Only one non-violent soldier ever escaped the the US Army’s infamous Plot E in France: Private Eddie Slovik of Dearborn, Michigan, largely because he shouldn’t have been there in the first place.
Eddie’s formative years had been spent as low-level hoodlum, but after a couple short prison stints, Slovik had taken up honest work with Montella’s Plumbing and fell for company’s bookkeeper, Antoinette Wisniewski. He worried little about the draft, since his criminal record classified him as “morally unfit” for military service (4-F).
Then, on January 3rd, 1944, Uncle Sam changed his mind and reclassified Eddie 1-A. He was now Private Eddie Slovik. To Eddie, it was just another piece of bad luck in a life filled with bad luck, although he recognized some of it was his fault.
After basic training, he assisted in the staging and supply of ground troops headed overseas. By August 25th that same year, he was ducking artillery fire in France. During one nighttime barrage, his company had moved on, leaving Eddie and a friend behind. Later, Eddie admitted he had taken shelter during the barrage and hadn’t tried too hard to find his company. When the two American soldiers emerged, they were all alone.
A nearby French village had a friendly contingent of Canadian MPs, so Eddie found them and explained his situation. There were no nearby American units, so the Canadians arranged food and shelter for Private Slovik.
Eddie enjoyed their hospitality for six weeks, but even Canadian hospitality had limits, and the MPs sent Slovik back to his own unit. In those six weeks, Slovik had decided he wanted nothing more to do with this war. As soon as he reached his unit, he brazenly confronted his captain, and it went something like this.
“Sir, I can’t go back to fighting. I won’t. I’m too scared,” Eddie pleaded. “Please reassign me to a rear un—”
“No,” his captain said.
“If I go back to the front, sir,” Private Eddie said, “I’ll run.”
“You’ll run? You’ll abandon your unit?” the captain asked.
“Would that be desertion?” Eddie asked.
The captain nodded. “You bet. Desertion, then a court-martial. Then prison.”
Private Eddie Slovik deserted his unit the next day, deciding a court-martial and dishonorable discharge, even a few years in prison was preferrable to combat. He did nothing to hide his actions, and although other soldiers tried to talk him out of it, Eddie had made up his mind. He grabbed his gear and abandoned his unit, eventually surrendering to a company cook. He had a note explaining his circumstances which ended, “I’LL RUN AWAY AGAIN IF I HAVE TO GO OUT THERE.” The capital letters are all Eddie’s.
He was arrested.
There was a wisp of bravery in Eddie’s shameless display. He didn’t care what others thought or said, he had made up his mind. The cook tried to talk him out of it. No, said Eddie. The company commander promised to forget the whole thing if Eddie returned to his unit. The private said no. A lieutenant colonel came to see Eddie and said he was willing to let this all go. “Go back to your friends, son,” the kindly lieutenant colonel said.
“No, sir,” Eddie said. “I’ve made up my mind. I’ll take my court martial.”
Even his presiding judge offered Eddie a chance to change his mind, but Eddie wouldn’t have it. He had been in trouble with the law as a kid and he had seen prison before. He could do a few years.
But he miscalculated. At any other time, he might have done a few years in a military prison then went back home, but things weren’t going well for the Allies in the winter of 1944. After their landings at Normandy, Germany had made them pay dearly for every mile they marched toward Germany. Monty’s Market Garden had been a spectacular flop. In the American army, desertion was at an all-time high and morale was at an all-time low.
An “example” had to be made. 49 American soldiers were given a death sentence for desertion during and immediately after World War II. In 48 cases, military command stepped in to commute the sentence. But not for Eddie. Years later, many of the judges who decided Slovik’s fate would come to regret the decision. None had experienced combat first hand, although that would soon change. 42 years later, one of this judges, Captain Benedict Kimmelman, plainly said, “His execution was a historic injustice.”
On January 25th, 1945, Eddie Slovik became the last American soldier executed for desertion, and the first since the American Civil War. In the quant French village of Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines, soldiers led him to a quiet dooryard surrounded by high brick walls. 25-year-old Eddie Slovik, stripped of all military insignias and no longer a private, was led to a tall post and held upright by web belts under his arms, around his waist and around his knees. His final words were to an army chaplain, who asked the young man to say a prayer for him when he got to heaven.
Eddie nodded and said, “Okay, Father. I’ll pray that you don’t follow me too soon.”
A few minutes later, 11 rifle rounds struck Eddie in the chest, neck, shoulder, and arm. The doctor pronounced him dead a moment later. The war in Europe would end a few months later.
Justice or legal murder, I don’t know, but I want you to know I think he was the bravest man in that courtyard that day…All I could see was a young soldier, blond-haired, walking as straight as a soldier ever walked. I thought he was the bravest soldier I ever saw.
~Nick Gozik, witness to Slovik’s execution
When his wife learned of subsequent burial in the shameful Plot E, she spent the rest of her life lobbying the American military and politicians to return his remains to Michigan for burial. His execution had been slightly controversial at the time, but the public perception of injustice grew as the years went on. In 1974, Martin Sheen played Eddie Slovik in a made-for-TV film. Despite all his widow’s efforts, Eddie remained in Plot E when she died in 1979.
Eddie’s story did not end there. A local politician and World War II veteran Bernard V. Calka picked up the cause two years later, and finally gained the ear and support of President Ronald Reagan. In 1987, Reagan granted permission to exhume Slovik’s remains and inter him next to his wife in Detroit’s Woodmere Cemetery where he remains to this day.
His record on findagrave.com does not allow virtual flowers or messages to be left, largely because of the controversy surrounding his death and reinterment.
Statistically, the unfairness of his sentencing is obvious. The United States had executed soldiers for desertion or cowardice, but not since the Civil War. During World War I, the US Army had court-martialed and executed 35 American soldiers, and another 102 during World War II. In every case, the soldier had been found guilty of rape and/or murder.
In every case, except one: Eddie Slovik.
Want to Know More?
Eddie Slovik’s case is fascinating historically, emotionally, even legally, and the National Archives has a digitized copy of his entire court-martial record available HERE.
Be sure to read “The Example of Eddie Slovik” in American Heritage magazine. A presiding army officer wrote this article 1987 and confessed that while he initially supported Slovik’s execution, he almost immediately regretted it.