Slovik execution haunts
after 60 years
By Oliver Prichard
Inquirer Staff Writer
On the morning of Jan. 31, 1945, in
the French Alsatian village of St. Marie aux Mines, a U.S. Army private
in Pennsylvania's 28th Infantry Division
was marched into a snowy courtyard, strapped to a post, and shrouded
with a black hood.
A general recited the soldier's
crimes. A priest gave last rites. A dozen men took a position 20 paces
from the accused, leveled their M-1 rifles, and fired.
As the volley spattered blood and
flesh, the slight body convulsed, stiffened, and made a last lurch
upward. Death was pronounced even as the rifles were being reloaded.
For fleeing combat, a troubled
24-year-old named Eddie Slovik became the only serviceman since the
Civil War executed as a deserter. Despite a long, ongoing crusade by a
few Philadelphia-area men to win him a posthumous pardon, his rendezvous
with a firing squad still stands after 60 years as a forbidding symbol
of military justice.
Pvt. Slovik's execution was meant as
a warning. Yet it has not deterred thousands of service personnel who
every year, in war or peace, go AWOL intending to stay AWOL - the legal
definition of desertion.
Last year, more than 5,000 military
personnel abandoned their duty, according to the Pentagon, which did not
specify how many did so Stateside or overseas, or how many were involved
in the Iraq war.
The number sounds startlingly high.
However, it is well below the 40,000 who walked away during the four
years of World War II. And it is dwarfed by the 33,000 who deserted the
Army alone in 1971 during the Vietnam War.
The rate has declined since that
era, from about 5 percent to less than 1 percent of the 1.2
million-member armed forces today. The trend is attributable to the
volunteer makeup of the military, plus a post-9/11 fervor to fight
Recent enlistees "are saying, 'I'm
here and I'm willing,' " said Army spokeswoman Kim Henry. "When they
come forward, they're committed to helping the U.S. through the war on
On the books, at least, desertion in
wartime remains a capital offense. But no one is likely to suffer
Slovik's fate, or anything close to it.
The military's zeal for prosecution
has all but evaporated.
Two-thirds of Army deserters are
caught, often when local police pick them up for unrelated infractions
such as speeding. Of those returned to military custody last year, only
7 percent faced courts-martial.
Today's deserters typically are
young and poorly educated, with histories of delinquency - much like
Slovik - and they are more apt to flee for personal and financial
reasons than a moral objection to the mission. Commanders have the
latitude to consider the circumstances, usually leading to
less-than-honorable discharges, non-judicial penalties such as cuts in
pay or rank - or just a quiet welcome-back for the prodigal.
Even in high-profile desertions,
punishment rarely exceeds a year in the brig.
That was the sentence handed Staff
Sgt. Camilo Mejia of the Florida National Guard after his court-martial
in May for refusing to return to Iraq after a leave.
In November, former Army Sgt.
Charles Jenkins was tried for deserting his post - in South Korea in
1965. Terrified of combat in Vietnam, he had fled to North Korea and
hidden for nearly 40 years. His sentence: 30 days in jail.
The climate of leniency is not lost
on Robert "Rocky" DeFinis, 77, a retired public relations man from
Lansdale, Montgomery County, who never met Eddie Slovik but who has
worked three decades to restore some honor to his name.
His most recent recruit to the cause
is Matthew Wilkov, 35, a Lansdale lawyer formerly with the Judge
Advocate General's Corps. The current request for a pardon for Slovik
was filed five years ago; the Justice Department says only that the
application is "pending."
"The government made a very quick
decision to shoot this man," DeFinis said, "but they can't make a
decision after all these years to pardon him."
A pardon would amount to little more
than a merciful gesture. But no one believes the military is ready to
Rocky DeFinis and Edward Woods met
in the checkout line at the Acme supermarket in Lansdale in 1974, just
as a television movie starring Martin Sheen as Slovik had thrust the
execution into the public eye.
DeFinis was a World War II veteran
intrigued by the story. Woods was a retired Army major, with a Bronze
Star for heroism in the Battle of the Bulge, who had been appointed to
defend Slovik in his court-martial.
The two watched the film at Woods'
home, then stayed up half the night talking about the raw deal Slovik
"Woods looked at me and said, 'What
do you think, Rock? Should we do something to help this guy?' " DeFinis
recalled. "And I said, 'Let's go.' "
It was hard not to feel sorry for
Slovik. Raised by a violent father and alcoholic mother in
Depression-era Detroit, he was in and out of jail for petty theft and
joyriding in a stolen car. But by 22, he had a steady job as a shipping
clerk and a wife, Antoinette, whom he described as the only good thing
that happened to him.
In 1942, Slovik was classified 4-F,
unfit because of his criminal record. As Allied casualties mounted in
Europe, however, the military began casting a wide net for replacements.
Slovik was reclassified and inducted into the Army on Jan. 3, 1944.
At basic training at Camp Wolters,
Texas, it became clear that he would embody none of the heroism for
which his generation is remembered. He was 5-foot-6 and skinny, and had
trouble walking because of a series of childhood operations to
straighten his bowed legs. He so missed Antoinette, whom he called
"Mommy," that during his 372 days in uniform he wrote 376 lovesick
letters to her.
More debilitating, he abhorred
violence. The booms of heavy artillery terrified him.
Slovik showed "total inability as a
combat soldier," Col. Arnold Shaw, his commander, once wrote.
No matter. Slovik was promptly
dispatched to Europe.
He was assigned to the 109th
regiment of Pennsylvania's 28th Infantry, dubbed the "Bloody Bucket
Brigade" for its red insignia. Arriving in August 1944, Slovik was
trucked to Elbeuf, France, where the 28th had engaged the Germans.
Coming under mortar attack, Slovik
and 14 other replacements dug a trench for the night. Later, in a
confession filled with a ninth-grade dropout's fractured spelling, he
recalled: "I was so scared, nerves and trembling, that at the time the
other replacements moved out I couldn't move. I stayed their... till it
His platoon gone, he latched onto a
unit of Canadian military police, cooking and doing odd jobs. After six
weeks, they returned him to his regiment, which by then was in Brussels.
Facing combat again, Slovik deserted
again. The next day he walked into a U.S. Army mess hall in Belgium with
a confession he had written on a flower-delivery invoice for his wife:
"I ran away again, AND I'LL RUN AWAY AGAIN IF I HAVE TO GO OUT THERE."
Slovik was arrested and charged with
two counts of desertion. The Army offered to drop the case if he would
report to the front, but he refused.
On Nov. 11, 1944, Slovik was tried
in Roetgen, Germany, by a court-martial of 12 officers. The hearing took
an hour and 40 minutes. Up against Slovik's own confession, Woods made
no opening or closing statement and called no witnesses in his client's
Found guilty on both counts, Slovik
was sentenced "to be shot to death with musketry."
There was little reason to think it
would happen. He was one of 2,864 deserters tried in World War II; 48
already had been sentenced to death, and each of those executions was
The time was right, though, for one
By late 1944, the war's outcome was
in the balance, and desertion a problem that Gen. Dwight Eisenhower
couldn't afford. While Slovik was refusing to fight, 6,000 members of
the 28th died in the horrific Hurtgen Forest campaign.
On Dec. 16, Adolf Hitler
counterattacked. Of 500,000 GIs who fought in the Battle of the Bulge,
19,000 were killed and 40,000 wounded. Thousands more fled to the rear.
"If you look at that dark time and
the things Dwight Eisenhower was facing, they wanted to make it very
clear desertion was not an option," said Sam Newland, a professor at the
Army War College in Carlisle, Cumberland County, who has extensively
researched the 28th. Slovik, "so blatant and unrepentant in his
desertion," was the perfect object lesson.
The condemned man wrote to
Eisenhower asking for mercy. He explained his fear of battle and that he
"didn't realize at the time what I was doing, or what the word desertion
He signed it, "I Remain Yours for
Eisenhower's only response came on
Dec. 23, when he approved the first execution for military desertion
Witnesses reported that Slovik was
stoic at the end, his only show of bravery as a soldier.
Nick Gozik is one of the few still
alive who saw it.
"It was very unnerving," said Gozik,
84, of Pittsburgh. "I had been through the Battle of the Bulge; there
were things I don't even want to talk about. But the reason this was so
bad was that the Germans didn't do it. We had executed one of our own."
Slovik was buried in a numbered
grave in the criminals' section of the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery in
France, among 95 American soldiers who had been hanged for violent
crimes such as rape and murder.
Although he was to be an example,
the Army did not publicize his execution, for reasons never divulged.
Antoinette Slovik was told merely that her husband had been killed in
the European Theater.
Only nine years later did she learn
the truth, after journalist William Bradford Huie wrote The
Execution of Private Slovik, the book that inspired the film that
inspired Woods and DeFinis.
At first, the two men thought that
in the process of pressing their cause, they could land book deals, too.
They combed Slovik's trial record for errors and blanketed Washington
with letters. They also formed an unlikely alliance with Antoinette
Slovik after seeing her on TV.
Destitute and decrepit, she was
living under an assumed name in a Detroit nursing home. As the widow of
a dishonored veteran, she had been denied about $70,000 in GI death
benefits. DeFinis and Woods resolved to help her get the benefits.
In 1977, she moved into an upstairs
bedroom in DeFinis' home, and they began a circuit of news shows,
winding up outside the White House in a well-covered protest. That
prompted an Army review board to consider amending Eddie Slovik's
record, which would have released his benefits to his widow.
The board ruled against it, issuing
the military's only official comment since the execution.
Slovik had fled combat in hopes of
spending the war in "the relative safety of the stockade," the panel
wrote. "There must be a fatal deterrent to those who would desert the
field of battle in the face of the enemy."
On Sept. 7, 1979, two weeks before
Congress was to vote on a bill to award her the money, Antoinette Slovik
died at 64.
DeFinis and Woods kept up their
fight to rehabilitate Eddie Slovik's memory, approaching every president
since Gerald Ford (1974-77) and spending about $100,000, DeFinis says.
When Woods died last year at 86, he
was no closer to winning Slovik's case than in 1944.
"I think the government is afraid
that if they do right by Eddie Slovik, it will lessen their ability to
keep order and discipline," said attorney Wilkov. "By refusing to
approve or reject the pardon, it will hang out there forever as an
example of what could happen to you."
Military experts agree it is likely
Slovik will never be pardoned and deserters will continue to face a
"On a personal level, you might say,
'Who cares? Just do it for the family,' " said Andrew Bacevich,
professor of international relations at Boston University and a retired
Army colonel. The larger concern, though, is "the signal it sends."
Scott Silliman, a Duke University
law professor and former Air Force lawyer, points out that legions of
World War II prosecutions seem unfair today - but "trying to go back to
right all the legal wrongs would be impossible," he said.
"If you start with Slovik, where do
Staff Sgt. Camilo Mejia
In May, Staff Sgt. Camilo Mejia of
the Florida National Guard was sentenced to a year in prison for
desertion despite his pending objector application. Mejia filed his
claim after refusing to return to his unit in Iraq while home on leave.
Sgt. Charles Jenkins
After his trial in November, former
Army Sgt. Charles Jenkins served 25 days in jail for deserting his post
in South Korea in 1965. Jenkins, who was terrified of being sent to
combat in Vietnam, spent 39 years living in North Korea. He is now
living on a Japanese island with his wife, whom he met in the Hermit
Cpl. Wassef Ali Hassoun
In a bizarre desertion incident,
Marine Cpl. Wassef Ali Hassoun failed to report in June to his unit near
war-torn Fallujah, then said he had been abducted by Islamic terrorists.
Hassoun later was charged with desertion, but he didn't show up this
month at his court proceeding. The Marines recently declared him a "most