I, Pvt. Eddie D. Slovik confess to the Desertion of the United States Army…I told my commanding officer my story. I said that if I had to go out their again I’d run away. He said there was nothing he could do for me so I ran away AND I’LL RUN AWAY AGAIN IF I HAVE TO GO OUT THERE.
Private Slovik wrote his confession and gave it to a nearby unit. His apprehension of joining the United States Army had finally reached its apex. Seven months prior to his confession, Pvt. Slovik was drafted and sent to basic training at Camp Wolters in Mineral Wells, Texas. Pvt. Slovik first communicated his apprehension of joining the Army two days into basic training. He wrote his mother:
Mommy, I am sorry without you…I think I’m going to have a lot of trouble. Army life don’t agree with me.
And to his wife he wrote:
I am in the infantry for 17 weeks and after that I don’t know where I am going…Honest honey, I feel like crying every time I sit down to write you a letter…I am so unlucky
Pvt. Slovik served with the 109th Infantry Regiment. In August of 1944, the 109th were deployed to France. En route to their destination, the 109th experienced a German artillery offensive preceding the Battle of Hürtgen Forrest. The shelling precipitated the first manifestation of Pvt. Slovik’s apprehension–he went AWOL.
During his first AWOL period, Pvt. Slovik joined a Canadian unit for forty-five days. Six weeks after joining the Canadians, Pvt. Slovik returned to the 109th. Upon his return, he informed the company commander that he was “too scared, too nervous” to serve on the front lines of a rifle company. He threatened to desert again if ordered to fight.
Nonetheless, Pvt. Slovik was ordered to fight. Strategically, the Allies were in a precarious position. The front lines were slowly pushed further East, approaching the German border. General Eisenhower feared a large German offensive. Eisenhower also feared desertions by his men. Indeed, an estimate 40,000 deserted during the War. Pvt. Slovik’s had to decide: would he give the ultimate sacrifice by dying in battle? Or would he risk facing the ultimate punishment by deserting?
10 U.S.C. 885(c) provides the most severe penalty available for desertion during wartime:
(c) Any person found guilty of desertion or attempt to desert shall be punished, if the offense is committed in time of war, by death or such other punishment as a court-martial may direct…
Pvt. Slovik’s apprehension turned into action. He asked his commander what the consequences would be if he fled. He was told that he would be charged with desertion. Pvt Slovik deserted.
He surrendered to a nearby unit with a handwritten note on October 8, 1944. The note is quoted in part at the outset of this post. He was returned to the 109th on October 9, 1944. The Commander instructed him to destroy the note, which would be incriminating in a case against him. Pvt. Slovik refused. On October 19, 1944, Pvt. Slovik was charged with deserting twice, one for the period where he joined the Canadian military forces, the other for his surrender to a nearby American Army unit.
Before trial, Pvt. Slovik was offered a deal: if he went to the front lines, he would not be prosecuted. He refused the offer and was subsequently tried for desertion. At trial, he was found guilty and sentenced to death. His case was reviewed by Brigadier General E.C. McNeil, the senior Judge Advocate General in Europe during the War. General McNeil commented:
…In this case, the extreme penalty of death appears warranted. This soldier had performed no front line duty. He deserted from his group…His subsequent conduct adjudged was more severe than he anticipated, but the imposition of a less severe sentence would only have accomplished the accused’s purpose in securing his incarceration and consequent freedom from the dangers which so many of our armed forces are required to face daily…
General Eisenhower confirmed the sentence and ordered Pvt. Slovik’s execution by firing squad on January 23, 1945. On January 31, 1945, Pvt. Slovik was executed for desertion. He was the first to be executed for deserting during wartime since the Civil War; he remains the last, too. Even Sergeant Charles Jenkins, who deserted the Army in 1965–he crossed the Demilitarized Zone into North Korea and did not return to the United States until 2004–was sentenced to only 30 days’ confinement.
Pvt. Slovik had to make a difficult decision. He could face death by fighting, or face death by deserting. He deserted. But not because he feared death. What he really feared was fate:
Slovik told the attending priest that he hadn’t been afraid to die; he’d feared the randomness of death in battle: “I guess that’s what I couldn’t take–that uncertainty”
Allen Pusey; January 31, 1945: Pvt. Eddie Slovik Executed, available at: http://www.abajournal.com/magazine/article/january_31_1945_pvt._eddie_slovik_executed/
Zena Simmons; The Execution of Pvt. Eddie Slovik, available at: http://apps.detnews.com/apps/history/index.php?id=103&CFID=12195516&CFTOKEN=73812108
Fred L. Borch III; Lore of the Corp: Shot by Firing Squad: The Trial and Execution of Pvt. Eddie Slovik, 2010 Army Law. 3