There’s been a major ripple across social media and news outlets lately after the recent sentencing of Robert Bergdahl was handed down. Bergdahl, who deserted his post in Afghanistan and was subsequently captured by Taliban forces, received only a Dishonorable Discharge, forfeiture of $1,000 in monthly pay, and a demotion from sergeant to private.
The sentencing caused an uproar among many, especially in the veteran community, with even the President commenting that the sentence was a “total disgrace.”
Virtually any comment section anywhere you look on the topic has people saying Bergdahl should be executed for his desertion, as even the Uniform Code Of Military Justice (UCMJ) lists “death” as an acceptable punishment if that desertion occurs during a time of war.
Desertion during war isn’t anything new, the war in Iraq has seen at least 8,000 deserters, the Vietnam War had approximately 50,000 deserters, and World War II had over 20,000 soldiers who were tried and sentenced for desertion.
Yet, out of all of those who deserted over the span of many decades, only one was executed for desertion.
Meet Eddie Slovik, the last soldier executed for desertion in 1945.
Born in Detroit, Michigan during 1920, Slovik was a young man with minor criminal record acquired throughout his teen years, mainly petty theft and a case of grand theft auto when he and a couple buddies got drunk and stole a car.
Despite a life of petty crime and a couple stints in and out of jail, Eddie Slovik eventually found himself married and just trying to live life. Due to his criminal record, Slovik wasn’t suitable for military service, until the height of World War II required officials to lower draft standards in order to meet replacement troop requirements.
It wasn’t long before Slovik found himself in France on August 20, 1944. Assigned to Company G of the 109th Infantry Regiment, 28th Infantry Division, Slovik was destined for the front line. While en route to the front, the unit received heavy amounts of enemy fire, forcing them to dig in for the night.
At some point throughout the night, Slovik and a friend were separated from their unit, but they eventually made their way to a Canadian unit, staying with them for over 6 weeks before being reunited with the 28th Infantry division.
A day after returning to his division, Eddie Slovik voluntarily surrendered himself to an officer within his division, even handing him a signed confession of desertion:
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
Slovik was even given the option by superiors to destroy the signed confession, and pretend it never happened. Refusing, Slovik felt that the biggest punishment he would face would be jail time, similar to what other deserters were sentenced with, and decided that some time in jail was much more preferable to combat.
Tried by court martial on November 11, 1944, Eddie Slovik was found guilty of desertion to avoid hazardous duty and sentenced to death.
On January 31, 1945, Slovik was excuted by firing squad.
But why? Out of the thousands of deserters throughout the war, why was Eddie Slovik the only one executed?
The easiest answer is that the an example needed to be made out of someone. Desertion was a systemic problem on the front line in France, and General Dwight D. Eisenhower, confirmed the execution order to make that example on December 23, 1944.
In the words of Eddie Slovik right before his execution, he stated:
“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.”
The case of Eddie Slovik is interesting when compared to that of Robert Bergdahl. Slovik never voluntarily joined the military to fight in a war, he was drafted.
After being drafted, he made it to a point where he knew he wasn’t ready to die in combat (not many humans are ready to die).
He never fully expected the death sentence, as no other deserter had received one since the American Civil War, and he knew the stigma he would face throughout his life being labeled a deserter, and he was okay with that.
Slovik voluntarily surrendered himself and admitted that he didn’t have it in him to endure combat, you can’t blame a man for being honest with himself, can you? Out of all of those who deserted, why was he the only one to be executed for it?