American soldier Eddie Slovik (1920–1945) did not live to celebrate his 25th birthday, but his unfortunate fate as the first U.S. servicemember to be exe-cuted for desertion since the U.S. Civil War has attached enduring notoriety to his name. One of the more ignominious combat-related incidents of World War II, Slovik's court-martial and 1945 death by firing squad was revealed by journalist William Bradford Huie, whose 1954 book The Execution of Private Slovik provoked controversy and was later adapted into a 1974 telefilm with Martin Sheen in the title role.
Born on February 18, 1920, in Detroit, Michigan, Edward Donald Slovik was one of five children born to Anna and Josef Slowikowski. Slovik's father, a Polish immigrant, worked as a punch-press operator for an automobile-fender manufacturer, but he was reportedly a heavy drinker and the family's fortunes declined sharply during the Great Depression in the early 1930s. The Sloviks lived in rented flats in both Hamtramck—a predominantly Polish enclave located inside the Detroit city limits—and in Detroit. Slovik began working at age ten in a bakery but struggled in school, possibly due to instability at home and malnourishment. His older brother Raymond had multiple run-ins with the law as a teenager.
Slovik was first arrested in 1932 at age 12 for breaking into a foundry with several friends. He left school three years later and began amassing a juvenile record that included arrests for petty theft, breaking and entering, and similar infractions. At age 17, he was charged with embezzlement for taking candy and cigarettes from the drug store where he worked; he also admitted to having pocketed coins after transactions with customers. A court sentenced Slovik to a minimum of six months at the Michigan Reformatory School in Ionia.
Paroled in September of 1938, Slovik returned to Detroit and resumed socializing with the ruffians of his neighborhood. On the night of January 19, 1939, he and his friends stole a car, but the driver lost control on a patch of ice and crashed the vehicle into a building. All the thieves fled, but Slovik turned himself into police the next morning. This time, because of his prior record, he received a substantial sentence. He was fortunate only in the fact that, under the juvenile sentencing guidelines of the era, he was still considered a candidate for the Reformatory at Ionia instead of the grimmer state prison in Jackson, Michigan.
Slovik spent two years at Ionia, frequenting its furniture workshop and eventually being recommended for early release. To successfully exit, he required a letter from a potential employer who was willing to hire him as a parolee; his sister Margaret aided in this effort by asking a favor of the family who employed her as a housekeeper. The husband, James Montella, owned a plumbing and heating business in Dearborn, a city bordering southwest Detroit, and he deputized his bookkeeper, Antoinette Wisniewski, to draft the letter. Montella hired Slovik when he was paroled in April of 1942 and seven months later Slovik and Wisniewski were married at Our Saviour of Golgotha Church in Detroit. Five years his senior, Wisniewski had loving, supportive parents whom Slovik instantly recognized as far more encouraging than his own. She had been born with a shortened leg, survived a bout of infantile paralysis, and was an epileptic.
Slovik was sent to fight in France and Belgium, a theater that had suffered heavy casualties following the June 6, 1944, surprise amphibious landing on the beaches of Normandy, France. That assault, known as Operation D-Day, was designed to flood the western front with manpower and push Nazi Germany out of France, Belgium, and the Netherlands; although it ultimately succeeded, casualties were staggering in number and required a steady influx of new battle-ready soldiers to the front. The brigadier general of the 28th Infantry Division to which Slovik had been assigned was killed in action as Slovik was en route to France.
Slovik arrived at Omaha Beach in France on August 20, 1944. On board the troop transport ship, he had befriended a fellow Detroiter, John Tankey, who also received the August 24 assignment to fill in with G Company of the 109th Infantry Regiment. They boarded a truck with a dozen other recruits destined for G Company, the exact location of which was imprecise due to ongoing battlefield engagement. As the truck neared the outskirts of the French village of Elbeuf, they heard shelling and were ordered out of the truck for safety. They walked until the shelling intensified and the noncommissioned officer commanded them to prepare foxholes for the night. “We dug these holes and we would yell back and forth to each other,” Tankey recalled to Huie, as reported in The Execution of Private Slovik. “There was a lot of heavy shelling. Then after a while it let up, it got quiet. Then some tanks came in. We thought it was the [Germans]. But Eddie yelled, ‘Thank God, it's Canadians.’ We didn't know where our outfit was and couldn't find out. The Canadians said we might as well join up with them.”
Slovik spent six weeks with the 13th Provost Corps, a Canadian military police (MP) unit. On October 7, 1944, he and Tankey reported for duty at the headquarters of the U.S. 28th Infantry Division in Elsenborn, Belgium. Ever since the shelling by Germans that night at Elbeuf, Slovik had feared coming under fire again. When he reported for duty at Company G, he asked his commander if he could be moved from a position as a front-line rifleman to one with a rear unit, and this was refused. At that, he told the commander that, if he came under fire, he would likely react by fleeing his post. An hour or so later, Slovik returned to the commander's office with Tankey. “After a while Eddie came out, without his gun, walking fast,” Tankey recalled in The Execution of Private Slovik. “The officer came out and said to me: ‘Soldier, you better stop your buddy. He is getting himself into serious trouble.”’ Tankey was unable to persuade Slovik to stay with the unit.
Slovik apparently spent the night in a barn and met up with another infantry unit the next day, October 9, 1944. He had written out a note that he handed to the first soldier he approached, a cook, who summoned his commanding officer. “I told my commanding officer my story,” the note read, according to Huie. “I said that if I had to go out their [sic] again I[']d run away. He said there was nothing he could do for me so I ran away again and I[']ll run away again if I have to go out their [sic].” Slovik was arrested and brought to the stockade, moving two weeks later to a larger military detention facility that was full of other 28th Infantry Division soldiers suffering from combat exhaustion and seeking a stint in jail, even though it would result in a dishonorable discharge and a loss of pay and benefits.
On November 11, 1944, Slovik was court-martialed in proceedings that lasted less than two hours. A tribunal of nine officers found him guilty of desertion to avoid hazardous duty and imposed the maximum penalty: death by musketry. On November 27, 1944, Major General Norman Cota, commanding officer of the 28th Infantry Division, signed off on the order after reviewing Slovik's civilian criminal file. The final approval for execution had to be granted by the Supreme Commander of the European Allied forces, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who did not read Slovik's December 9 appeal for clemency. Eisenhower signed the death warrant on December 23, 1944, and a month later authorized the execution to take place the field of operations, rather than in a military-prison facility.
Twelve members of the 109th Infantry Regiment were selected for the task, and Slovik was brought to a house in Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines that had been requisitioned by the regiment. It had an interior wall, which shielded the execution from French civilians in the area. “They're not shooting me for deserting the United States Army, thousands of guys have done that,” Slovik told one of his guards, according to Charles Glass in his The Deserters: A Hidden History of World War II. “They just need to make an example out of somebody and I'm it because I'm an excon. 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.”
The Execution of Private Slovik caused a stir when it was published in 1954, and Frank Sinatra bought the film rights to Huie's book. It became a political issue for the singer and the property languished for years until Universal Television greenlit a film version that starred an emerging Hollywood talent, Martin Sheen. It aired on NBC on March 13, 1974, and was reportedly the highest rated television film to date. Antoinette Slovik was still alive, at the time, although in poor health and destitute. Supporters rallied to her behalf, forcing a formal Pentagon review, which in 1977 concluded that the case had been dealt with satisfactorily. Antoinette Slovik died in 1979, but eight years later her husband's remains were disinterred in France and transported to the Detroit area for reburial alongside his wife.
Slovik's court-martial and death by musketry remained a controversial subject even decades later. The 40th anniversary of the broadcast of the television film prompted an essay by military historian Chris Walsh that appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books. “It is hard to imagine a film like The Execution of Private Slovik being made today, much less it setting any ratings records,” Walsh noted, referencing the grim toll taken in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the purported mission of the latter to hunt down Osama bin Laden. “Is what has been called the cult of national security itself a symptom of cowardice?,” Walsh wondered. “The Execution of Private Slovik doesn't answer these questions. But in asking them 40 years ago, it pushed Americans to ponder matters of duty—what a man owes his country, and what should be done if he refuses to honor his obligation—in a way that, as long as we don't think too much about it, seems irrelevant today. No wonder the film has never been reissued on DVD.”
Glass, Charles, The Deserters: A Hidden History of World War II, Penguin Press, 2013.
Huie, William Bradford, The Execution of Private Slovik, New American Library, 1954, reprinted, Delacorte Press, 2004.
Los Angeles Review of Books, April 14, 2014.
New York Times, March 10, 1974, p. 109; June 30, 1977, p. 14.❑