- 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
When Private Eddie Slovik was executed on January 31,1945, he became the only American put to death for desertion since Lincoln was President. After his death he became the subject of a book that sold in the millions, numerous magazine articles, a television special, a play or two, and several public campaigns that made his case an issue and still keep it alive.
I saw Eddie Slovik for most of one morning, no more, and he never said a word to me. I cannot say for certain whether it is his face I remember or a photograph in a magazine article based on William Bradford Huie’s best seller The Execution of Private Slovik. But I sat on Slovik’s court-martial, as one of the nine officer-judges who unanimously voted the death penalty.
In August of 1944 Eddie Slovik was a twenty-four-year-old replacement trucked up one day in a group assigned to an infantry line company in France. Encountering shellbursts and heavy fire for the first time, he knew at once that he could never make it on the line. With a buddy he hid out, and on the following day they turned themselves in to Canadian military police who were passing through. Not under arrest, they made themselves generally useful for the next six weeks, until the Canadians returned them to American military control on October 5.
Returning to his regiment a couple of days later, Slovik asked the company commander if leaving again would be considered desertion. He was told that it would be, but he walked off, refusing to be persuaded by his buddy, who remained. The next day, October 9, he turned himself in at a nearby field kitchen. He handed the cook a written statement:
“I, Pvt. Eddie D. Slovik, 36896415, confess to the desertion of the United States Army. At the time of my desertion we were in Albuff [Elbeuf] in France. I come to Albuff as a replacement. They were shilling the town and we were told to dig in for the night. The flowing morning they were shilling us again. I was so scared nerves and trembling that at the time the other replacements moved out I couldn’t move. I stayed their in my fox hole till it was quite and I was able to move. I then walked in town. Not seeing any of our troops so I stayed over night at a French hospital. The next morning I turned myself over to the Canadian Provost Corp. After being with them six weeks I was turned over to American M.R They turned me lose. I told my commanding officer my story. I said that if I had to go out their again Id run away. He said their was nothing he could do for me so I ran away again AND ILL RUN AWAY AGAIN IF I HAVE TO GO OUT THEIR.
—Signed PvI. Eddie D. Slovik A.S.N. 36896415”
He waited while the cook got an officer, who phoned for an MP to place him under arrest. After being transferred to a prisoner stockade on October 26, Slovik was interviewed by both the division judge advocate and the division psychiatrist.
The judge advocate, the division’s chief legal officer, offered to quash all charges if Slovik would take back his statement and agree to serve. Slovik refused. The division psychiatrist interviewed him and found him “to show no evidence of mental disease...& I consider him sane & responsible for his actions...” Private Slovik was ordered to stand trial on November 11,1944, before a general court-martial of the 28th Division.
The trial took place in the grimmest surroundings and during the worst time the division had endured, a stalemate in the Hürtgen Forest. For nine days the Americans had been wasting their men and firepower against impregnable pillboxes expertly placed years before. The casualty lists were high, with one-third of the casualties killed in action or dying of wounds, and with no ground gained. The site of the trial was a scarred two-story building in the village of Rötgen, Germany. It was a cold, gray day, with snow off and on.
The court convened at 10:00 A.M. The judges all were, like myself, staff officers. Up to that time none of us had truly served in the line or had had the job of commanding troops in actual combat. I was a dentist. Another was a lawyer in civil life. The division finance officer, a colonel, presided. Staff officers were more likely to be readily available than line (combat) officers, and their appointments to serve on general courts-martial were not unusual. Slovik’s defense counsel, a young staff captain, was not an attorney, but he had served on previous courts-martial.
Slovik elected to stand mute. His defense counsel pleaded him “not guilty.” Witnesses gave testimony to Slovik’s identity and the dates and places of his defections. His written statement was placed in evidence with his and his counsel’s permission. I recall that at one point some member of the court suggested that Slovik might withdraw his statement about refusing to go out there in the future in return for our dismissing the charges and removing the risk of his receiving the “full penalty.” The scene in my mind is of Slovik’s turning silently to his defense counsel, who declared, “Let it stand,” which seemed to satisfy Slovik.