From The Army Lawyer: A History of the Judge Advocate General's Corps, 1775-1975. Honolulu: University Press of the Pacific (reprint of the US Army edition)

The number of courts-martial cases tried during World War II (1,700,000) amounted to one third of all criminal cases tried in the nation during the same period. The bulk of these were minor and the sentences or other punishments forgotten or expiated by later, honorable service.

Some were, however, serious. A clemency board, appointed by the Secretary of War in the summer of 1945 to review all general court-martial cases where the accused was still in confinement, remitted or reduced the sentence in 85 percent of the 27,000 serious cases reviewed.

Although there were over one and a half million courts-martial during World War II, the death penalty was rarely imposed. Those cases typically were murders and rapes; only one—Private Eddie Slovik—had been convicted of a “purely military offense.”

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During the Second World War there were 318,274 deaths in the United States Army, of which 255,618 were battle deaths. Of the larger number, 142 were deaths by execution, all for murder, rape and rape-murder except one. The one exception was Private Eddie D. Slovik, who was “shot to death by musketry” on January 31, 1945, for the crime of desertion in the face of the enemy.

Slovik was born in Detroit in 1920 to a family of Polish ancestry. Home conditions were poor and Eddie Slovik grew up as a “dead end” kid with a police record. By late 1943 the Army was beginning to scrape the bottom of the manpower barrel and Slovik was reclassified 1-A. Upon completing his infantry training at Camp Wolters, Texas and receiving a denial on his application for a dependency discharge, Slovik sailed for Europe with 7,000 other infantry replacements. On the trip over, while cleaning his rifle, Slovik said to one Tankey, “I never intend to fire it.” Slovik and Tankey were assigned to Company G, 109th Infantry. 28th Division. The truck set out for Elbeuf to join the unit, passing by scenes of wreckage, destruction and death that had been the Falaise pocket. When they reached Elbeuf, shelling began and the men were required to dig in. There was an order to move out which Slovik and Tankey obeyed in one respect—they moved away from the action and turned themselves in to a Canadian outfit, the 13th Provost Corps, with which they remained for about 45 days. Slovik did odd jobs for the Canadians, principally cooking. On October 7, 1944, he and Tankey finally reached the 109th Infantry Headquarters, and on the next day he reported to Company G.

He told the CO that he was “too scared, too nervous” to serve with a rifle company and that unless he could be kept in a rear area he would run away. The CO assigned Slovik to the 4th Platoon, turned him over to the platoon leader and forbade him to leave the company area without permission. The platoon leader introduced Slovik to his squad leader. Later Slovik came to the CO and inquired if he could be tried for AWOL, the CO said he would find out, and had him placed in arrest and returned to his platoon area. About an hour later, Slovik went back to the CO and asked, “If I leave now will it be desertion?” The CO said yes, and Slovik left, without his gun, walking fast.

At about 0830 hours the next morning Slovik turned himself in to the Military Government Detachment, 122th Infantry, told the cook he had made a confession and handed him a green slip containing the following broken language:

I Pvt. Eddie D. Slovik No. 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 the foxhole till 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 the French hospital . The next morning I turned myself over the Canadian Provost Corp. After being with them six weeks I was turned over to the 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.

This confession was turned over to a lieutenant colonel of the 109th Infantry, who warned Slovik that the written confession could be damaging to him and suggested he take it back and destroy it. Slovik refused and then signed the following on the reverse of the green slip:

I have been told that this statement can be held against me and that I made it of my own free will and that I do not have to make it.

On November 11, 1944, Slovik, charged with desertion, appeared before a nine-man general court-martial composed exclusively of staff-officers. The combat people were otherwise engaged in the intense battle for the Hurtgen Forest.

The case against Slovik was open and shut and the trial lasted less than two hours. Actually, there was nothing to try, Slovik having fully admitted his guilt. After findings of guilty, the court took three ballots on the sentence. All were unanimous: death.

The record was then forwarded for review, at which time Slovik’s civilian background became material. But whether Slovik’s past influenced the convening authority. Major General Norman D. Cota, Commander of the 28th Division, may well be doubted. General Cota’s attitude was crystal clear.

Given the situation as I knew it in November, 1944 I thought it was my duty to this country to approve that sentence. If I hadn’t approved it—if I had let Slovik accomplish his purpose—I don’t know how I could have gone up to the line and looked a good soldier in the face.

And  so, on November 27, 1944, General Cota approved the sentence, after which the record was sent to Theater Judge Advocate for further review. The officer had before him Slovik’s appeal to General Eisenhower for clemency, which although saying, “I don’t believe I ran away the first time as I stated in my first confession” and “I’d like to continue to be good soldier” was pointedly silent about offering to return to the infantry duty for which Slovik had been trained.    

The Theater Judge Advocate recommended that the death sentence be approved, “not as a punitive measure nor a retribution, but to maintain that discipline upon which alone an army can succeed against the enemy”.

And so General Eisenhower confirmed the sentence on December 23, 1944. The Battle of the Bulge was raging. Bastogne was surrounded. Indeed, on the day before, 22d December, General McAuliffe of the 101st Division had responded to the German demand for surrender with “Nuts,” a monosyllable that has become part of our legendry.

General Eisenhower’s action completed confirmation of the case, but the review required by Article 50 1/2 was still to come. The record of trial was found legally sufficient by a board of review, and then by the Assistant Judge Advocate General for the European Theater of Operations. The latter officer wrote:

This soldier has performed no front line duty. He did not intend to. He deserted from his group of fifteen when about to join the infantry company to which he had been assigned. His subsequent conduct shows a deliberate plan to secure trial and incarceration in a safe place. The sentence adjudged was more severe than he had anticipated but the imposition of a less severe sentence would only have accomplished the accused’s purpose of securing his incarceration and consequent freedom from the dangers which so many of our armed forces are required to face daily. His unfavorable civilian record indicates that he is not a worthy subject of clemency.

Slovik was sent back to the 28th Division, somewhat to the surprise of General Cota, to be executed. Cota, however, “conceded the logic in the theatre commander’s action; a deserter should be shot by the outfit he deserts.”

On January 31, 1945, Private Eddie Slovik was shot by firing squad—the only execution for a purely military offense from the close of the Civil War to this day.