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Feature: The Death of Eddie Slovik

Feature: The Death of Eddie Slovik
February 01
11:18 2022

By John Christian Hopkins

 

Edward Donald Slovik was the only American soldier to die by firing squad during World War II. He was also the first to suffer such a fate since the Civil War.

Private Slovik’s execution took place on January 31, 1945.

Edward Slovik. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Slovik, from Detroit, was originally classified as 4-F (unfit) because of a prison record – he had served time for Grand Theft Auto. He had had run-ins with the police since he was 12.

But as the war dragged on and the need for more men rose Slovik’s classification was changed to 1-A. He was drafted in 1944.

He was sent to basic training to learn to be a rifleman. He objected to this because he disliked guns. He was shipped off to join the 28th Infantry Division in August of 1944. The 28th had already suffered massive losses fighting in France and Germany.

Slovik was a replacement, a class of soldier not particular respected by officers.

As he and a companion, John Tankey, were on the way to the front lines, they became lost in the chaos of battle and stumbled upon a Canadian unit that took them in. Slovik stayed on with the Canadians until October 5, when they turned him and his buddy over to the American military police.

They were reunited with the 28th Division, which had been moved to Elsenborn, Belgium. No charges were brought, as replacements getting lost early on in their tours of duty were not unusual.

But exactly one day after Slovik returned to his unit, he claimed he was “too scared and too nervous” to be a rifleman, and threatened to run away if forced into combat. His confession was ignored-and Slovik took off.

One day later he returned and signed a confession of desertion, claiming he would run away again if forced to fight, and submitted it to an officer of the 28th. The officer advised Slovik to take the confession back, as the consequences were serious. Slovik refused and was confined to the stockade.

During World War II more than 2,100 soldiers were given varying sentences for desertion. Of those, 49 received a death sentence – but only Slovik’s was carried out.

The 28th Division had many cases of soldiers wounding themselves or deserting in the hopes of a prison sentence that might protect them from the perils of combat.

A legal officer of the 28th offered Slovik a deal: dive into combat immediately and avoid the court-martial. Slovik refused. He was convinced that he would only get a prison sentence.

He was tried on November 11, 1944, for desertion and was convicted in less than two hours. The nine-officer court-martial panel passed a unanimous sentence of execution, “to be shot to death with musketry.”

Slovik’s appeal failed. It was held that he “directly challenged the authority” of the United States and that “future discipline depends upon a resolute reply to this challenge.”

Slovik had to pay for his recalcitrant attitude, and the military made an example of him.

One last appeal was made-to Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander-but the timing was bad for mercy.

The Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes forest was resulting in literally thousands of American casualties, not to mention the second largest surrender of an U.S. Army unit during the war.

Eisenhower upheld the death sentence.

Shortly before his death Slovik lamented, “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.”

Slovik was shot and killed by a 12-man firing squad in eastern France.

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