On Jan. 31, 1945, Pvt. Eddie Slovik, 24, was led out by an armed detachment in the late morning in eastern France. He wore his uniform, though it was stripped of all insignias, rank and other designations; a green military blanket was draped over his shoulders. The members from the 109th Regiment put a black hood over his head, as Slovik said his last words to the attending Chaplain: “Okay, Father. I’ll pray that you don’t follow me too soon.” They fired 11 rounds from their M1 Garands into him, killing him immediately.
Pvt. Slovik was the first and only soldier in WWII to be executed for desertion. He was the first to receive such a fate since the Civil War, as no Americans were executed in WWI for deserting either. There were many prosecuted cases of desertion in WWII, but most resulted in imprisonment, and only Slovik’s ended up in an actual execution. Most of the other executions were due to crimes like murder or rape.
Slovik was initially denied a spot in the draft, due to his criminal record — however, the growing need in WWII forced the military to lower their standards. He was drafted and sent to the 28th Infantry Division, despite his objections. As he was headed to the front lines, he and his friend, John Tankey, used the confusion of battle to slip away during an artillery barrage. Though they eventually returned after six weeks, Tankey explained their actions and they escaped punishment.
Continuously trying to get himself reassigned, Slovik eventually told his chain of command that he was “too frightened to serve in a rifle company” and he would run away if he was assigned to one. He was told that this would mean desertion, but he insisted that he would run away anyway.
Still, they kept him at his infantry unit, and so he promptly walked several miles to the rear and presented a cook with a note that said,
I, Pvt. Eddie D. Slovik, 36896415, confess to the desertion of the United States Army. At the time of my desertion we were in Albuff in France. I came to Albuff as a replacement. They were shelling the town and we were told to dig in for the night. The following morning they were shelling us again. I was so scared, nerves and trembling, that at the time the other replacements moved out, I couldn’t move. I stayed there in my fox hole till it was quiet and I was able to move. I then walked into town. Not seeing any of our troops, so I stayed over night at a French hospital. The next morning I turned myself over to the Canadian Provost Corp. After being with them six weeks I was turned over to American M.P. They turned me loose. I told my commanding officer my story. I said that if I had to go out there again I’d run away. He said there was nothing he could do for me so I ran away again AND I’LL RUN AWAY AGAIN IF I HAVE TO GO OUT THERE.
— Signed Pvt. Eddie D. Slovik A.S.N. 36896415″
The cook pushed the letter up the chain of command, who, again, told him this meant desertion and asked him to destroy the letter. He did not, and was eventually taken into custody. Slovik figured he would face imprisonment like many of the other deserters, but he was wrong. During his ensuing court-martial, a legal officer allowed him the opportunity to jump back into combat and avoid his sentence, to which he again refused. They carried out the court-martial and he was sentenced to death, executed on January 31, 1945.
There are only a handful of crimes that carry the death penalty in the United States military. These are:
- Mutiny or sedition
- Misbehavior before the enemy
- Subordinate compelling surrender
- Improper use of countersign
- Forcing a safeguard
- Aiding the enemy
- Improper hazarding of vessel
However, that does not necessarily mean that they will always warrant the death penalty. These are the charges that can carry the death penalty during a time of war:
- Assaulting or willfully disobeying a superior commissioned officer
- Lurking as a spy or acting as a spy
- Misbehavior of a sentinel or lookout
The most recent U.S. service member to receive the death penalty is Nidal Hasan, who was the former Major responsible for the mass shooting on Fort Hood, killing 13 and wounding 32 in 2009. He and four others await their executions.
More recently, much controversy was stirred regarding the desertion of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. He was sentenced to a dishonorable discharge, downgraded from life in prison and further downgraded from 14 years.