Eddie Slovik: Shot at Dawn

Eddie Slovik was the only American soldier to be executed during World War Two for desertion despite some 20,000 others being found guilty of a similar offence. A further 27,000 American soldiers were convicted of criminal offences ranging from robbery to rape and murder some of whom were sentenced to death though most execution orders were later commuted to terms of imprisonment. But Eddie Slovik was to be shot, though he had hurt no one.

Edward Donald Slovik was born in Detroit, Michigan on 18 February 1920, to parents of Polish origin.

The young Eddie was far from perfect and he had been a troublesome child and as he grew into a teenager he became what we would now probably describe as a juvenile delinquent but a life of petty crime was hardly unusual for an uneducated working class boy from the rough side of Detroit.

He had been arrested for the first time at the age of twelve, and it was to be the first of a long string of arrests for crimes usually involving theft. Unable or unwilling to work his life was aimless and there is no doubt that he fell in with a bad crowd but he was never malicious or violent. Indeed, he was in many respects a placid and compliant young man.

In October 1937, he went to prison for the first time for breaking and entering and soon after his release in January 1939, he was returned to prison this time for drunk driving and theft.

He was paroled in early 1942 and with the help of his Parole Officer he secured gainful employment for the first time in his life at the Montella Plumbing Company in Dearborn. It was here that he was to meet his future wife Antoinette Wisniewski, a co-worker.

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At last, Eddie seemed ready to settle down.

Originally deemed unfit for military service because of his status as a habitual criminal, the United States Army was later to change its policy adopting a more managerial approach to conscription that would allow them to keep more of their best troops in reserve to be used at pivotal times in any conflict and so in November 1943, Eddie was conscripted and passed A/1 fit for service.

A naturally timid, frail, and rather sickly looking young man, Eddie found basic training a nightmare and he was so afraid of firearms and loud bangs that his drill instructors had to arm him with dummy grenades to facilitate his passing through.

His training over he was dispatched in August 1944, to fight in France.

Eddie’s first experience of going into combat and coming under artillery fire terrified him. Not long after, along with a friend, John Tankey, he became separated from his Unit and did not reappear again for six weeks.

It transpired that he had been picked up by a Canadian Military Police Unit and had been spending his time cooking and doing odd-jobs for them. He was by all accounts popular and the Canadians who particularly enjoyed his potato pancakes and were sorry to see him go.

Eddie was returned to his own Unit in October.

His friend had earlier written a letter explaining their absence and no charges were brought but by this time Eddie had ceased to carry ammunition on his person and only retained his rifle because it was expected of him not that he had no intention of ever using it and told everyone so.

On 8 October, he presented a letter to his Commanding Officer Captain Ralph Grotte in which he stated that he was too frightened to serve in the front-line and requested he be transferred to a rear Unit. He then went onto explain that if he were forced to fight he would run away. He then asked that if he were to do so would it, constitute desertion? He was told it would.

Eddie’s request for reassignment was refused, so the following day he handed a note to a Military Policeman in which he asserted once again that he would run away if sent back into combat. He was called in for questioning by Colonel Ross Henbest who offered him the opportunity to tear up the note. If he did so nothing more would be said about it. Eddie refused, instead writing another letter confirming that he understood the possible consequences of his actions.

His case now went to the Judge Advocate of his Division Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Summer who again offered him the opportunity to tear up the note. He even offered Eddie the chance to transfer to another Division where he could make a fresh start. It would save them all a great deal of trouble if he did so.

Eddie still refused, and remained adamant that he would not fight. He would take his Court-Martial if he had to.

Eddie Slovik was charged with “desertion to avoid hazardous duty” and at his Court-Martial on 11 November 1944, the Prosecution produced any number of witnesses who were willing to testify to Eddie’s determination and willingness to run away.

After all, he had hardly kept it a secret.

The fighting in the West since the initial success of the Normandy landings had intensified and was only likely to get worse with the American Army bearing much of the burden. Casualties were high and it was not a good time to refuse to share in the sacrifices being made by your comrades and there was little sympathy among those who did their duty and risked their lives for those who refused to do so.

The 28th Infantry Division in which Eddie served was scheduled to participate in a major offensive in the Hurtgen Forest and again casualties were expected to be high.

The intended assault was common knowledge among the troops and the number of desertions had increased as a result, and a great many men had expressed a preference to prison over combat though for most this never amounted to more than words. Nevertheless, it was a trend that could not be allowed to continue and had to be stamped out.

After refusing to take the Stand and testify in his own defence the 9 Officers on the Jury voted unanimously to find Eddie Slovik guilty of repeated desertion and sentenced him to death by firing squad.

It has been suggested that the always gullible Eddie had been influenced in his actions by those he met during his time in the Stockade who had told him that no one had been shot for desertion, which was true. Of the 21,000 other American soldiers who had been convicted of a similar offence only 49 had been sentenced to death, and all these sentences were later commuted.

On 9 December, Eddie wrote a letter to the Allied Supreme Commander Dwight D Eisenhower pleading for clemency.

Eisenhower denied the request and wrote back confirming the Execution Order.

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At 10.04am on 31 January 1945, Edward Donald Slovik, was executed by firing squad in the village of Saint-Marie-aux-Mines.

It was clear that Eddie’s crime wasn’t merely dereliction of duty and desertion but in openly stating his intention to do so and thereby flouting military authority. He was not the most intelligent of men and was perhaps too easily led but neither was he a violent or ill-intentioned man, though his actions put the lives of others at risk.

Eddie was without doubt afraid, and very much missed the wife he had spent so little time with and during the 372 days of his military service he wrote to his wife on no less than 376 occasions.

He was also bitter at the outcome of his trial and failed to understand why he had been singled out for exemplary treatment remarking:

“They are shooting me for the bread and chewing gum I stole when I was twelve.”

In his final letter to his wife he wrote:

“Everything happens to me. I’ve never had a streak of luck in my life. The only luck I ever had was when I married you. I knew it wouldn’t last because I was too happy. I knew they wouldn’t let me be happy.”

Eddie Slovik was buried in the Cise-Aisne Cemetery in France along with the 94 American soldiers who were executed for rape and murder. Eddie’s wife and family were told that he had died whilst serving in the European Theatre of Operations and his real fate wasn’t revealed to them until 1954.

His remains were returned to Michigan in 1987.

Eddie’s wife Antoinette was to campaign for a pardon for her husband for the rest of her life, petitioning seven different Presidents. It has never been granted.

She died in 1979.

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