On the morning of Jan. 31, 1945, U.S. Army private Eddie Slovik stood in the courtyard of a house in a small town in northeast France.
Soldiers tied him to a post and blindfolded him. A priest gave him a final blessing. At 10:04 AM, a dozen soldiers raised their M-1 rifles and, on command, fired a volley.
An Army doctor examined Slovik and found that he was still alive. The private died before the firing squad could loose a second volley.
Slovik was the last soldier that America executed for desertion.
On May 31, the U.S. government exchanged five Taliban prisoners for Army sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, whom the Taliban had captured after Bergdahl reportedly walked away from his unit in Afghanistan in 2009.
Like Slovik, Bergdahl could face a desertion charge.
If convicted, he could face the death penalty under Article 85 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice—although to be fair, this seems unlikely after Pres. Barack Obama publicly celebrated the captive’s return.
The military sentenced more than 20,000 Americans for desertion during World War II. Forty-nine got the death penalty. But only Slovik was actually executed. His story was immortalized in the 1974 movie The Execution of Private Slovik.
Growing up in Detroit, Slovik committed petty crime as a juvenile and adult. He was in and out of prison in the years before World War II. His criminal record rendered him ineligible for the draft.
But by 1944, the U.S. military was running desperately short of manpower. Standards changed. The Army drafted Slovik and sent him to France in August 1944.
Slovik felt he wasn’t cut out for combat. On the way to his unit, he deserted and spent time with Canadian troops. In October, he finally reported to the 28th Division, which was taking heavy casualties in the Battle for the Huertgen Forest. Slovik told his company commander that he was too scared for combat.
He deserted again but didn’t get far. A court-martial sentenced him to death in November.
Unfortunately for Slovik, he picked the wrong time to leave the front. By late 1944, the Allied armies in Western Europe were in a manpower crisis. Casualties were far higher than anyone had anticipated, especially in the infantry.
The British Army was so short of replacements that it disbanded entire divisions and farmed out their personnel to its remaining formations. The U.S. Army transferred thousands of Army Air Corps personnel to the infantry. Meanwhile, desertion had become a serious problem, with rear areas in France teeming with deserters who pilfered supplies.
Slovik appealed for clemency to Gen. Dwight Eisenhower in December 1944, fully expecting Ike would reduce his sentence to prison. But Eisenhower was grappling with how to replace massive U.S. casualties in the Battle of the Bulge. He refused clemency on the grounds that the Army needed to discourage desertion.
Slovik died just three months before Germany surrendered.
It’s important to remember that Slovik was the most unwilling of draftees, while Bergdahl volunteered. Some members of Bergdahl’s unit also claim that no fewer than six American soldiers died while searching for him.
On the other hand, with U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan ending and America anxious to move on from more than a decade of war, Bergdahl seems likely to get away with a slap on the wrist.
At some other time in the war, Slovik too might have met mercy. But late 1944 was a desperate time for American officers. “If I hadn’t approved it—if I had let Slovik accomplish his purpose—I don’t know how I could have gone up to the line and looked a good soldier in the face,” explained Maj. Gen. Norman Cota, commander of the 28th Infantry Division.
But as he faced his firing squad, Slovik proclaimed a different reason. “They’re not shooting me for deserting the United States Army,” he said. “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,” Slovik continued. “They’re shooting me for the bread and chewing gum I stole when I was 12 years old.”
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