Former comrades of U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl are accusing him of deserting his unit before his 5-year captivity by the Taliban. Recently released in a controversial prisoner swap, Bergdahl might not be court martialed for desertion, and Pentagon officials have said it’s unlikely he’ll face charges because he has suffered enough as it is.
Desertion or the attempt to desert during war is punishable by death, states the U.S. military’s Uniform Code of Military Justice. But only one soldier, Private Eddie Slovik, has actually been executed for desertion since the Civil War.
Trial for Desertion
An earlier brush with the law, for theft, initially precluded the Detroit-raised Slovik from serving in World War II, but he was later drafted after the standards for personnel were lowered, according to The History Channel.
Although Slovik hated guns, he was assigned to the 28th Infantry Division in 1944 as a 24-year-old replacement rifleman to make up for high casualties the unit was suffering in Europe.
A detailed account of Slovik’s trial and execution was recounted in American Heritage in 1987 by one of the military judges who convicted him, a staff officer named Benedict B. Kimmelman.
The first time Slovik was faced with enemy fire, the Army private hid and became separated from his unit, according to Kimmelman. He then spent six weeks with Canadian soldiers before they handed him back over to the Americans.
Upon his return, Slovik asked his commander if leaving the unit again would be classified as desertion and received a reply that it would be. The next day Slovik walked away from his company, but he didn’t go far before presenting a note confessing his desertion to soldiers at another American position.
“I was so scared nerves and trembling that at the time the other replacements moved out I couldn’t move,” wrote Slovik in that confession, explaining why he hid during his first combat experience (we’ve kept the spelling and punctuation errors). “… I told my commanding officer my story. I said that if I had to go out their again Id run away. He said their was nothing he could do for me so I ran away again AND ILL RUN AWAY AGAIN IF I HAVE TO GO OUT THEIR.”
The division’s chief legal officer gave Slovik another chance to avoid all punishment by agreeing to serve, but Slovik refused. After a psychiatrist found Slovik was mentally fit, he faced a court-martial for desertion.
At the November 11, 1944 trial in a war-damaged building near the frontline, Slovik chose not to speak, although his non-attorney defence counsel pleaded him “not guilty.” That was probably because Slovik didn’t want to say anything that would prevent a guilty verdict, since he believed he’d face a prison sentence rather than execution, according to Kimmelman. Slovik was given another chance to return to combat and have the charges dismissed, but he was steadfast.
An hour and 40 minutes after the trial began, Slovik was sentenced to death by firing squad after a unanimous vote by the nine staff officers serving as judges. Although Slovik wrote an apologetic letter to General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the general upheld the sentence.
Before his execution, Slovik said these words, reported The Spectator:
“They’re not shooting me for deserting; thousands of guys have done that. They just need to make an example out of somebody and I’m it … They’re shooting me for the bread and chewing gum I stole when I was 12 years old.”
In a French garden on January 31, 1945, 12 riflemen aimed eleven bullets at Slovik’s heart from 20 paces away, with none knowing who fired the designated blank. Witnesses reported Slovik stood straight without any emotion, but the shots didn’t kill him until the firing squad was in the process of reloading.
One witness, Nick Gozik, said seeing the first and only U.S. military execution for desertion since 1864 was troubling. “It was very unnerving. … [T]he reason this was so bad was that the Germans didn’t do it,” he said in 2005, according to Philly.com. “We had executed one of our own.”
Between 1942 and 1948, 2,864 U.S. Army soldiers were tried for desertion, and Slovik was one of 49 sentenced to death, Kimmelman said. His was the only sentence carried out.
The nine staff officers who sentenced Slovik to death had never served in combat until weeks later when the Germans launched a massive counterattack in the Battle of the Bulge that overran the American lines. During that battle, Kimmelman witnessed “rampant” desertions among his own comrades and eventually surrendered to the Germans.
The experience made Kimmelman regret the outcome of Slovik’s trial. “Our lack of firsthand, close-up battle experience disqualified us as a jury of Slovik’s peers,” he said.
In retrospect, he also had second thoughts about Slovik’s inexperienced defence counsel, which had no legal training, and didn’t call witnesses to speak in Slovik’s defence or question the psychiatrist’s assessment of his client. “The legal inexperience of his defence counsel amounted to a failure to grant him the full benefit of his day in court,” he said. “He did not receive a fair trial.”
The uncertainty of Allied success in the Battle of the Bulge and high American casualties led reviewers to uphold Slovik’s sentence to maintain discipline among the ranks. “Slovik, guilty as many others were, was made an example — the sole example, as it turned out,” Kimmelman wrote. “An example is a victim. His execution was a historic injustice.”
The military didn’t publicize Slovik’s execution and told Slovik’s wife Antoinette only that he had been killed in Europe, according to Philly.com. She didn’t learn he was executed for desertion until nine years later when William Bradford Huie wrote a book about the incident, “The Execution of Private Slovik.”
Because of the circumstances of Slovik’s death, the government never paid his wife $US70,000 in benefits she otherwise would have received. She petitioned seven U.S. presidents for a pardon, without success.
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