As the Nation awaits the arrival of Veterans Day, we gather and assemble to salute the Veterans of all past wars and times of peace; with parades and celebrations to honor those intrepid soldiers of bravery for their gallant and heroic deeds. However, there was one soldier that was not honored for his service and wore no medals for bravery in World War II. The following story depicts the events and circumstances that formulated the tragic and violent death of this Soldier of Misfortune.
Eddie Slovic was born on Feb. 18, 1920, to Polish Catholic parents, in an impoverished Detroit, Michigan, neighborhood. The environment was lower working class, where deprivation and liquor abuse were commonplace. He had three sisters and one brother. Eddie had blue eyes and blond hair, was frail, shy, introverted, underweight and weak. He would not fight when being bullied; he ran away if threatened. However, he was basically a good-natured boy and would do anything asked of him. He was burdened with a learning problem, stole a loaf of bread at the age of 12; hunger does not dictate right from wrong.
Eddie had to leave school at the age of 15 and was thrust into the world totally unprepared for the tribulations of life. He was the most unluckiest kid in the world, a sort of “Anthony Adverse” – nothing went right for him. Embroiled in petty theft, stole gum and candy, went for a joy ride in a stolen car that was involved in an accident. Had a part in breaking and entering. Appeared before a Judge who imposed a harsh “Draconian” penalty; in the opinion of many, and at the age of 17 spend the next five years in and out of reform school and prison.
Eddie Slovic was released from prison at the age of 22, having served five years. It was 1942, the War was still raging and he found a good job in the auto industry; he was trying to turn his life around. He met and fell in love with a Polish American girl. She was five years older than him and suffered a deformity of one leg being shorter than the other. She walked with a profound limp and had occasional bouts with epilepsy. Eddie loved her deeply and had an affectionate way of calling her “Mommy.” Her name was Antoinette. After several months they decided to get married and moved into a two room apartment. It appeared that they were on their way to a happy life.
The brief moment of happiness ended when Eddie was to be drafted into the Army. It was more bad luck due to the fact that the Armed Forces no longer exempted convicted felons from service. He applied for hardship exemption due to Antoinette being pregnant, and as many thousands were granted their applications, his was denied. It was now 1944 and he was in basic training. Eddie proved to be an inept soldier: He had trouble mastering rifle training, was petrified of bayonet instruction and his nerves were shattered from the loud explosions of hand grenades. Regardless, he was put on a troop ship headed for war-torn France along with others as replacements for the 28th Division. Eddie wrote letters to Antoinette every day. The letters always began with “Dear Mommy.”
In France, Eddie and another soldier alleged to become lost and disoriented; they did not report to their assigned unit. They wandered into a Canadian Corps and stayed with them for several weeks before they were united with their own unit. They were reprimanded and accused of avoidance of duty, otherwise known as desertion. He was offered a chance to be forgiven if he returned to the front lines; he refused and wrote a letter to his superiors stating that he would not engage in combat duty. He was informed that this was tantamount to desertion and will face a Court-Martial. He was transferred to the Division stockade to await trial.
The Court-Martial proceedings began in late 1944. The trial was the shortest in the history of cases to avoid hazardous duty, exactly one hour and 40 minutes. The court-appointed counsel for the defense was not a lawyer, never made an opening statement, never called any witnesses on Slovic’s behalf, never cross-examined any witnesses for the prosecution and never made a closing statement. Eddie did not take the witness stand and chose to remain silent despite pleas from his counsel; an action attributed to his lack of education, having completed only the eighth grade and not understanding the serious consequences. The nine member board of officers found him guilty, and he was sentenced to be executed by a firing squad. During the War 2,864 men were convicted of desertion, all received lesser penalties. There were 49 approved death sentences, all received clemency except the most unluckiest kid in the world, and that was to be Private Eddie Slovic – the only one to suffer this fate since the Civil War.
The rumored consensus was that Eddie will be made an example of: to serve as a deterrent for desertions. Full dress uniforms were ordered for all participants, complete with polished brass, medals and swagger stick. Prior to the execution a black cloth hood was purchased in a nearby town, sown together by the town seamstress. A wooden post was driven into the frozen ground with a nail pounded into the rear top. Twelve soldiers, all with the rank of Private, all marksmen, were ordered to be in the firing squad. None of them knew Slovic, yet they were ordered to shoot and kill one of their own. A doctor was selected to perform auscultation with stethoscope, to pronounce death. A priest was selected to administer the last rites.
On Jan. 31, 1945, at 10:00 a.m., Private Eddie Slovic was marched out to a courtyard in the town of Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines in eastern France. There was 15 inches of snow on the ground and still snowing; the temperature was below freezing. He was bound hands and feet to that wooden post. He underarms were tied to that large nail, and the ropes were pulled taut to preclude falling to the ground. The soldier tying the ropes asked Eddie if he knew why he was being executed. He reply was, “They are shooting me because I stole a loaf of bread when I was 12 years old.” Twelve M-1 rifles were loaded with one round each for the firing squad, by a young lieutenant. One round was blank and the rifles were shuffled, enabling each man to never know who fired the blank round. The Priest helped Eddie say the Rosary. His body was shivering from the cold and they threw an O.D. blanket over his shoulders. The black hood was placed over his head and the order was given to fire.
Eleven bullets tore into Eddie’s body with deadly force from 20 paces at point-blank range. The Doctor positioned his stethoscope; seconds passed; the tension mounted as it became apparent Eddie’s heart was still beating and incredibly, still breathing. The shock and disbelief in the ranks became stunning when the Officer in charge ordered the rifles to be reloaded for a second volley. They had now “Crossed the Rubicon” – there was not turning back. The Priest allegedly voiced outrage and had to be restrained by the Doctor. More seconds passed as the man under that black hood of shame continued to suffer, when suddenly, perhaps by Divine Intervention, the Doctor announced: “No need for a second volley, Private Slovic is dead.” His riddled body was slipped into a mattress cover and carried away for burial. In the deafening silence of the aftermath, some of those present became cognizant of what just transpired, would not be viewed as a deterrent. It will not be seen as to why it was done, it will be seen as to “how” it was done. An unnecessary “Circus Maximus,” due to the fact that some men who were present knew the War in Europe may come to an end in several weeks. Clemency, if granted, reluctantly or in earnest, will justify a moral obligation and will never stain a conscience.
News of the execution reach the Pentagon an immediately ordered it classified information. The general public was not to have access to the content. It remained secret for years after the War. Eddie’s wife, Antoinette, who had miscarried, was notified only that he died under dishonorable circumstances. Additionally she will be denied his insurance and was instructed to return his last monthly allotment of 55 dollars, which she did. Eddie was buried in the murderers and rapists section in the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery in France. His grave had no name and no white cross, only a ground level piece of stone with the number 65 chiseled into it. In 1953 an American journalist/editor persuaded the Pentagon to declassify and release the documents. Antoinette fought valiantly for years to have Eddie brought home, to no avail. In later years she was found to be in declining health, deprived of Eddie’s insurance, destitute and ravaged by cancer. She died in 1979 at the age of 64. In 1987, after more than 40 years and many attempts, some Polish American Veterans and others were instrumental in having Eddie’s remains returned home. He was laid to rest with his beloved wife, Antoinette.
In order to lend credence to any conclusion, one must formulate objectivity into individual opinion. Did Eddie Slovic inadvertently make irreversible errors in judgement that led to his shocking demise? The answer to that question, in the opinion of many, is in the affirmative. Was the absence of introduction to mitigating factors a perversion of justice by his counsel? The answer to that question will be forever open to legal debate. One conclusion that many have arrived at is the opinion that after 75 years, perhaps the compassion of forgiveness may be the answer; to allow that Soldier of Misfortune to rest in peace.