Eddie Slovik Court-Martial: 1944

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Eddie Slovik Court-Martial: 1944

Defendant: Private Eddie D. Slovik
Crime Charged: Violation of the 58th Article of War (desertion to avoid hazardous duty)
Chief Defense Lawyer: Captain Edward P. Woods
Chief Prosecutor: Captain John 1. Green
Judges: 1st Lieutenant Bernard Altman, Captain Stanley H. French, Captain Benedict B. Kimmelman, Major Orland F. Leighty, Major Robert D. Montondo, Captain Arthur V. Patterson, Captain Clarence W. Welch, Major Herbert D. White, and Colonel Guy M. Williams.
Place: Rotgen, Germany
Date of Trial: November 11, 1944
Verdict: Guilty
Sentence: Execution

SIGNIFICANCE: Private Eddie Slovik was the only American executed for desertion of military duty from 1864 in the Civil War to the present. His court-martial during World War 11 stands as an example of the precise application of the letter of the law. It leaves disturbing questions about whether, all things considered, it was a fair trial.

In August 1944, as American forces in World War II fought across France into Germany, replacement troops, fresh off the troopship Aquitania and just out of basic infantry training, were moved toward combat. As one truckload of 12 soldiers neared the city of Elbeuf, some 80 miles northwest of Paris, they passed miles of bloody and charred remains of men, horses, guns, trucks, and tanks left behind by fleeing Germans. The Americans expected to join G Company of the 109th Infantry, 28th DivisionPennsylvania's famed National Guard outfit, known since World War I as the Keystone or "Bloody Bucket" division.

Toward midnight, not having found G Company and with shellfire exploding around them, the raw troops were ordered to dig in for the night. Two men, Privates Eddie Slovik and John F. Tankey, holed into side-by-side foxholes as German shells continued to pummel them. In the morning, Slovik and Tankey, saying they could not find their 10 companions or their unit, presented themselves to a Canadian unit in the vicinity and were welcomed.

A "Damn Good Guy"

Tankey wrote a letter to the 109th announcing that both men were lost. They stayed with the Canadian outfit for six weeks, roving back toward Calais as the unit posted notices explaining martial law to the natives. Eddie Slovik, 25 years old, established himself as a "damn good guy," an outstanding forager, and the creator of delicious potato pancakes, a talent grown on his Polish family tree.

Tankey noticed that Slovik quit carrying ammunition in his cartridge belt. Instead, he wadded pieces of paper, collected from the Red Cross, on which he almost constantly wrote letters to his wife in Detroit.

On October 7, Slovik and Tankey reached 109th regimental headquarters at Rocherath and were sent to Company G. No charges were placed against them, for the system of moving up rookie troops had been severely confused by the rapid movement of the outfits they were supposed to find.

"If I Leave Now, Will it be Desertion?"

Eddie Slovik reported to his company commander, Captain Ralph 0. Grotte, in a farmhouse on the afternoon of October 8. He was "too scared, too nervous," he said, to serve with a rifle company. Could he serve in a rear area? If not, he said, he would run away. The captain shook his head and assigned him to Platoon 4. Slovik reported to his platoon leader, then went back to the captain. "If I leave now, will it be desertion?" he asked. Captain Grotte said it would. Slovik disappeared.

The next morning, a cook at the Military Government Detachment, 112th Infantry, found Eddie Slovik before him, presenting a slip of green paper with handwriting and saying he had made a confession. The cook turned Slovik over to his lieutenant, who had a military policeman take him back to the 109th, where Lieutenant Colonel Ross C. Henbest read Slovik's confession:

I Pvt. Eddie D. Slovik #36896415 confess to the Desertion of the United States Army. I came to Albuff as a Replacement. They were shelling the town and we were told to dig in for the night. The following morning I was so scared nerves and trembling that at the time the other Replacements moved out I couldn't move. I stayed in my foxhole till it was quiet. I then walked in town. I turned myself over to the Canadian Provost Corp. After six weeks I was turned over to American M.P. They turned me lose. I told my commanding officer my story. I said that if I had to go out there again I'd run away. He said their was nothing he could do for me so I ran away again AND I'LL RUN AWAY AGAIN IF I HAVE TO GO OUT THERE.

The colonel advised Slovik to take back the confession and destroy it. When Slovik refused, the colonel had him write a disclaimer on the back noting that it "can be held against me and that I made it of my own free will and that I do not have to make it."

"I've Made Up My Mind"

Eddie Slovik was then locked up in the division stockade. Charges were preferred and investigated. Lieutenant Colonel Henry P. Sommer, the division judge advocate, offered Slovik a deal: "If you will go back to your outfit and soldier," he said, "I'll ask the General if he will suspend action on your courtmartial. I'll even try to get you a transfer to another regiment where nobody will know what you have done and you can make a clean start"

" I've made up my mind," said Slovik. "I'll take my court-martial."

The colonel was not surprised. He had heard many men prefer to take their court-martials. The fact was that the 28th "Bloody Bucket" Division was facing its most difficult fighting ever. Deep in the Hurtgen Forest, it was being pounded by heavy and terrifying German artillery barrages. Casualties were high, withdrawals were imperative, rookie reinforcements were inexperienced and disorganized, snow was already falling. Men who had marched exuberantly through Paris in August were ready to take dishonorable discharges and serve months or, if need be, Years behind bars to escape from the front lines in November. Desertions were becoming commonplace.

The Slovik court-martial was held at 10:00 a.m. on November 11, 1944 (the anniversary of World War I's Armistice Day). Before nine officers of the court seated behind a long table, the prosecutor, Captain John I. Green, stated the charge: desertion to avoid hazardous duty. On the specific charge of desertion at Elbeuf, a single witness testified that after the rookie troops searching for Company G had dug into foxholes a subsequent order had told them to move out, and that he had heard Slovik's voice among the men. On the specific charge of desertion at Rocherath, witnesses were the MP to whom Slovik handed his confession, Captain Grotte, who told of his interview with Slovik, the cook whom Slovik first encountered at Rocherath, and the officer to whom the cook took him.

Slovik's defense counsel, Captain Edward P. Woods, announced that the accused elected to remain silent. Lieutenant Bernard Altman then read him his legal right to be sworn as a witness. Slovik conferred with Woods, then said, "I will remain silent." The defense rested.

On secret written ballots, the nine officers then found Eddie Slovik guilty on the general charge and on each specific charge. All nine then concurred, on secret written ballots, in sentencing the accused:

To be dishonorably discharged from the service, to forfeit all pay and allowances due or to become due, and to be shot to death with musketry.

The court adjourned at 11:40 a.m.

Under military law, the sentence had to be approved by the division commander, Major General Norman D. "Dutch" Cota, after the division judge advocate prepared a comprehensive review and recommendations. The review produced an FBI check on Slovik. It disclosed that he had a prison record. After serving five years for embezzling small change and merchandise worth $59.60 from a drug store where he worked, and for automobile theft and violation of paroles, he had been paroled in 1942, had married, and had held a good job until he was drafted in 1944. The prison record, the judge advocate told the general, was a reason for not recommending clemency.

Case Reviewed Extensively

The Slovik case was also reviewed by the military justice section of the European theater judge advocate and by the branch office of the judge advocate general, which reported:

There can be no doubt that he deliberately sought the safety and comparative comfort of the guardhouse. If the death penalty is ever to be imposed for desertion it should be imposed in this case, not as a punitive measure nor as retribution, but to maintain that discipline upon which alone an army can succeed against the enemy.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower, as European theater commander, issued the order confirming the sentence and directing the execution. Eddie Slovik was executed at St. Marie aux Mines in France on January 31, 1945, by a firing squad of 12 enlisted men.

Slovik's widow received no further pay or allowances. His GI insurance was not paid because, she was told, he died under "dishonorable" circumstances. She did not learn until 1953 that her husband had been executed for desertion.

Bernard Ryan, Jr.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Huie, William Bradford. The Execution of Private Slovik. New York: Dell, 1970.

Kimmelman, Benedict B. "The Example of Private Slovik." American Heritage (September/October 1987) 97-104.