On January 31, 1945, twelve soldiers raised their rifles, pointed them, and fired. Fifteen minutes later, private Eddie Slovik was dead. He remains the only U.S. soldier executed solely for desertion since the Civil War, when it was a disturbingly common punishment. Why did Slovik suffer this fate?
Desertion during World War II?
“The person that is not willing to fight and die, if need be, for his country has no right to life.” ~ Colonel James E. Rudder
While armchair historians often tout World War II as “the Last Good War,” not every combatant agreed. Back in those days, service in the U.S. military wasn’t voluntary…it was mandatory. Even worse, those who went AWOL from a war they’d been forced into fighting risked the maximum punishment…death. Although exact AWOL numbers remain unknown, more than 21,000 people were sentenced for desertion during World War II. 49 of those individuals were given the death sentence. Out of those 49 people, a single person was executed…Eddie Slovik.
The Execution of Private Eddie Slovik?
Prior to the war, Slovik was “a small-time thief and ex-convict who was originally classified as unfit for military service.” But he was drafted anyway and in August 1944, found himself in France. During the horrific Battle of Hürtgen Forest, the U.S. Army suffered 33,000 casualties. Eddie Slovik barely managed to survive and afterward, decided he “wasn’t cut out for combat.” He requested a reassignment away from the front lines. His request was denied so he deserted, along with hundreds if not thousands of other Americans. After being caught, he refused to return to his unit. Summarily, he was convicted of desertion and sentenced to death. Shocked by the severity of the punishment, he appealed to General Eisenhower for clemency. But Eisenhower refused and on January 31, 1945, Eddie Slovik was executed via firing squad.
“They’re not shooting me for deserting the United States Army, thousands of guys have done that. They just need to make an example out of somebody and I’m it because I’m an ex-con. I used to steal things when I was a kid, and that’s what they are shooting me for. They’re shooting me for the bread and chewing gum I stole when I was 12 years old.” ~ Eddie Slovik
Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis
35 American soldiers were executed during World War I, all for the crimes of rape and/or murder. 102 American soldiers were executed for the same reasons during World War II. But Eddie Slovik remains the only soldier in either war (or in any military engagement since the Civil War) to be executed for the sole crime of desertion. But why?
Clearly, General Eisenhower and other military leaders decided to make an example out of Slovik. American soldiers were dying in terrifying numbers in hotly-contested France. As such, mass desertions had become a major problem. Eisenhower apparently believed the execution of Eddie Slovik would be enough to make soldiers think twice before deserting their units. Of course, the execution had little to no impact and desertions continued for the duration of the war. Incidentally, desertions continue today as well with roughly 40,000 members of the U.S. military going AWOL between 2000 and 2006).
In the end, Slovik’s offer to serve in a noncombatant capacity was denied. Thus, he was murdered for refusing to fight in a war that he’d never wanted any part of in the first place. As Bernard Calka said in 1987 when bringing Slovik’s remains home from France, “The man didn’t refuse to serve, he refused to kill.”