Not often one to dig much into US history, I was thoroughly floored in recent weeks while reading William Bradford Huie’s book about US Army Private Eddie Slovik from Detroit, MI.
Slovik was shot to death by a firing squad comprised of US Army men in a small town in France on January 31, 1945 for the crime of desertion. He was 24 years old.
Then-General Dwight Eisenhower ordered the execution after Slovik twice acted to avoid the fight shortly after arriving on bloody World War 2 battlefields in the north of France.
Slovik had repeatedly made clear to his superiors before getting shipped to war that he missed his physically-challenged wife and wanted to return home to resume his life with her.
Published in 1954, “The Execution of Private Slovik” is a well-constructed, tirelessly reported, fact-packed account of Slovik’s pretty mundane life that becomes exceptional for how it ends. He was – and will likely stay forever – the only US soldier since 1864 to be killed by the US government for desertion.
Huie’s book is written much like a long magazine story with wonderful background from dozens of named sources. The real treasure of the book comes from the release of hundreds of love letters written by Slovik to his wife Antoinette while they were apart. Cooperation on the book from Slovik’s wife via the correspondence is crucial because it allows Huie to tell Eddie’s story without ever having been able to speak with him. He didn’t like guns, he feared conflict and he was so attached to his wife and their life together that he felt it was unfair the government was taking that away from him.
Eddie Slovik’s execution was long hidden from Antoinette and the public by the US Government. It was only when Huie met with her to discuss the book that she gained fuller knowledge of what happened. A postscript written by the publisher in a paperback version of the book more than two decades later says the US had long rejected all efforts by the widow to gain a modest death benefit and the return of her husband’s remains to Detroit. Jimmy Carter got involved on her behalf in 1978 to no avail but in 1987 a WW2 Vet named Bernard Calka won the return of his body so it could be buried next to Antoinette’s (she died in 1979).
I learned of Huie’s book from a NY Times Book Review piece in December entitled “The Year in Reading.” In it, the Times asked notable readers about what they read in 2016. The Serial podcast host/executive producer Sarah Koenig said she got a tout on the book by a former commander of Bowe Bergdahl. And so it goes.
Westholme Publishing sells paperback copies of the book via its web site. I borrowed my like-new copy from the Queens Library.