During World War II, 49 American soldiers were executed by firing squad for criminal acts. Of these, 48 were punished for rape or murder. The other was Pvt. Eddie Slovik, for deserting his unit.
Eddie Slovik, a son of immigrants, grew up in Hamtramck, Michigan. A troubled youth, he spent a lot of time in reformatory school for stealing gum and cigarettes from the drugstore where he worked. When he was a teen he stole a car, which got him sent away for an extended stint. After being paroled in 1942, Eddie was intent on turning his life around. He got a job at a plumbing company where he met Antoinette Wisniewski. They quickly fell in love and were married on November 7, 1942. Both were ready to settle down, happy with their lives together and secure in the knowledge that due to his ex-convict status, Eddie could not be drafted.
Shortly after the couple’s first anniversary, Eddie received his draft notice. Due to a shortage in manpower, his status had been upgraded from 4-F to 1-A, and in January 1944 he was sent off to basic training. A frail and unwilling soldier, he was not military material. He constantly pleaded to be assigned noncombatant status, but was always rejected. He tried to forget his sorrow by writing to his wife, in his 372 days in the Army he wrote her 376 letters. Eddie also proved to be an incompetent soldier, failing his marksmanship test, but he was still sent off to Europe.
In August 1944 he was stationed in France. On the 25th he spent the night in a village dug in with other men and there was heavy shelling. In the morning when the rest of his unit moved on, he stayed behind. That afternoon he hooked up with some Canadian infantry and he spent the next six weeks with them. The Canadians eventually turned him over to some American MPs, who escorted him back to his company. Slovik told his commanding officer “If I have to go out there again I’ll run away.” He later put that warning in writing, underneath a signed confession admitting his desertion. Eddie hoped he would be sent to the stockade.
The United States Army had not executed a soldier for desertion since 1864, but as the war wound down it became more and more of a problem. Deserting was relatively easy to do in Europe (there were no desertions on the Pacific islands), and anyone caught doing it was usually just brought back to their unit. Eddie thought he was pretty safe in assuming that he would just get a slap on the wrist. But when he came to trial, heavy fighting along the Siegfried Line had led to an increase in desertions and the brass needed someone to make an example of, Pvt. Slovik fit the bill perfectly.
Eddie was found guilty and sentenced to execution. By the time his case was reviewed by General Eisenhower on January 30th, The Battle of the Bulge had made desertion a greater problem. The infantrymen needed to be sent a message that the Army would not stand for a soldier deserting his post. On January 31, 1945, Eddie Slovik was shot by a firing squad.
The case quickly incited a lot of controversy, but Eisenhower always stood by his decision, he thought the case was a clear-cut as it could get. Whatever its merits, it should at least be said that during the 11 month campaign in Europe, when Eisenhower had one deserter put to death, Hitler had 50,000 men executed for desertion.
For more on this see the book The Execution of Private Slovik by William Bradford Huie. Martin Sheen played Eddie in the movie.