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Private Eddie Slovik

Edward Donald Slovik (February 18, 1920 – January 31, 1945) was a private in the United States Army during World War II and the only American soldier to be executed for desertion since the American Civil War.

Although over 21,000 American soldiers were given varying sentences for desertion during World War II, including 49 death sentences, Slovik's was the only death sentence carried out.

Early life and draft

Slovik was born to a Polish-American family in Detroit, Michiganmarker. As a minor, he was arrested frequently. The first time, when he was 12 years old, occurred when he and some friends broke into a foundry to steal some brass. Between 1932 and 1937, he was caught for several incidents of petty theft, breaking and entering, and disturbing the peace. In October 1937, he was sent to jail, but was paroled in September 1938. After stealing and crashing a car with two friends while drunk, he was sent back to jail in January 1939.

In April 1942, Slovik was paroled once more, and he obtained a job at Montella Plumbing and Heating in Dearborn, Michiganmarker. There he met the woman who would become his wife, Antoinette Wisniewski, while she was working as a bookkeeper for James Montella. They married on November 7, 1942, and lived with her parents. Slovik's criminal record made him classified as unfit for duty in the U.S. military (4-F), but shortly after the couple's first wedding anniversary, Slovik was reclassified as fit for duty (1-A) and subsequently drafted by the Army. His service number was 36 896 415.

Slovik arrived at Camp Woltersmarker in Texasmarker for basic military training on January 24, 1944. In August, he was dispatched to join the fighting in France. Arriving on August 20, he was one of 12 reinforcements assigned to Company G of the 109th Infantry Regiment, U.S. 28th Infantry Division.


While enroute to his assigned unit, Slovik and a friend, Private John Tankey, took cover during an artillery attack and became separated from their replacement detachment. This was the point at which Slovik later stated he found out he "wasn't cut out for combat." The next morning, they found a Canadian military police unit and remained with them for the next six weeks. Tankey wrote to their regiment to explain their absence before he and Slovik reported for duty on October 7, 1944. The US Army's rapid advance through France had caused many replacement soldiers to have trouble finding their assigned units, and no charges against them were filed.

The following day, on October 8, Slovik informed his company commander, Captain Ralph Grotte, that he was "too scared" to serve in a rifle company and asked to be reassigned to a rear area unit. He told Grotte that he would run away if he were assigned to a rifle unit, and asked his captain if that would constitute desertion. Grotte confirmed that it would. He refused Slovik's request for reassignment and sent him to a rifle platoon.

The next day, October 9, Slovik deserted from his infantry unit. His friend John Tankey caught up with him and attempted to persuade him to stay, but Slovik's only comment was that his "mind was made up". Slovik walked several miles to the rear and approached an enlisted cook at a headquarters detachment, presenting him with a note in which he stated his intention to "run away" if he were sent into combat. The cook summoned his company commander and an MP, who read the note and urged Slovik to destroy it before he was taken into custody, which Slovik refused. He was brought before Lieutenant Colonel Ross Henbest, who again offered him the opportunity to tear up the note, return to his unit and face no further charges. After Slovik again refused, Henbest ordered Slovik to write another note on the back of the first one stating that he fully understood the legal consequences of deliberately incriminating himself with the note, and that it would be used as evidence against him in a court martial.

Slovik was taken into custody and confined to the division stockade. The divisional judge advocate, Lieutenant Colonel Henry Summer, again offered Slovik an opportunity to rejoin his unit and have the charges against him suspended. He offered for Slovik to be transferred to a different infantry regiment where no one would know of his past and he could start with a "clean slate". Slovik, convinced that he would face only jail time (which he had experience with and found infinitely preferable to mortal combat) declined these offers, saying, "I've made up my mind. I'll take my court martial."

Court martial

The 28th Division was scheduled to begin an attack in the Hurtgen Forestmarker. The coming attack was common knowledge in the unit, and casualty rates were expected to be very high, as the prolonged combat in the area had been unusually grueling. The Germans were determined to hold, and terrain and weather reduced the usual American advantages in armor and air support to almost nothing. A small minority of soldiers indicated they preferred to be imprisoned rather than remain in combat (less than .5%), and the rates for desertion and other crimes had begun to rise.

Slovik was charged with desertion to avoid hazardous duty and court martialed on November 11, 1944. The prosecutor, Captain John Green, presented witnesses to whom Slovik had stated his intention to "run away." The defense counsel, Captain Edward Woods, announced that Slovik had elected not to testify. The nine officers of the court found Slovik guilty and sentenced him to death. The sentence was reviewed and approved by the division commander, Major General Norman Cota.

On December 9, Slovik wrote a letter to the Supreme Allied commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, pleading for clemency. However, desertion had become a systemic problem in France, and the surprise German offensive through the Ardennes had begun with severe US casualties, pocketing several battalions and straining the morale of the infantry to the greatest extent yet seen during the war. Eisenhower confirmed the execution order on December 23, noting that it was necessary to discourage further desertions. The sentence came as a shock to Slovik, who had expected a dishonorable discharge and a jail term (the latter of which he assumed would be commuted once the war was over), the same punishment he had seen meted out to other deserters from the division while he was confined to the stockade. The execution by firing squad was carried out at 10:04 a.m. on January 31, 1945, near the village of Sainte-Marie-aux-Minesmarker. Slovik's last words were "They're not shooting me for deserting the United States Army -- thousands of guys have done that. They're shooting me for that bread I stole when I was 12 years old." He was 24.

Slovik was buried in Plot "E" of Oise-Aisne American Cemetery and Memorialmarker in Fère-en-Tardenoismarker, alongside 95 American soldiers executed for rape and/or murder. Their white marble grave markers are hidden from view by shrubbery and bear sequential numbers instead of names, making it impossible to identify them individually without knowing the key. Antoinette Slovik unsuccessfully petitioned the Army for her husband's remains and his pension until her death in 1979. Slovik's case was taken up in 1981 by former Macomb County Commissioner Bernard V. Calka, a Polish-American World War II veteran, who continued to petition the Army to return Slovik’s remains. In 1987 he succeeded in convincing President Ronald Reagan to order their return. Calka raised $8,000 to pay for their transfer from France to Detroit's Woodmere Cemetery, where Slovik was reburied next to his wife. Although Antoinette Slovik and others have petitioned seven U.S. president for a pardon, Slovik has not been pardoned.

Context and legacy

In militaries around the world courts-martial have imposed death sentences for offenses such as cowardice, desertion, insubordination, and mutiny. During World War I, the United States executed 10 soldiers, but all had been convicted of rape or murder and not for military offenses. During World War II, the United States executed 102 soldiers for rape or murder, but only Slovik for the military offense of desertion.

In 1960, Frank Sinatra announced his plan to produce a movie entitled The Execution of Private Slovik, to be written by blacklisted Hollywood 10 screenwriter Albert Maltz. This announcement provoked great outrage, and Sinatra was accused of being a Communist sympathizer. As Sinatra was campaigning for John F. Kennedy for President, the Kennedy camp was naturally concerned, and ultimately persuaded Sinatra to cancel the project.

However, Slovik's execution had been the basis for a 1954 book by William Bradford Huie. In 1974, the book was adapted for a TV movie starring Martin Sheen and also called The Execution of Private Slovik. In addition, Eisenhower's execution orders and Slovik's death by firing squad are included in a scene in the 1963 film The Victors.

Kurt Vonnegut mentions Slovik's execution in his novel Slaughterhouse-Five. Vonnegut also wrote a companion libretto to Igor Stravinsky's Histoire du soldat, or A Soldier's Tale, which tells Slovik's story. Slovik also appears in Nick Arvin's 2005 novel Articles of War, in which the fictional protagonist, Private George (Heck) Tilson, is one of the members of Slovik's firing squad.


  2. Huie William Bradford. "The Execution of Private Slovik". City: Westholme Publishing, 2004. ISBN 1594160031
  3. Body of executed soldier interred next to his wife
  4. His Way: The Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra by Kitty Kelley, pp. 296-301 ISBN 0-553-26515-6
Eddie Slovak Personal Interview 1938

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