The Deserters: A Hidden History of World War II

BOOK: The Deserters: A Hidden History of World War II


Americans in Paris: Life and Death Under Nazi Occupation, 1940–1944

Tribes with Flags

Money for Old Rope

The Northern Front

The Tribes Triumphant


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Copyright © Charles Glass, 2013

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.

First published in Great Britain as
Deserter: The Last Untold Story of the Second World War
by HarperPress, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Glass, Charles, 1951–

The deserters : a hidden history of World War II / Charles Glass.

pages cm

Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN 978-1-101-61781-6

1. World War, 1939–1945—Desertions. 2. World War, 1939–1945—Psychological aspects. 3. Military deserters—History—20th century. 4. Desertion, Military—History—20th century. 5. Combat—Psychological aspects. I. Title.

D810.D57G53 2013



To two friends, brave American soldiers,

Private First Class Stephen J. Weiss and the late Colonel Alfred E. Baker

During the Second World War, the United States awarded Private Weiss a Bronze Star, three U.S. battle stars, a Second World War Victory Medal, a Southern France D-Day Landing Citation, a Combat Infantry Badge and a Good Conduct Medal. France named him Officier de la Légion d’Honneur and gave him two Croix de
Guerre, a Médaille de la Résistance, a Croix du Combatant, the Vosges Department Citizen of Honor Diploma and French citizenship.

During the Vietnam War, the United States awarded Colonel Baker, as the Pennsylvania House of Representatives noted in his honor, “the Silver Star for gallantry in action, multiple awards of the Defense Superior Service Medal, multiple awards of the Legion of Merit, three awards of the Bronze Star, three awards of the Meritorious Service Medal, four awards of the Purple Heart medal (for wounds received in battle) and many other service and achievement medals.” At one time, he was the most highly decorated veteran of the Vietnam War era.


By the Same Author

Title Page






Of Boys to Soldiers


Of Soldiers to Deserters


Military Justice








I lack the guts to take being thought a coward.
Audie Murphy,
To Hell and Back


, Eddie Slovik was the unluckiest man alive. Nearly 50,000 American and 100,000 British soldiers deserted from the armed forces during the Second World War, but
the twenty-five-year-old ex-convict from Detroit, Michigan, was the only one executed for it. Slovik’s desertion in northern France on 9 October 1944 was atypical in that, while 80 percent of deserters were frontline infantrymen escaping after long periods of continuous combat, he never fought a battle. Nor did he go on the run as most other deserters did. His mistake was to make clear that he preferred prison to battle. Rather than grant his wish, a court-martial condemned him, in accordance with the Articles of War that then prescribed the forms of military justice, to “death by musketry.”

Of the forty-nine Americans sentenced to death for desertion during the Second World War, Slovik was the only one whose appeal for commutation was rejected. The timing of his court-martial, amid the November fighting in the Hürtgen Forest that caused 6,184 casualties among the 15,000 troops in Slovik’s 28th Infantry Division, militated against clemency. So too did the coincidence in January 1945 of his appeal against the death sentence and the German counteroffensive known as the Battle of the Bulge, when the U.S. Army in northern Europe was fighting for its own survival. It was not the moment for the supreme Allied commander, General Dwight Eisenhower, to be seen to condone desertion.

Correspondence among senior commanders documents their belief that Slovik’s death was necessary to prevent others from following his example. They nonetheless decreed that his execution in the remote French village of Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines be conducted in secrecy. (Slovik, the condemned “coward,” died without pleading for his life or showing anything other than courage before the firing squad.) Even if soldiers at the front had known that the young private was shot for desertion on the morning of 31 January 1945, the Battle of the Bulge had by then ended in an Allied victory. The urgency for lethal deterrence had disappeared, as the Allied armies resumed the offensive that would topple the Third Reich four months later. Concealing the truth about Slovik’s execution extended to informing his wife, Antoinette, only that he had died in the European Theater of Operations.

Journalist and novelist William Bradford Huie uncovered the cause of Slovik’s death in 1948, but the issue remained so sensitive that he concealed the condemned man’s identity in
magazine as “a twenty-five year old American white man—call him Lewis Simpson—a replacement in the 28th Division.” Huie’s article raised fundamental questions about why only one deserter among thousands was put to death. It also cast doubt on the willingness of Americans to fight. Huie, who served in the United States Navy during the war, noted that psychiatrists had permitted 1,750,000 men, one out of every eight they examined, to avoid military service for “reasons other than physical.” Despite the rigorous screening, soldiers suffered nervous breakdowns, mental trauma and “battle fatigue” (also called “battle exhaustion”) that rendered them unfit for combat. Huie observed, “During the Second World War approximately 38,000 officers and men—about 10 per cent were officers—were tried by army general courts-martial for seeking to evade hazardous duty by some dishonorable means.” Their sentences, apart from Slovik’s, were less onerous than the hardships suffered by their comrades who fought on. Huie considered this an outrage: “If a sound-bodied, sound-minded American soldier who deserts his comrades on the eve of battle deserves only comfortable detention, subsequent pardon, and a college education under the G.I. Bill of Rights, then why should any man ever again risk death in combat for this country?”

He added that “by ‘abolishing cowardice’ the psychiatrists had tended to relieve all Americans of the individual responsibility to fight.” Yet most soldiers did fight. Desertions were almost nonexistent in the Pacific, where a man seeking to avoid danger had nowhere to hide. In Europe, the total that fled from the front rarely exceeded 1 percent of manpower. However, it reached alarming proportions among the 10 percent of the men in uniform who actually saw combat. Allied commanders debated means to stanch the flow. General George Patton wanted to shoot the “cowards,” and in Sicily he famously slapped a shell-shocked soldier whom he accused of malingering. Senior British commanders in North Africa and Italy pleaded with their government to restore the death penalty for desertion, as in the First World War. Other commanders, whose views prevailed, favored providing psychiatric as well as traditional medical care in forward aid stations. They recognized that the mind—subject to the daily threat of death, the concussion of aerial bombardment and high-velocity artillery, the fear of land mines and booby traps, malnutrition, appalling hygiene and lack of sleep—suffered wounds as real as the body’s. Providing shattered men with counseling, hot food, clean clothes and rest was more likely to restore them to duty than threatening them with a firing squad.

Few deserters were cowards. Many broke under the strain of constant battle, having faced the Axis enemy without letup for months at a time. Owing to the Allies’ flawed system of replacing troops at the front, men were pushed beyond their limit. Poor leadership by undertrained junior officers, many of whom stayed back from combat, left young soldiers without inspiration to endure daily artillery barrages along often-static front lines. High desertion rates in any company, battalion or division pointed to failures of command and logistics for which blame pointed to leaders as much as to the men who deserted. Unit cohesion was poor, as postwar studies demonstrated, because replacement soldiers were distributed individually to assorted companies and divisions rather than as bodies of men who knew and trusted one another. Some soldiers deserted when all the other members of their units had been killed and their own deaths appeared inevitable.

Those who showed the greatest sympathy to deserters were other frontline soldiers. They had, at one time or another, felt the temptation to opt out of the war through desertion, shooting themselves in the foot or lagging behind when ordered forward. It was a rare infantryman who attempted to prevent his comrades from leaving the line. The astounding fact is not that so many men deserted but that the deserters were so few.

Eddie Slovik’s identity became public knowledge in 1954, when Huie published his well-researched
The Execution of Private Slovik
. Twenty years later, the actor Martin Sheen played Slovik in a television film of the same title. Sheen recited the actual words that Slovik himself uttered before his execution: “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 twelve years old.”

Eddie Slovik was the first American soldier executed for desertion since a Union army firing squad shot one William Smitz of Company F, 90th Pennsylvania Volunteers, in 1865. (More than 300,000 troops deserted from the Union and Confederate armies in the Civil War. Mark Twain famously deserted from both sides.) Slovik was not the only soldier to desert from the American armed forces between 1865 and 1945. Desertion was common in the post–Civil War army, when many frontier troops had a cavalier attitude toward military service. Badly paid, miserably fed and maltreated by their officers, they had few qualms about drifting away to the gold fields, silver mines and cattle drives where conditions and pay were better. No one was shot for desertion during the wars against North America’s indigenous population or the Spanish-American War. During the First World War, of the twenty-four death sentences imposed for desertion by courts-martial, President Woodrow Wilson commuted them all.

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