Monday, October 13, 2014

War Challenge #20

Read for the War Challenge with a Twist 2014 at War Through the Generations

The Execution of Private Slovik - William Bradford Huie,1954

As a young officer in 1945, Nicholas Gozik witnessed the execution of the only soldier shot for desertion, PVT Eddie Slovik. Gozik felt then and now that the execution was unfair. “They picked this young kid Eddie Slovik because they had to show the rest of the soldiers in that area you don’t desert and you have to pay the price,” Gozik told the Daily Beast. “Why did they pick him out of all those thousands who deserted?”

Why, indeed, of the thousands of deserters, was Slovik the only American soldier to be executed for desertion from the Civil War to the Korean War? This book narrates Slovik’s sad story. It raises questions about the individual’s responsibilities in facing up to the sacrifices required by the government in a time of war.  

Some argue that Slovik’s fellow soldiers could have been killed, injured, disabled, disfigured, or captured because Slovik rejected his duty. Slovik’s cowardly example could’ve become contagious and threatened our victory and existence as a country. Some would argue what if military didn’t execute Slovik and many soldiers did what Slovik did, then where would the military, the country be? “How would the Eddie Sloviks of the world have liked it” one Amazon patriot wants to know, “if they saw Japanese and German soldiers waving at each other across the Mississippi?” The catchall argument is given any abuse by the state is right, reasonable, and warranted once somebody has committed a crime, he is a fool who gets himself in bad with authority and doesn’t keep his nose clean. Finally, the argument always goes it is inevitable that mistakes will be made, when lots of people do lots of things shit happens and life ain’t fair.

Somehow, to my mind, the usual arguments don’t satisfy when applied to a little guy like Eddie Slovik, weak as dishwater, afraid to make anybody mad, jumpy at loud noises, hated guns, never should’ve been in the military much less near combat, or if in the army assigned to “shoveling shit in Louisiana,” as that overrated general played by George Scott said in that movie. It’s really hard to imagine assigning Slovik to endless KP or janitorial work would have hurt the war effort.

Huie explains that after a little more than a year of a marriage that saved him personally and professionally, Slovik was reclassified by the draft board from 4F to 1A and inducted into the army in January 1944. He had been 4F not because he was physically unfit but because of mental or moral standards – Slovik was an ex-con. But by late 1944 the Army needed more infantrymen for mass infantry attacks. Remember the invasion of Japan was expected to produce a million casualties. 

So the government bureaucracy decided to change the draft standards. They drafted men that otherwise would not have called. These replacements were individual soldiers sent to depleted infantry companies. Though they had finished basic training, they were not trained to fight in infantry companies. One can guess the outcomes of this policy (half-trained, dangerous to self and causing risk to others, leading to needless loss of life); even Stephen Ambrose called this policy wasteful and inefficient in Citizen Soldiers.

Slovik wrote this mentor in Ionia, “They broke their word, they took me after they said they didn’t want me, 4F they said, no use to the army, then all of a sudden I was 1A.” In his cell, Slovik later cursed himself for not avoiding the whole Army experience in the first place by violating his parole and going back to the Michigan Reformatory at Ionia for six months.

Speaking of Michigan, I want to insert that I am from near Dearborn, where Slovik landed on his feet after he was released from prison. I know the streets where he worked and lived his brief happy life married to his beloved wife. Slovik was born three years before my father so they were age-cohorts. A counselor at Ionia said that three out of four boys born in poor neighborhoods in industrial cities from 1920 to 1923 were likely to go bad to some degree because of the devastation wrought on families by the Depression. Reading this, I was thankful my father turned out okay though his circumstances were almost as unpromising as Slovik’s. Suffice to say, the local interest in this book was very strong for me.

Slovik came under mortar attack once in France. In October 1944 he deliberately deserted because of, as he himself said, "scared nerves and trembling." He holed up with Canadian MPs for weeks. While Slovik was refusing to fight, 6,000 members of his regiment (Pennsylvania's 28th Infantry) died in the fierce Battle of Hürtgen Forest. After he turned himself in, in November, he was court-martialed and sentenced to death. Slovik refused a deal under which the court-martial action would be dropped if he would go back to his unit.

On Jan. 31, 1945, upon orders from Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, Slovik was tied to a post and shot to death by a firing squad of his own regiment. He had been consoled by the Roman Catholic chaplain, who asked Slovik to put in a good word for him when he arrived up there. Slovik said he would. And died more bravely than he had ever acted as a soldier.

About 2,800 men were tried for desertion, 29 condemned to death, one executed. We don’t know why 28 were not executed. Strangely, given Slovik was executed so as to serve as an example of what happens when military duty is shirked, the army kept this sorry lesson under wraps until Huie persuaded them to open up the files in the early Fifties. We don’t know why the execution was not publicized widely before the Battle of the Bulge. You would think that of the army wants to use a miscreant’s fate as a deterrent, the army would have to tell the target audience the unhappy fate of the miscreant.

The Army didn’t tell his widow Antoinette Slovik what happened, only that her husband died in the European Theater and that her claims to his life insurance (which all soldiers carried during WWII) were denied. She learned the truth only in 1954 when Huie interviewed her for this book. In the late 1970s, an Army review board looked at Slovik's case, to determine if allowing benefits to the aging, poor, and sick widow were in order. The board ruled against any change. Suffering a history of polio and epilepsy, Antoinette Slovik died at only 64 years of age in 1979.

Slovik was buried under a numbered headstone in the criminal section of the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery in France. The army did allow his remains to be returned to the United States in 1987. As a part of the bureaucratic callous fuckups that punctuated Slovik’s life, his remains were accidentally routed to San Francisco.  Luckily they were found and sent to the right place, Woodmere Cemetery, on West Fort Street, about 10 minutes’ drive from my mother’s house.  

At least husband and wife are buried next to each other, Eddie in Ferndale, block 22, grave 257 and Antoinette in grave 258. May they rest in peace.

Update: The website Find a Grave allows people to leave a note about the deceased. This feature has been turned off in Slovik's case, as the feature was "misused." I guess we can assume this case still arouses strong opinions. Comments to this site are moderated by me and if you leave any hateful shit I will delete it.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, that does sound like a sad story. I'd never heard of Slovik before, so this sounds interesting to me.