The Sole U.S. Deserter Executed in the 20th Century

Samuel Sullivan

6,012 American war dead from World War I and World War II are buried in plots A through D of the Oise-Aisne American Cemetary. Engraved on the monument in the memorial structure reads, “These endured all and gave all that honor, and justice might prevail and that the world might enjoy freedom and inherit peace.”

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(Oise-Aisne American Cemetary and Memorial — Source: ABMC on Wikimedia Commons)

But, 100 yards east of the main cemetery hidden in the trees is Plot E (pictured below). Plot E is the final resting place for 94 service members, who were court-martialed, convicted, and executed for rape or murder. The graves of the dishonored dead do not have crosses with their names like the others buried there or headstones of any kind. Instead, flat, numbered stones are the only identifying feature for the graves. To identify the buried, a key must be consulted. The United States Armed Forces wants to forget them.

The number buried used to total 95. Private Edward “Eddie” Slovik was buried in Plot E until 1987 when his remains were exhumed and returned home. Eddie was not a murderer or rapist; he was not a violent criminal at all. He was executed for a different reason.

Eddie was executed for desertion a few weeks before his 25th birthday.

He was convicted of desertion to avoid hazardous duty. A firing squad carried out his death sentence on January 30, 1945. He is the only American soldier to be executed since 1864 for desertion, the only servicemember executed for desertion since the Civil War.

He was guilty, but does that justify his execution?

During WWII, the U.S. military tried over 21,000 desertion cases. War is hell for the mind of a person. Of those convicted, 49, including Eddie Slovik, received the death penalty. But only Eddie’s execution was carried out.

The crime of desertion from the U.S. Armed Forces carried the potential penalty of death, but Eddie did not try to hide his refusal to fight at the front lines. He did not think he would die for his desertion; no one else had in almost 100 years. According to Historynet, the army concluded that Eddie decided that confinement was preferable to the risks of combat.

According to History, Eddie hated guns. Based on his criminal record, he was originally classified as 4-F or unfit for military duty. As WWII raged on and the U.S.’s need for more troops intensified, his classification was changed to 1-A, and he was drafted. For Eddie fighting in the war was unthinkable. He wrote a letter confessing to his desertions:

"I Pvt. Eddie D. Slovik #36826415 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 shilling 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 until it was quiet and I was able to move. I then walked in 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"

Eddie’s letter fills the entire page and contains many spelling mistakes (fixed above for readability). With all its grammatical problems, Eddie’s desperation not to fight in the war shines through. He admits to deserting twice and says he will do it again. He is resolved never to fight in the war.

Although Slovik was given multiple opportunities to change his mind, including a chance to tear up the note, he did not relent. He wanted to be court-martialled, anything to avoid the fighting. He had been to prison before, and he knew he could endure being locked up.

Eddie was not sentenced to prison time, he was executed, and his remains ended up in Plot E of the Oise-Aisne War Cemetary. Perhaps in 1945, his death was not seen as a miscarriage of justice. Still, in the context of him being the only servicemember executed by the United States in the past 150 years for desertion, his execution feels un-American.

Bringing Eddie home

According to C. Gerald Fraser of the New York Times, Eddie’s wife Antionette Slovik petitioned to bring his remains back to their hometown of Detroit for 34 years. At the time of her death in 1979, Eddie still rested next to 94 murderers and rapists thousands of miles from home.

In 1981, a WWII veteran named Bernard V. Calka took up the campaign to recover Eddie’s remains. In 1987, Calka successfully lobbied for permission to exhume his body from Plot E. Eddie’s remains were exhumed and were re-interred next to Antoinette’s in Detroit, Michigan. Eddie’s gravestone bears his name along with the words, “honor and justice prevailed.”

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(Source: West Side Detroit Polish American Historical Society)

According to the New York Times, after Private Eddie Slovik’s remains were returned to Detroit, Bernard Calka continued to fight for justice for Eddie. Calka immediately started petitioning for a pardon for Eddie. Calka wanted a pardon for Eddie but did not ask for an apology or reparations.

The pardon has not happened, and Eddie's fight for justice was put on hold when Calka passed away in 2010.

Takeaways

War can bring out the worst in people and countries alike. The enemy does not always inflict the brutalities of war. Killing someone for not wanting to fight is a dark irony that is hopefully fully in the United States’ past.

In 1977, President Jimmy Carter granted pardons to those convicted of draft-evasion acts or omissions from 1964 to 1973. There has not been a draft in the United States since the Vietnam War.

As time marches forward, leaving WWII in the past, full justice for Eddie may never happen. Although Eddie violated the law, he deserves a pardon because of how the United States has evolved since World War II. A law that compels a person to do something is unjust. Forcing people to fight on the front lines of war at the penalty of death is not something that aligns with American ideals. To go a step further, I believe Eddie's family deserves an official apology from the United States, not because his actions were right, but because America’s execution of him for desertion was wrong.

Although Calka would likely not agree with Eddie’s headstone that honor and justice prevailed. I cannot overstate Calka’s accomplishment on the path towards justice for Eddie. Calka’s example as a veteran shows that war did not take the best out of him.

Complete justice may never happen for Private Eddie Slovik. Still, I take solace in the fact that Eddie’s remains now rest, not next to violent criminals in an unmarked grave across an ocean, but next to his beloved wife Antionette in his hometown of Detroit.

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