Sunday, June 8, 2014

Private Edward Slovik

Execution Private Slovik
Private Eddie Slovik

This is the sad story of a simple man who paid a terrible price for doing the wrong thing. He was a poor little schnook who didn't know any better, and he deserved everything he got under the military code of justice. Whether he really deserved it in a metaphysical sense of fair play is up to you to decide. He was the last man executed for desertion by the United States military.

Edward Donald Slovik was born in Detroit Michigan, on 18 February 1920, to parents of Polish origin. He was a difficult child and became what was then known as a juvenile delinquent. This involved a life of petty crime, not unusual for an uneducated working class boy from the rough streets of Detroit. He started running with the wrong crowd early, being arrested for the first time at the age of twelve. Many more arrests followed, all for thefts of one kind or another.

In October 1937, Slovik went to prison for the first time for breaking and entering. He was in the joint for over a year, but he did not reform. After his release in January 1939, he was convicted again of DUI and attempted theft.

This time Slovik was behind bars for three years. He was paroled in early 1942, and with the help of his Parole Officer secured gainful employment for the first time in his life at the Montella Plumbing Company in Dearborn, Michigan. There he met his future wife, Antoinette.

Execution Private Slovik
Eddie and Antoinette get married

The two were married on November 7, 1942 and moved in with Antoinette's parents. The next day, something happened that was to change their lives forever: Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of North Africa. However, they were blissfully unaware.

Slovik next got a job at the old DeSoto plant, and the couple moved into a duplex. As an ex-convict, Slovik could not be drafted, which suited them both just fine. Due to Operation Torch, however, a manpower shortage in the Army developed, and the military changed the draft rules. Slovik had been classified 4F - ineligible for the draft - because of his prison record, but during 1943 was reclassifed 1A. He received his draft notice shortly after the couple's first wedding anniversary in November 1943. He passed A/1 fit for service despite being naturally timid, frail, and rather sickly, none of which were grounds for avoiding military service.

Basic training was the usual nightmare, but Slovik got through it. His drill instructors armed him with dummy grenades because he was so afraid of firearms and loud bangs. There was a manpower service, after all.

His training over, Slovik was assigned to the 28th Division and dispatched with them in August 1944 to fight in France. There was a general feeling that the war was almost over.

Slovik missed his wife dearly. He wrote long letters (376 of them) to her during his 372 days in the Army. The Germans stabilized their front before the Rhine and started fighting back. During one German attack, Slovik and his friend John Tankey hid during an artillery barrage and became separated from their detachment. They found a Canadian military police unit and hid with them for six weeks, cooking for them and doing odd jobs. That is a long time, but it was a chaotic period of the war and the front line wasn't moving. The Canadians reportedly enjoyed the pair's potato pancakes, so they made no effort to send Slovik and Tankey away.

Tankey, though, finally got nervous and wrote to their regiment to explain the situation. Since many replacement soldiers had been separated from their units, no charges were filed. There was a manpower shortage, after all.

During this period, Slovik realized he “wasn’t cut out for combat.” Perhaps he was a victim of battle fatigue. Perhaps not.

The two returned to their unit in early October. The 28th Infantry Division in which Eddie served was scheduled to participate in a major offensive in the Hurtgen Forest. Casualties were expected to be high, that's how rumors are in the military during combat. The intended assault was common knowledge amongst the troops and the number of desertions had increased considerably.

Slovik now wanted out badly. On October 8, 1944, he flat-out told his Commanding Officer Captain Ralph Grotte that he was too scared to serve in a rifle company. He requested to be transferred to a rear Unit. Grotte refused the request, as commanding officers are wont to do. The following day, Slovik handed a note to an MP in which he asserted once again that he would run away if sent back into combat.

Slovik then 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. Kind of a strange thing to do. Battle fatigue?

The cook brought the note to his company commander and an MP who read Slovik’s strange note. They told Slovik to destroy the note and go back to his unit, but Slovik refused. Slovik was brought before Lt Colonel Ross Henbest, who told Slovik to think rationally and just forget the note and go back to his unit. Slovik would face no charges if he just did what he was told. Slovik refused.

Henbest then had Slovik write another note on the back of the first one stating that he fully understood the legal consequences of incriminating himself by writing a note stating he intended on desert. One final time, Henbest gave Slovik the chance to leave without penalty. Slovik refused.

His case now went to the Judge Advocate of his Division Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Summer. Summer offered Slovik the same deal as Henbest, that he could tear up the note and just go back to his unit. He even offered Eddie the chance to transfer to another Division where he could make a fresh start and with no charges hanging over him.

Slovik still refused, and remained adamant that he would not fight. He was scheduled for court-martial. After that, things happened fast, as they do in such situations during wartime, at least back then.

Slovik was charged with “desertion to avoid hazardous duty.” At his Court-Martial on 11 November 1944, the Prosecution produced witnesses who were willing to testify to Slovik’s determination and willingness to run away. Slovik refused to testify in his own defense.

The nine Officers on the Jury voted unanimously to find Slovik guilty of repeated desertion and sentenced him to death by firing squad.

Slovik was stunned. He just expected to serve some jail time, which didn't bother him because he was used to it anyway. On December 9, 1944 wrote to General Eisenhower pleading for clemency.

Eisenhower refused to consider it and wrote back confirming the Execution Order.

In his final letter to his wife, Slovik wrote:

“Everything happens to me. I’ve never had a streak of luck in my life. The only luck I ever had was when I married you. I knew it wouldn’t last because I was too happy. I knew they wouldn’t let me be happy”.

The execution was carried out in the village of Saint-Marie-aux-Mines, France at 10.04 a.m. on January 31, 1945. Soldiers strapped Slovik to a post with belts and the chaplain said to him, “Eddie, when you get up there, say a little prayer for me." Slovik responded, “Okay, Father. I’ll pray that you don’t follow me too soon.”

He stated:
"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." 
He was shot with eleven bullets. One of his firing squad executioners said afterward, “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?”

Eddie Slovik was buried in the Cise-Aisne Cemetery in France along with the 94 American soldiers who were executed for rape and murder. He was the only soldier of the war executed for desertion.

Eddie’s wife and family were told that he had died whilst serving in the European Theatre of Operations. His real fate wasn’t revealed to them until 1954.

Execution Private Slovik

Eddie’s wife Antoinette was to campaign for a pardon for her husband for the rest of her life, petitioning seven different Presidents. The story became well-known, and Martin Sheen starred in a 1974 made-for-tv movie about the case, "The Execution of Private Slovik." It got very good ratings and is a minor classic.

Antoinette worked relentlessly to clear her husband's record and to claim his body. She died on September 7, 1979 in Detroit without accomplishing either. She had been living there under an assumed name.

There was one final act to this drama. Bernard V. Calka, of Macomb County Michigan and a Polish-American World War II veteran, petitioned the U.S. Army to return Slovik's remains to the USA. In 1987, he convinced President Ronald Reagan to order their return. Calka raised $8,000 to pay for the exhumation of Slovik's remains and for their transfer to Detroit's Woodmere Cemetery, where Slovik was reburied next to his wife.

Execution Private Slovik


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