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, 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 ~~
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