Making headlines lately is news about this month’s finding of an American Sergeant from Idaho guilty of deserting his unit in a combat area of the Middle East where he was held by the enemy for years before being traded for prisoners America was holding. President Donald Trump made off the cuff remarks on national TV that the sergeant should be shot with no monkeying around ... like right now.
Thirty years ago I wrote a serious column on that subject and it is truly germane to repeat it here for folks who don’t know anything about the last deserter the American military put to death. This is an August 2, 1987 column:
During and after World War II, 21,000 American Servicemen were convicted of desertion, “abandonment of a post of duty” (1.3 out of every 1,000). From that group, 49 were sentenced to die but after all the red tape was unraveled, there was only one soldier executed for desertion and a lot of articles were written about it, along with a book or two. Hollywood made a movie on the ordeal of Private Slovik. He was put in front of a firing squad in France on January 31st, 1945, right after the Battle of the Bulge where so many Americans were killed by the Nazi’s last big counter attack. General Eisenhower reviewed Slovik’s sentence and gave the final go-ahead. That was a time when emotions were high and there was a good deal of talk about “setting an example.”
Eddie Slovak got back in news last week, when his body was exhumed from a French cemetery for reburial in Detroit. The whole thing was being paid for by a sentimental Polish-American veteran who just wanted Slovik returned to his adopted land and buried next to the wife he’d had for such a short time.
The funeral planned for Private Slovik on Saturday, July 4th, 1987, didn’t happen. Someplace between New York’s Kennedy Airport and Detroit, Michigan, the TWA freight operations lost the coffin. Seems like there is bad luck, even a deserter doesn’t deserve.
I’ve written here before about deserters from World War II, because it was something which deeply touched my real life and thoughts as a soldier in the occupation of Europe soon after “The War.” I’ve related stories of direct and indirect involvement in trying to remove names from that huge list of men who didn’t answer roll call when the guns went silent. It still bothers me, for several reasons. The United States government as well as the media have deliberately ignored that painful problem as it relates to WWII. I know of no good books and few articles on the subject. Even my World Almanacs skirt the issue. The latest one lists some missing in action, prisoner, and desertion figures for other countries but leaves the U.S. column blank.
We know that over 16 million served in the American armed forces in World War II. 292,000 were killed as a result of hostile action, and another 115,000 died of non-combat injuries or disease.
I can’t remember if the figures we worked with in 1946 and ‘47 at St. Germain, France were classified “secret” or not, but it doesn’t matter now. I was told then that there was an estimated 20,000 to 22,000 American deserters in France, most of them in the Paris area. Because I knew about them and helped catch a few, I can’t help but think often about what ever happened to all those other young men. The one I found and had a chance to interview was traumatic with fear. I can’t help but think an unknown number may have killed themselves, because they thought they would be put in front of a firing squad.
Slovik’s lost coffin was finally found by TWA and there was a funeral in Detroit, Michigan the other day, 42 years after his death. Those people haunted by the tragedy of Eddie Slovik have most of the answers now ... but what of the others? The thousands I don’t know about. What of their families?
Compared to what many of those young men have faced ... maybe Private Slovik was lucky.
That is what I wrote thirty years ago.
G. George Ostrom is an award-winning columnist. He lives in Kalispell.