Edward Donald Slovik was a private in the United States Army during World War II and the only American soldier to be court-martialled and executed for desertion since the American Civil War.
Martin Sheen as Eddie Slovik in the 1974 movie ‘The Execution of Private Slovik’
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 that was actually executed.
During World War II, 1.7 million courts-martial were tried, representing one third of all criminal cases tried in the United States during the same period.
Most of these cases were minor, as were the sentences. Some were serious. Nevertheless, a clemency board, appointed by the Secretary of War in the summer of 1945, reviewed all general courts-martial where the accused was still in confinement.
That Board remitted or reduced the sentence in 85 percent of the 27,000 serious cases reviewed. The death penalty was rarely imposed, and those cases typically were for rapes and murders.
Eddie Slovik was the only one executed who had been convicted of a purely military offense.
The nine officers of the court found Slovik guilty and sentenced him to death. His sentence was reviewed and approved by the division commander.
Slovik wrote a letter to the Supreme Allied commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, pleading for clemency. However, due to desertion becoming a systemic problem in France, and heavy U.S. casualties, Eisenhower confirmed the execution order on 23 December 1944, noting that it was necessary to discourage further desertions.
Despite being offered a few chances to make things right during his habitual desertions, Slovik, believing that he could face only jail time, which he was quite familiar with and found much safer than combat, defiantly declined the offers, saying, "I've made up my mind. I'll take my court martial."
The sentence came as a shock to Slovik, who had expected a dishonorable discharge and a jail term which he assumed would be commuted once the war was over.
American infantrymen in WWII
His execution by firing squad was carried out at on 31 January 1945, near the village of Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines. The unrepentant Slovik said to the soldiers whose duty it was to prepare him for the firing squad before they led him to the place of execution:
"They're not shooting me for deserting the United States Army, 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. They're shooting me for the bread and chewing gum I stole when I was 12 years old."
Slovik, wearing a uniform stripped of all insignia with a GI blanket across his shoulders against the cold, was led into the courtyard of a house chosen for the execution.
Soldiers of the 28th Infantry Division, from which Slovik deserted, trudging through France
Soldiers stood him against a six by six post to which he was strapped using web belts. One went around and under his arms and hung on a spike on the back side of the post to prevent his body from slumping following the volley. The others went around his knees and ankles. Just before a soldier placed a black hood over his head, the attending chaplain said to Slovik:
"Eddie, when you get up there, say a little prayer for me."
Slovik answered, "Okay, Father. I'll pray that you don't follow me too soon."
Those were his last words. Twelve picked soldiers were in the firing squad, bearing standard issue M-1 rifles with just one bullet for each rifle. One rifle was loaded with a blank. On the command of "Fire", Slovik was hit by eleven bullets, at least four of them being fatal. The wounds ranged from high in the neck region out to the left shoulder, over the left chest, and under the heart. One bullet was in the left upper arm. An Army physician quickly determined Slovik had not been immediately killed. The firing squad's rifles were reloaded in preparation for another volley. But before the reloading of the rifles was complete, Private Slovik died. He was 24 years of age. The whole process took 15 minutes.
An American WWII execution squad, executing a spy
Slovik was buried at the American Cemetery and Memorial in France, alongside 95 American soldiers executed for rape and/or murder.
Slovik’s wife unsuccessfully petitioned the Army for her husband's remains and his pension until her death in 1979. Another petition on Slovik’s behalf was accepted in 1987, and he was reburied next to his wife. Although his relatives petitioned seven U.S. presidents for a pardon, none was granted.
During World War II in all theaters of the war, the United States military executed 102 of its own soldiers for rape and/or unprovoked murder of civilians, but only Slovik was executed for the military offense of desertion.