- Historic Sites
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
The image of Slovik I carry with me today is based on my recollections, a good deal of them recorded, as well as on Huie’s book; on the records of the trial and of the reviewing authorities, with annotations by Woods, made available to the public by Woods and DeFinis in 1979; and on opinions and information from Army buddies, several of them now years-long friends, who were acquainted with Slovik or involved in the case. It is of Slovik as a mild, ordinary GI, jumpy and easily panicked by loud explosions but otherwise unremarkable among the vast assortment. A reformed parolee, he had paid his debt after a career of petty thievery and one auto theft. He did his work and took his turns.
I am inclined to believe, as did the reviewing authorities and some who were his guards in the stockade, that he deliberately sought a guilty court-martial verdict to avoid serving as a combatant. He was sure he would never make it on the line. He was not afraid of prison, having served time, and someday, when the war was over, he would come out alive and unharmed. All the attempted dissuasion after his arrest would have come across to him as phony talk from officers, intended to con him back into the line, but he wouldn’t be suckered into that. He would have had no reason to fear execution; he believed that had never happened. If this is a faithful picture, the one-sidedness of the trial and the absence of an active defense are largely explained. Slovik would not have wanted anything said or done that might have jeopardized a guilty verdict.
That said, the execution stands out now, as it did then, as an exercise in injustice. That Slovik contributed to it by his transparent quasi-cunning does not at all exonerate the authorities. Justice is the responsibility of the legal system. We on the court (or at least I) were prejudiced (if the word means having prejudged) by the times and the circumstances. Nothing said at the trial altered for me the picture of a nonentity openly defiant of the rules that we believed bound us all. The reviewing authorities, having the benefit of a little distance, might have shown less prejudice, but did not. Lt. Col. Henry J. Sommer, the division judge advocate, exhibited his personal distaste for Slovik in his review a couple of weeks after the trial: “The accused is an habitual criminal. He has never seen combat, has run away twice when he believed himself approaching it and avows his intent to run again....”
Slovik contributed to his death penalty through his transparent quasicunning, but that does not exonerate the authorities.
A month following this the assistant staff judge advocate, ETO (European Theater of Operations), Maj. Frederick J. Bertolet, who was even farther from the scenes of battle, wrote in his review, “If the death penalty is ever to be imposed for desertion it should be imposed in this case, not as a punitive measure nor as retribution, but to maintain that discipline upon which alone an army can succeed against the enemy.”
Thus Lieutenant Colonel Sommer approved the death sentence because Slovik was not a worthy person, and Major Bertolet approved it to bolster discipline. I am no lawyer and certainly not a military authority, but I believe those endorsements of the death sentence were beyond the knowledge and competence of the reviewers and did not address Slovik’s culpability and the appropriateness of the sentence.
In light of the events of that December, doubtless apparent to Bertolet by the date of his review, December 23, the execution of just one man should have taken on the appearance of cruel and unusual punishment. Defections were by then rampant.
The U.S. Army Information Sheet that accompanied the transcript of the trial and the reviews contained the following: “Shortly after Private Slovik’s trial, forces in Belgium became engaged in...the Battle of the Bulge. Heavy American casualties were being sustained while the record of trial was under review; indeed the success of the Allied campaign was uncertain at the time. This undoubtedly had an effect on the officials who reviewed the sentence of one who refused to fight....”
An official comment, undated, from C. Robert Bard, a colonel in the judge advocate general’s office, provides the following: “During the period 1 January 1942 through 30 June 1948, 2,864 Army personnel were tried for desertion....Of these, forty-nine were sentenced to death. Only one was executed.” Over a six-and-a-half-year period, then, reasons were found by those in higher authority to void the death sentences of forty-eight men found guilty of desertion. Only in Slovik’s case was no reason found. SIovik, guilty as many others were, was made an example—the sole example, as it turned out. An example is a victim. His execution was a historic injustice.