Private Eddie Slovik: An Example Who Never Was

It happened 67-years ago this January. It was an occasion that few people take note of or know much about. It was an event meant to be seared into the minds of every American combat soldier serving at the time. It was 1945 and in France the fighting of a World War was fierce.

Eddie and Antoinette Slovik

Eddie, a Polish-American born in 1920, had grown up during the depression on the mean streets of Detroit. A petty thief when 12-years old he was arrested several times and incarcerated twice as a teenager. Released from reform school after a short-term for breaking and entering he was sent to prison for stealing and crashing a car while drunk at 19. Three years later in April 1941 Eddie was once again released. He found work in Dearborn, Michigan and at the age of 22 married Antoinette Wisniewski.

Originally deemed unfit for military service because of his criminal record Eddie was later reclassified and drafted in the Army in January 1944. Times were tough in those days, America needed every able-bodied man it could get. Even an ex-con would do with war raging around the globe. Eight months later, described as frail, timid and somewhat a misfit, definitely not military material, Eddie joined the troops in France as part of the historic 28th Infantry Division.

Two things would play a major role for Eddie and his future. One, he was familiar with prison life and running afoul of the law. And two, he did not want to fight.

In October 1944, a short time after his arrival in Europe, Eddie who said he “wasn’t cut out for combat” deserted his unit. Given several opportunities to reconsider and return to his rifle platoon Slovik refused and was arrested. (Several additional opportunities were offered, even at trial, but he rejected them all.) He was tried by court martial a month later for desertion and refused to testify on his own behalf. Found guilty Private Eddie Slovik was sentenced to death by firing squad. During the war over 21,000 U.S. military personnel were convicted for desertion. But, while around 50 of them were sentenced to the same fate as Slovik, none were ever executed.

Eddie wrote Supreme Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower a letter asking for clemency. Slovik expected the same punishment he’d seen given to other deserters while confined to the stockade — a dishonorable discharge and a jail term. But luck was not on Eddie’s side. Desertion had been a problem in France, and the surprise German offensive known as the Battle of the Bulge had just begun. U.S. casualties were severe. The strain on the morale of the infantry was at it’s greatest since the war began, so Eisenhower approved Slovik’s execution and noted it was necessary to discourage further desertions.

On the morning of January 31, 1945, in the courtyard of a private French residence, 24-year old Eddie Slovik, standing before a high masonry wall, was shot by firing squad. Strapped to a post Slovik was struck by eleven bullets, but none were instantly fatal and it took several minutes for him to die. 

He is to this day the only American soldier executed for desertion since the Civil War. Slovik was buried in an American military cemetery in France alongside nearly 100 American soldiers executed for rape and/or murder. Like those beside him he was buried without a coffin, his body placed in a cotton mattress cover. The graves, hidden from view, are distinguished by small index-card sized markers inscribed only with numbers instead of names.

In May of 1945, three months after the execution, the war came to an end in Europe. Three months later Japan surrendered, after the dropping of Atomic bombs over two of its cities. Slovik’s story was supposed to have been an example to the American combat soldier of what would happen if they deserted. But no mention of his execution came down through the ranks nor were any articles printed about the condemned deserter in the Stars and Stripes, the American soldier’s newspaper.

I first heard of Eddie Slovik from two soldiers who were fighting in Europe when he was executed. They were my uncles Eli and Wib. Eli was 22 at the time and his older brother 27. Both of them were seasoned combat veterans. Eli as part of the second wave on D-Day at Omaha Beach and Wib, who had fought at the Battle of the Bulge, with Patton’s Third Army. My uncle Wib said he hadn’t heard about Eddie Slovik until after he returned home. He was pretty sure none of his combat buddies had as well. Eli told me he hadn’t heard of Eddie Slovik until decades later when he saw a movie about him on television, The Execution of Private Slovik in 1974.

Eddie’s wife Antoinette unsuccessfully petitioned the Army in 1977 to have her husband’s remains returned to the United States. She died in 1979. In 1981 a Polish-American World War II veteran from Detroit, Bernard Calka, took up the cause and continued to petition the Army to return Slovik’s remains. Six years later he was successful when the Pentagon finally agreed. 42 years after his execution Eddie was reburied in a Detroit cemetery next to his wife.

Captain Benedict Kimmelman, who had been a member of the court martial board, wrote in 1987 that “Slovik, guilty as many others were, was made an example, the sole example, it turned out.” He considered the execution an “historic injustice.”

Although Antoinette Slovik and others have petitioned seven U.S. presidents for a pardon, none has been given.

Everything happens to me. I’ve never had a streak of luck in my life.
~~ Private Eddie Slovik ~~

Woodmere Cemetery, Detroit

Resources and Further Reading:

Wikipedia on Eddie Slovik

The Detroit News: Michigan History

The Last American Soldier Executed for Desertion

Deserter’s Execution Remains Vivid

Treating Our Own – The Death of Eddie Slovik

The New York Times – Seeking a Pardon

Plot “E” – the “Dishonorable Dead”

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10 comments on “Private Eddie Slovik: An Example Who Never Was

  1. loremeltz says:

    Yes, I know this is years old, but it’s still coming up in searches and if I came along and read it, other people are doing the same thing. So, here’s my two cents for the others who came late to the party…

    I agree with all comments about the draft and death penalty and injustice. I hate them all. Really, don’t most of us? The one thing I have to disagree with is why Slovik did what he did, based on research, mainly the words that came out of his own mouth. I do not believe it was courage that motivated Eddie Slovik to leave his fellow soldiers or write the note and refuse to tear it up, but the same mentality he had when he began criminal activity – he wanted to do what he wanted to do believing that whatever consequences came his way would be of little significance. He said he believed he’d be court-martialed, sentenced to x amount of years, and his sentence most likely commuted stateside. His note was belligerently blatant and he completely disregarded several chances to tear it up, and was told repeatedly that no one would mention anything about it if he did…. He was “using the system” to his advantage like so many cons try to do, only this time it backfired. The real problem I have with desertion is that the soldier is not deserting the military, they are deserting their fellow soldiers….

    There are many injustices during war times. But there are, and have been, horrendous injustices since the beginning of time. The word “injustice” falls way short in describing the atrocities that occur worldwide… The list is endless, and compared to all of those things death by a firing squad is preferable…. At the very least he could have snuck off and disappeared like so many others. He did not do that because he was certain that his outcome would be fairly posh compared to the front lines…. He was given an out before he was arrested but chose not to take it…. He said at the end that no good luck ever came his way, that he could never catch a break. Those exact words have been spoken by criminals for centuries. It’s a cop-out for making poor choices….

    I don’t agree with the death penalty. Most people hate war, but they will agree that all it takes for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing…. But we have to take personal responsibility for our own choices. Eddie Slovik made several choices, and knowing that the death penalty was a possibility but believing he could beat it, took the chance. He had the choice to take a couple different paths, and chose not to. Many people have no choice whatsoever and pray for death. There are a lot worse things than a firing squad. All things considered, as horrible as purposeful killing is, Eddie Slovik had much more to do with the way he died than anyone else, and not only because he deserted.

  2. LindaT says:

    Many men have gone to war unwillingly, but THEY fought alongside their fellow soldiers in the trenches, in the bombed out shelters and demolished buildings, in the frigid oceans, in the rice paddies, in the jungles, and in the desert, knowing they were sacrificing their lives for the call to duty, in the cause of freedom. NONE OF THEM SHRUNK FROM THEIR RESPONSIBILITY!

    Slovik was a coward. He used up too much precious time of the U.S. Military during a war while many thousands of other U.S. Soldiers were dying, instead of writing letters to Supreme Allied Commanders who were much too busy to bother with one pathetic shameful cry-baby asking to be the only soldier to live, while others were forced to fight in his place!

    Now, some 68 years later, the liberal jackasses want to make a “hero” out of him, and I’ll bet the majority of these same jackasses commenting on here in defending a U.S. “traitor”, are the same ones who NEVER “served” in the U.S. Armed Forces who never experienced combat during wartime! Before you lame-ducks suggest to me, that I don’t know what fighting the enemy in war is like, let me inform you, that I know from one who was there in the jungles of Con Tien, Vietnam during the Tet Offensive in 1967 and 1968: my husband who served with the 3rd Division U.S. Marines, and believe me………he fought with honor and dignity in support alongside his brave fellow Marines for our country seeing many of his friends he came to know, blown to pieces.

    Thank you to all those who came home with or without limbs, died in combat or as U.S. Veterans, and those who are still living who all served this great and ever-powerful Nation with every ounce of heart and guts you mustered to keep us free! We love and appreciate each and every one of you, now and forever! GOD BLESS ALL OF YOU, AND GOD BLESS THE U.S.A.!!!

    • Rick Gleason says:

      I’m not sure who you’re referring to as “liberal jackasses.” Your labeling seems a bit over-the-top, and says more about you than those you attack. I’m the one who wrote this blog and am anything but. I’m a conservative and a very patriotic American who served at Da Nang Airbase in Vietnam. A reading of my related writings here supports that fact. I know several of the others who commented on this page and most of them fall into the same political spectrum and would debate your logic.

      I guess what I’m trying to say is: It’s possible for patriots and conservatives, even those who served in war-time, to recognize the atrocious decision to have a single man, out of more than 21,000 pay the ultimate price for what was certainly a bad decision. Sorry, it makes absoultely zero sense. I admire Dwight Eisenhower but I believe his rejection of Slovik’s personal appeal in order to make him an example to the American combat soldier was a collosal failure. It was the General’s worse decision in his otherwise stellar tenure as Supreme Allied Commander.

      Finally it was not my intention to make Slovik a “hero.” He clearly was anything but. That’s my “story” and I’m sticking to it. On here I always get the last word.

    • Karl says:

      None of them shrunk from their responsibility? Over 20 000 of them shrunk from their responsibility in that theatre alone – Eddie Slovik was the only one to actually own up to his actions. That takes courage.

      Yes, he was a coward in the face of battle – that’s not something anyone of us can choose. You don’t CHOOSE your own nerves, any more than you choose to be born with good eyesight or not. Slovik didn’t choose to be a coward. Hell, he didn’t even choose to be in the army, but he was forced to. He chose to desert, but he also chose to stand up for his actions. Talking about how others were “forced to fight in his place” is completely moot – Slovik was himself forced to fight. And he was so incompetent in that role that he was a liability rather than an asset. His presence at the front would have done more harm than good, and having someone else take his place would have been the best solution for everybody. I’m sure if Slovik could have chosen it, he would have chosen to be both brave and a good soldier. But not everybody can be your husband.

      You never know how you are going to act under fire until you have experienced it yourself. Your husband may have been as brave as they come, but that still does not reflect upon YOU. Your husband’s experiences are not your own, and you have no idea how you would react in an actual situation. Sometimes even veterans break. You only know your husband’s stories – you don’t actually know what combat is like. And judging by what you write, you know very little about military history, as it is absolutely full of cases of desertion. Your flagrantly false statement in all-caps in your first paragraph makes this embarrassingly evident. Presumably you get your military knowledge directly from your husband, whose military merits I do not doubt for a minute. But I do question your ability – as well as your right – to condemn someone like Eddie Slovik in this fashion.

      Bear this in mind: of over 20 000 American GIs who deserted in France, only 50 were sentenced to death – and only Eddie was executed. Eddie Slovik, who did not choose to go to war, who did not choose to be useless, but who did choose to face the music – unlike most deserters.

  3. Gary says:

    Slovik deserved every bullet he got and the slow death they caused him.

  4. Dan says:

    Slovik, like many others, was a little man caught up in something big that was not of his making.
    Neither Germany nor Japan, much less Italy, were planning to, or were much less capable of, conquering the world. Stalin’s Russia was just as bad, if not worse than Hitler’s Germany. Why were boys and young men such as Slovik thrown into the war?

    • James says:

      America was thrown into the war because of pearl harbor. Isolationist thinks that by turning a blind eye to whats going on in the world, it won’t be a problem for americans. I think it was wrong type of mindset. The problem got big enough that pearl harbor happened, we were forced to deal with the problem then. Eddie slovik wasn’t cut out to be a soldier, his criminal record kept him from being drafted and it should stay that way. I wonder how many of those buried beside him in France had the same circumstance imposed on them. I can’t imagine ex-criminals being issued automatic firearms, it’s a disaster waiting to happen.

  5. I’m not a big fan of the Draft either but my main objection to this execution is based solely on the death penalty for ANYTHING! Killing is killing -regardless of how it is done. And once dead, there is no way to make any corrections should the person executed later be found innocent. And, I know there are times when a crime is so heinous that one thinks immediately “Oh that person should be given the death penalty” but that person also has family who will mourn the loss, regardless of how terrible the crime or individual appear to be. And it certainly doesn’t return those victims to their families either so no real justice there either, in my opinion….

  6. LeRoy William Bloom says:

    One can likely think of many reasons why this man should not have been excecuted. For me there is only one, and it is primary, and one example of my core philosophical and moral beliefs. Slovik had no choice in being at war. The choice was made for him by the draft law. The draft should have always been considered immoral, illegal and unjust in a country which has a constitution and bill of rights such as ours. A military draft, in my opinion, is nothing more than institutional slavery.

    One of the basic rights recognized in our constitution is the right to property. I can think of no more basic property right than the right to our own lives. I celebrated when our nation dispensed with the military draft. I still worry that someday our polticians will get us involved in yet another immoral and unjust war, and not having enough volunteers to fight such a war, will bring back a military draft. The thought is repugnant to me.

    Lest any of the readers here think me a bleeding heart, non combatant whiner, you should know that I served twenty years in the US marines, and two combat tours in Vietnam. And, it troubles me to this day that we drafted young men to fight that war. Some of them died or were maimed for no better reason than the draft law.

    Hopefully the draft will never return.

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