• 天收佢!|戴啟思
  • 2020-02-11    


U.S. P.F.C. Eddie Slovik-Shot to Death to Encourage the Many Others

Seventy-five years ago, on January 31 on a cold morning in a small French town close to the German frontier, eleven US soldiers from the 28th Division shot to death Private First-Class Eddie Slovik. They carried out the sentence of a court-martial that had found Slovik guilty of desertion.

As was customary, twelve soldiers were in the firing party. However, the officers arranging the execution had loaded one rifle with a blank cartridge. They did this so that no member of the squad would be sure that he had fired a live round that might have been responsible for the death of their fellow soldier.

This small mercy shown to the consciences of members of the firing that squad was the only mercy shown that morning and in the few weeks before Slovik's remarkable death.

His death was remarkable not because there had been no desertions in the war years. In the years 1944-45, some 40,000 US soldiers had deserted, the vast majority not even being tried for the offence. Nor was it remarkable because of the death sentence: forty-nine cases resulted in courts-martial passing the old-fashioned sentence of 'death by musketry'. Slovik's case stood out because he was the first American soldier executed for desertion since the end of the US Civil War in 1865.

Slovik had the misfortune to be tried and executed because he was a chancer. He chanced his life at precisely the wrong time and entrusted it to an unsympathetic military justice system which thought it needed his life to make a point. It did not need it.

Slovik, born in 1920 to immigrant parents, was an ill-educated petty criminal. He served two terms of imprisonment before he was 20. When the war started in December 1941, the authorities assessed him as unfit for service because of his criminal record.

However, as the war went on, Uncle Sam became less picky. Men with criminal records were called up for service after having been initially rejected. Call-up papers were sent to Slovik in 1944. In August of that year, he was sent to France to join the 28th Division as a rifleman. His posting was to the front on the German border.

Slovik, like many recruits in 1944, was poorly trained. The Americans wanted to end the war by Christmas if that was possible and the emphasis on replacing battle casualties was on speed of delivery and on quantity and not quality.

Slovik came under fire within a few days of landing in France and fund the experience terrifying. He became separated from his unit and managed to attach himself to a Canadian Military Police unit. He made himself useful to the Canadians for about six weeks when he was prompted to return to his regiment. The Army took no action against him. It was a chaotic time, and replacement soldiers frequently got lost on the way to joining their units.

Slovik knew he was not cut out for fighting. He asked his company commander to assign him to the rear area for non-combatant duties. The officer refused. Slovik was cannon fodder. The US Army needed him at the front as just one more expendable body to fight German soldiers in retreat and secure victory before the end of the year.

It was common knowledge that US soldiers had deserted their regiments to lie low in the quiet rear areas. Paris was a favourite destination where they could trade on the black market and use their weapons to effect in the underworld. In late 1944 there were gangs of US soldiers roaming the city committing theft, assault and rape.

Slovik was not disposed to throw his lot in with these feral deserters. He only wanted not to have to fight. He calculated that if he made this clear to his superiors and deserted for form's sake, he would be court-martialled and, like many hundreds of others, sent to a military prison for a few years.

Slovik wandered away for a couple of days and returned with a written note in his handwriting. He gave the note to his superiors. The note said that he had deserted several months before. He had sought out the Canadian Military Police and had stayed with them before joining his regiment again. The note said he had told his commanding officer he would run away again if he were ordered to fight.

Slovik's superiors were appalled at the note. They begged him to withdraw it and assume duties as a rifleman, and they would say no more about its contents. Slovik refused. He insisted on having a court-martial.

He got his wish. He was tried and convicted on November 11, 1944, in a trial that lasted less than two hours. Slovik offered no defence. The nine officer-judges voted unanimously for the death penalty.

Slovik counted on the fact generals in the Army High Command would review his death sentence. He knew that the review process always resulted in commutation.

Unfortunately for Slovik, this time would be different. The German Army had severely mauled the Americans in late autumn in the Battle of the Hurtgen Forest on the Belgian-German border.

This battle had led to many desertions. At the time Slovik's case reached the desk of the Supreme Allied Commander, General Eisenhower, in mid-December 1944, the Germans had launched a surprise offensive in the Ardennes that forced the Americans to retreat. This attack demoralized American soldiers in what was supposed to be a 'quiet' sector of the front. There were scores of unauthorized withdrawals with American soldiers running away.

Eisenhower confirmed the sentence on December 23 noting that Slovik must die to act as a deterrent to other US soldiers thinking about fleeing the battlefield.

When Slovik died, he had been first dishonourably discharged and all pay and benefits due to him withheld. This expulsion from the Army just before execution meant that his young widow would not receive a widow's pension.

His demeanour at his execution was commendable. There were no disagreeable or upsetting scenes. He may have been a deserter but he was certainly no coward.

Many years later, one of the nine military judges wrote about the case. Benedict B Kimmelman was a dentist in civilian life. He was a captain when directed to serve on the court-martial. He had no combat experience like many of the other officers on the court-martial. He, like the others, was convinced that Slovik was guilty and that the death sentence was the only appropriate sentence.

Kimmelman changed his mind about Slovik's case. Just a few days after the court-martial the German Ardennes Offensive began. Kimmelman volunteered to serve with a rearguard unit. His time with this group was cut short on December 19 when German soldiers captured him. In the very few days of combat that he experienced, he saw scores of ill-trained soldiers run away, including officers. He was later imprisoned in Germany with ordinary soldiers who knew Slovik. They described him as an inoffensive and likeable character. He had gambled on the system giving him a dishonourable discharge and a spell in prison.

Kimmelman saw with his own eyes that amongst a thousand unwilling conscripts there was always a number-dozens or perhaps a hundred-who could and would not fight and would flee. Slovik was just too honest in asserting this truth without running away. He later said that officers assigned to courts-martial needed to have combat experience to understand why soldiers did not fight and ran away.

The Ardennes Offensive failed, and by January 1945 it was clear that it was a matter of weeks or a few months before Germany was defeated. Kimmelman went to Paris in the Spring of 1945 before repatriation. It was there that he learned that Slovik had been shot.

Kimmelman was surprised. He had thought the higher-ups would, like in all other desertion cases, set aside the death sentence. He was also disgusted that the mass desertions in the Ardennes Offensive would not result in courts-martial and death sentences.

Because the war had been effectively won even as soldiers tied Slovik to the execution post in later January 1945, there had been soft-pedalling by the generals. It was thought, with some justification, that news of executions of American soldiers for desertion that were carried out just as Allied troops entered the heartland of a prostrate Germany would not be well-received in the USA.

Kimmelman's wrote about Slovik's case in an article in the American Heritage magazine in 1987. He noted that the US Army had tried nearly 3000 American soldiers for desertion in the war between 1942 and 1948.

"Over a six-and-a-half-year period, then, reasons were found by those in higher authority to void the death sentences of forty-eight men found guilty of desertion. Only in Slovik's case was no reason found. SIovik, guilty as many others were, was made an example—the sole example, as it turned out. An example is a victim. His execution was a historic injustice. "

Slovik's execution seems to prove the sad truth of one of Groucho Marx's more insightful comments: "Military justice is to justice what military music is to music'.

About the author

Philip Dykes is a Senior Counsel. He has lived in Hong Kong for over thirty years. His interests are in literature, language, history, fine art and photography. He worked as government lawyer until 1992 and he is now in private practice.

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