20 April 2011

Cowards: The Execution of Private Slovik


By Karen Mercury

Poor Eddie Slovik never stood a chance. Before enlisting in the Army he’d done a few stints in the big house in Michigan for stealing. He finally obtained a paying job plumbing and even managed to find a wife but they still lived with her parents. Maybe that was why he seemed so eager to join the army in ’44 after initially being rejected for his prison record. The Army decided that some criminals were actually pretty adept at killing people, so they finally let him in. In France, Slovik and his friend Tankey hid during an artillery attack and became separated from their detachment. This was when Slovik realized he “wasn’t cut out for combat.”
I always imagine that the men who voluntarily enlisted knew what to expect, but apparently the reality was too much for poor ol’ Eddie. So they found a Canadian military police unit and hid with them for six weeks. Tankey wrote to their regiment to explain the situation, and since many replacement soldiers had been separated from their units, no charges were filed. But hiding from combat was a much more serene lifestyle for Eddie, so on October 8 he just up and told his commander he was too scared to serve in a rifle company, asking to be assigned to a rear area unit. He told the commander he’d run away if assigned to a rifle unit and asked if that would constitute desertion. The commander confirmed that it would, and went ahead and sent him to a rifle unit.

The next day, Slovik deserted. Tankey tried to get him to stay but Slovik’s mind was made up. He walked to the rear until he found a cook at another detachment, showing the cook a note he’d written that stated his intention to run away if sent into combat. Isn’t that a little like writing someone a note informing them you’re having sex with their spouse? See, Eddie thought the worst thing that could happen would be the stockade, and he was already quite familiar and comfortable with that idea. He wanted to be court martialed and kicked out of the army. He didn’t reckon that, this being a fairly hairy war with tons of casualties as well as desertions, they needed every last available body to fight, or possibly even make an example out of him to deter other would-be deserters.

So the cook got the company commander and an MP who read Slovik’s not terribly bright note, and everyone urged him to destroy it. Slovik refused to destroy the note, so he was brought before LtC Henbest, who again offered him the chance to toss the note, return to his unit, and face no charges. Once more Slovik refused, so Henbest ordered him to write another note on the back stating he fully understood the legal consequences of incriminating himself by writing a note stating he intended on deserting—which Eddie gladly did. He was given a chance to join a regiment who had no clue of his cowardly past, but Eddie preferred to take what he thought would be a simple court martial.

He was instantly court martialed and sentenced to death, which isn’t terribly surprising in light of how he waved his intentions in everyone’s face and rejected several opportunities to change his mind. Back in those days, it took less time to carry out a death sentence than to get a parking ticket eradicated.
Shocked, he even wrote Eisenhower pleading for clemency, but the Supreme Commander responded with apathy. There was little sympathy for ol’ Eddie. One of his firing squad executioners said “I got no sympathy for that sonofabitch! He deserted us, didn’t he? He didn’t give a damn how many of us got the hell shot out of us, why should we care for him?”

The execution was carried out in France on January 31, 1945. Slovik said, "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." Soldiers strapped him to a post with belts and the chaplain said to him, “Eddie, when you get up there, say a little prayer for me. Slovik said, “Okay, Father. I’ll pray that you don’t follow me too soon.” And Slovik was slammed with eleven bullets.

There were many other deserters during WWII but Slovik was the only one ever executed. Were they making an example of Slovik, to deter other would-be deserters? Or were they just fed up with his blatant in-your-face refusal to join his comrades in battle? His wife and others have petitioned seven Presidents for a pardon, but no one has granted it yet. Sad old Eddie goes down in history as the first enlisted man to be executed since the Civil War for being stupid.

Karen Mercury's first three historicals, including STRANGELY WONDERFUL were set in precolonial Africa. Her latest, WORKING THE LODE, is an erotic romance set during the California gold rush. Available now!