The Execution of Pvt. Eddie Slovik

Bernard Calka, a former Macomb County commissioner, fought to have Pvt. Eddie Slovik’s remains brought back from France to be reburied next to his wife, Antoinette, in Detroit’s Woodmere Cemetery. Calka continues to seek a pardon for Slovik.

On Jan. 31, 1945, Hamtramck-born Eddie Slovik was executed by firing a squad near the village of Ste-Marie aux Mines for the crime of desertion. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme allied commander, personally ordered the execution during the closing days of World War II in order to deter other potential deserters.

During World War II, 21,049 American military personel were convicted of desertion, 49 were sentenced to death, but only Pvt. Slovik paid the ultimate price. In fact, he was the only American soldier to be executed for desertion since the American Civil War.

Pvt. Eddie Slovik

      Controversy swirled around the case from the very beginning, prompting William Bradford Huie to write a book, “The Execution of Private Slovik”, in 1954. It became a best seller, and was made into a television movie in 1974.

Slovik, the son of immigrants, spent much of his youth in the Michigan Reformatory School for stealing candy, chewing gum and cigarettes from the Cunningham drugstore where he worked.

After his parole from reform school in 1942, he went to work at Montella Plumbing Co. in Dearborn, where he met Antoinette Wisniewski. They were married Nov 7, 1942, and after a three-day celebration that featured an overworked bar and 200 guests dancing to “The Beer Barrel Polka, ” they moved in with Antoinette’s parents in Dearborn.

When Eddie got a job at the old DeSoto plant, they got their own duplex. For the next twelve months, Eddie and Antoinette were, for the most part, happy and secure in the belief that ex-convicts would not be drafted. Slovik had been classified 4F because of his prison record, but was reclassifed 1A during a military manpower shortage and received his draft notice shortly after the couple’s first wedding anniversary.

Eddie and Antoinette on their wedding day in 1942.

      Slovik appeared frail, timid and somewhat of a misfit, definitely not military material. But on January 24, 1944, he was sent to Camp Wolters in Texas for his basic training.

Slovik made no secret of his unwillingness to enter combat, but his pleas to be reassigned to noncombat status were rejected. Bitterly unhappy, he tried to forget his sorrow by writing long letters to Antoinette. During his 372 days in the Army, he wrote 376 letters, most of them from Camp Wolters. The letters contained the outpourings of a man in distress.

Here Are Excerpts:

Antoinette Slovik in 1974.

      Jan. 26, 1944

Mommy, I am sorry without you… I think I’m going to have a lot of trouble. Army life don’t agree with me.

Jan. 31

I am in the infantry for 17 weeks and after that I don’t know where I am going… Honest honey, I feel like crying every time I sit down to write you a letter… I am so unlucky.

Feb. 24

Eddie Slovik’s remains are placed in a hearse by a funeral home worker July 11, 1987. The casket, lost in transit on its way from France, arrived at Metro a day late. The remains were reburied in Woodmere Cemetery alongside his wife, Antoinette.

      You are sick darling, but what am I going to do? Oh, darling, I don’t know what to do to be with you again. I am so dam sick and tired of this place. I feel like going AWOL. I’m sorry I didn’t go to jail for six months, then I know you could come to see me anytime you wanted to.

Last letter

Everything happens to me. I’ve never had a streak of luck in my life. The only luck I had in my life was when I married you. I knew it wouldn’t last because I was too happy. I knew they would not let me be happy.

Slovik made it clear he did not consider himself a fighting man. He feared weapons so much that his drill instructors had to furnish him with dummy grenades and escort him through the infiltration course.

Sent to the front lines in France after the June 1944 invasion, Slovik first deserted the night of Aug. 25 when his rifle company came under heavy shelling. In October, Canadian forces captured him and returned him to his unit, the 28th Division. His officers warned that if he left again, he would be charged with desertion in the face of the enemy. Several days later he was gone, this time turning himself in to authorities in Belgium. He signed a confession and declared himself unwilling to fight.

Slovik was court-martialed for desertion under fire and sentenced to death by firing squad. His execution was carried out in the closing months of World War II, his wife totally unaware of the sentence. The army denied responsiblity, claiming that Slovik himself should have notified her.

Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered that Slovik’s execution be carried out to avoid further desertions in the late stages of the war.

      At his execution, a member of the firing squad said to him, “Try to take it easy, Eddie. Try to make it easy on yourself—and on us.”

“Don’t worry about me,” Slovik replied. “I’m okay. They’re not shooting me for deserting the United Stated Army—thousands of guys have done that. They’re shooting me for bread I stole when I was 12 years old.”

He was buried in France, in a secret cemetery with 94 American soldiers executed for the crimes of rape and murder.

Determined to right what she was certain was a horrible wrong, Antoinette vainly petitioned seven presidents to have her dead husband pardoned. It seemed so unfair that so many others convicted of the same crime were not executed. Why only one soldier, why her husband alone? She worked relentlessly to clear his record and to claim his body until her own death in 1979.

American soldiers drive an anti-aircraft truck through a bombed-out French city in 1944. Slovik deserted twice in France, once being arrested and returned by Canadian troops, the second time surrendering in Belgium.

      She also waged a long and unsuccessful effort to collect Slovik’s insurance death benefit. It was denied to her because Slovik died under dishonorable circumstances. After her death, Congress finally considered legislation that would have allowed her to receive benefits.

She spent her final days at Medicos Nursing Home in Detroit, living on Social Security disability. She suffered from heart problems, and was being treated for breast cancer.

Bernard V. Calka, a Polish American WWII veteran, took up Antoinette’s campaign after her death. He spent several years lobbying and spent about $8,000 of his own money to have Slovik’s remains returned to Michigan in 1987. Forty-two years after Slovik’s execution, Calka had his remains reburied next to wife Antoinette in Detroit’s Woodmere Cemetery.

Eisenhower addresses American troops on the western front in the latter days of the war.

      Calka wrote repeatedly to Presidents Ronald Reagan, George Bush and Bill Clinton, and has contacted congressmen in his continuing battle for a federal pardon for Slovik, who was described by his widow as “the unluckiest kid that ever lived.”

Author Huie mused “…why had I bothered to travel so far, to ask so many questions, all just to know one dishonored Polack private from Detroit?…Nobody knew about (the tragedy of) Eddie Slovik: he has been a secret…And I knew that his experience is the most unusual of any citizen who has borne arms for the United States within my lifetime.

“Private Slovik was killed by the United States for the crime of refusing to serve the United States with a rifle and a bayonet, for desertion to avoid the hazardous duty of close combat; and..the only American to be executed for such an offense.”

Anna Kadlubski, eldest sister of Eddie Slovik, stands with her husband John as Slovik was reburied after his remains were returned in 1987.

(This story was compiled using clip and photo files from The Detroit News Library.)

By Zena Simmons / The Detroit News