation they should try the three surgeons and the exhausted enlisted men left behind in Wiltz on the night of December 19 and all those who had run away from division headquarters the day before. Charges would certainly have to be brought against the commander of the medical unit alongside us that had disappeared without notice during the night of December 18. You could grant that the two medical officers who ducked out earlier that day had played the old Army game; no one could pin anything on them.
For a time, after I had learned of the execution, I made some noise about it. Among the group of hundreds of exPOWs awaiting early shipment home, my “protests” met with agreement—diluted with indifference. I railed against the injustice of executing one offender while closing eyes, as a matter of practical or political prudence, to the raft of new offenses committed in the Battle of the Bulge. Assign me to that court now, I maintained, and I would not vote the death penalty, knowing that among the thousands of soldiers engaged there had to be dozens or even hundreds who would fail. At the trial in November I simply had not had sufficient experience or understanding of that fact.
Those sympathetic in some degree with my personal crusade did their bit to put it into perspective. They said, in effect: “OK, Slovik alone got the book thrown at him. He was dumb, his defense counsel was dumb, and the court was a bunch of Boy Scouts. What can you or anybody do about it now?”
In June 1945, as we camped comfortably on the beach in large tents, luxuriating in too much food and idleness in the incredible sunshine that bathed Le Havre that month, the sense of great good luck, of having made it, prevailed over everything. The war in Europe was over; we were Americans victorious. The times were crude and exciting, and talk of Justice, the blindfolded goddess holding the scales in her hand, was out of place. Reading, writing letters, idling in the sun over endless games of poker, trading rumors and jokes, I found the sense of outrage gradually fading. Just ahead was everything we believed we had fought for: country, family, home, career, and an end to war forever.
The case first came into public view in June 1948, in a tendentious article by William Bradford Huie, “Are Americans Afraid to Fight?” in Liberty , a national magazine, now defunct. The article infuriated veterans of the 28th Division because of errors of fact and because it implied that the division had performed badly. We sent a letter of protest, but there was no acknowledgment from Huie or the magazine.