Kill or Be Killed: The Eddie Slovik Story

“Born down in a dead man’s town
the first kick was when I hit the ground
you end up like a dog that’s been beat too much
til you spend half your life just covering up…..
Born in the U.S.A.”

Bruce Springsteen did not write his 1984 mournful ode to veterans “Born in the U.S.A.” about Eddie Slovik, but he very well could have.  On this day in 1945, Slovik became the only American soldier to be executed for desertion since the civil war.

Eddie Slovik was born in 1920 to a poor Polish immigrant family in Detroit, Michigan.  He was small, socially awkward, and in constant trouble growing up.  He got in trouble for petty crimes like stealing bread, candy, and cigarettes several times.  He dropped out of school at age 15, and soon spent time in both jail and reform school.  He was sent to prison in 1937, released in 1938, and soon would return after stealing a car and crashing it while drunk.

In 1942, Slovik was paroled and took a job at a plumbing and heating company in Dearborn, Michigan.  There he met his wife, Antoinette who he married in November of the same year.  At this time he was listed as 4-F, declared morally unfit to serve because of his criminal record.  As America lost more and more soldiers, the government decided that people on parole would no longer be classified as 4-F, and in 1944 Slovik was drafted into the army.   He went to basic training in Texas, and then was dispatched to join the fighting in France.
Photo Credit: A.P.

On the way to meet up with the Unit he was assigned to he was met by a barrage of enemy fire.  He and a friend he had met during basic training took cover, and were separated from the rest of the detachment they were traveling with.  While hiding, he realized he was not cut out for combat.  He and his friend spent the next six weeks traveling with Canadian soldiers, before being returned to their original assignment.  From that time forward, Slovik was persistent in appealing to anyone who would listen to be removed from front line duty.  He told them he could be a cook, or something else, but if he was assigned to the front lines, he would run away.

Slovik knew that the penalty for desertion was harsh, often prison time or hard labor.  He didn’t care.  He wanted to avoid combat, even if it meant spending  the next 20 years behind bars.  He wrote a confession letter and handed it to a cook.  It read:

“I, Pvt. Eddie D. Slovik, 36896415, confess to the desertion of the United States Army. At the time of my desertion, we were in Albuff in France. I came to Albuff as a replacement. They were shelling the town and we were told to dig in for the night. The following morning they were shelling us again. I was so scared, nerves and trembling, that at the time the other replacements moved out, I couldn’t move. I stayed there in my foxhole till it was quiet and I was able to move. I then walked into town. Not seeing any of our troops, so I stayed overnight at a French hospital. The next morning I turned myself over to the Canadian Provost Corp. After being with them six weeks I was turned over to American M.P. They turned me loose. I told my commanding officer my story. I said that if I had to go out there 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 THERE.”

The cook advised him to tear the letter up.  Slovik refused, saying he was ready to face the consequences.  A commanding officer told him that he would forget the desertion ever happened if Slovik just returned to his assignment.  Once again, Slovik declined.  He was court martialed and tried for desertion on November 11, 1944.  He was sentenced to death by firing squad.  He appealed to Dwight D. Eisenhower, but to no use.  Desertion was becoming a big problem for the army as the casualty numbers in Europe rose.  Eisenhower wanted to make an example out of Slovik to keep others from doing the same.  It couldn’t have had much effect though, as it wasn’t until long after the war was over that Slovik’s fate became known.

On January 31, 1945, near the French village of Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines, 24 year old Eddie Slovik was strapped to a pole with a black hood placed over his head.  Earlier that morning, he 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.”

Twelve marksmen fired at him, but did not do their job of hitting him in the heart.  He lived long enough for a Doctor exclaim, “Can’t you guys shoot straight?”  He passed away as they were reloading for another shot.  He was then taken to an unmarked military cemetery in Eastern France, where he was buried next to 94 murderers and rapists, also executed by the United States Military.  Over 21,000 American soldiers deserted during World War Two.  49 were given death sentences.  All were pardoned other than Slovik.

Photo Credit: Scott Michaels

His wife Antoinette did not learn that was executed for desertion for eight years.  She was denied pension and benefits, and passed away in 1979.  In 1987, another Polish American Veteran raised $3500 to have Slovik’s body returned to Michigan so he could be buried next to his wife.

In 1954, William Bradford Huie wrote the best selling book, “The Execution of Private Slovik.”  Frank Sinatra bought the movie rights to it, and announced he would use Albert Maltz, one of the Hollywood writers blacklisted in the McCarthy era, to write the screenplay.  There was tremendous public backlash, and Sinatra was called a “communist sympathizer.”  Since he was good friends with Presidential Candidate John F. Kennedy, the Kennedy campaign begged Sinatra not to do it for fear that it would have negative implications on Kennedy.  Sinatra shelved the project.

In 1974, “The Execution of Private Slovik” was turned into a made for television movie, starring Martin Sheen as Eddie Slovik.  It also included Gary Busey, and the first ever on screen performance for young Charlie Sheen.  The release of the movie was especially timely, as America was struggling with what to do about those who had avoided service or deserted during the just ended war in Vietnam.  The movie was nominated for several Emmy awards, and was one of the most watched television movies of all time.

Should the military have executed Eddie Slovik?   It is probably not for me to say.  I can say that he has one thing in common with every one else who is called as a young adult to fight in a war:  He was a victim.

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