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Citizen Soldiers

Criminals and Deserters

Converted for the Web from "Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army From The Normandy Beaches, To The Bulge, To The Surrender Of Germany" by Stephen E. Ambrose

There were thousands of ordinary criminals in ETO. Hundreds of them were caught, tried by court-martial, and sentenced to the stockade or, in the case of rape or murder, to death by firing squad. Sixty-five men were ordered shot. Eisenhower had to pass the final judgment. In sixteen cases he changed the sentence to life in the stockade; forty-nine men were shot.

Desertion was also punishable by death by firing squad, but the U.S. Army had not carried out such a sentence since 1864. Desertion was a serious problem in ETO, partly because it was relatively easy to do in Europe (there were no desertions on the Pacific islands), partly because of the never-ending nature of the combat, partly because the Army tried to get deserters back to their outfits and give them a second chance, meaning deserters could figure there wouldn't be any punishment if they were caught.

In November 1944, Lieut. Glenn Gray, on counterintelligence duty, found a deserter in a French woods. The lad was from the Pennsylvania mountains, he was accustomed to camping out, he had been there a couple of weeks, living on venison, and intended to stay until the war ended. "All the men I knew and trained with have been killed," the deserter told Gray. "I'm lonely.... The shells seem to come closer all the time and I can't stand them."

He begged Gray to leave him. Gray refused, said he would have to turn him in, but promised he would not be punished. The deserter said he knew that; he bitterly predicted "they" would simply put him back into the line again -- which was exactly what happened when Gray brought him in.

One deserter only, Pvt. Eddie Slovik, went through the process from confession to court-martial to sentence to execution by firing squad. Slovik got to France as a replacement in August. On the 25th, he spent the night in a village, dug in with some other replacements. There was shelling. In the morning, when they moved out, he stayed behind. That afternoon, he hooked up with some Canadian infantry, with whom he spent the next six weeks. Then he was turned over to American MPs, who escorted him back to the company to which he had been assigned.

Slovik told the CO he was too frightened of the shelling and swore, "If I have to go out there again I'll run away."

He later put that warning in writing, at the end of a written confession of desertion. He wanted to spend the rest of the war in the stockade. Bad luck for him; by the time he came to trial it was November 11, and the strain of the fighting at the Siegfried Line was leading to an increase in desertions. The high command was looking to set an example. Slovik fit perfectly. He was found guilty and sentenced to execution. By the time Eisenhower gave the case its last review, on January 30, the Bulge had made desertion an even greater problem. Eisenhower did not intervene. On January 31, Slovik was executed.

Slovik's case excited comment and controversy. There was a hue and cry about Army justice. Eisenhower never backed away from his decision. He thought the case about as clear-cut as one could get. But whatever the merits, it helps put the Slovik execution in some perspective to mention that during the course of the eleven-month campaign in Northwest Europe, when Eisenhower had one deserter put to death, Hitler had 50,000 executed for desertion or cowardice.

One of the stressful strains on platoon and company commanders was recognizing and dealing with battle fatigue. The best of them could anticipate the breaking point with an individual before it occurred, and get them some rest. Severe cases went to the rear, for treatment. A few returned to the front line; many more were put on limited duty. The temptation to fake combat exhaustion was there.

One evening in the Hurtgen, Lt. George Wilson welcomed two replacements, radiomen, to his company, and directed them to a foxhole. There was some shelling. In the morning, the smaller of the two replacements dashed over to Wilson's foxhole and dove in.

"He was shaking violently," Wilson remembered, "and tears streamed down his face. His whole frame quivered with the spasms, and he was barely able to tell me between sobs that he couldn't take it. He just had to get the hell out; I had to let him go to the rear. He sobbed like a baby during the entire outburst and beat his head on the ground."

Wilson tried talking to him, to no avail. Wilson tried getting tough: "I told him angrily that I had been in front-line combat for over five months and no one would let me go back. Since he had just arrived, he sure as hell wasn't going back."

That brought on more hysteria. He sobbed that he would desert. Wilson said go ahead -- and you'll get shot. Next Wilson told him how ashamed his parents would be. He sobbed that he didn't care. "I'm just a dirty, no-good, yellow, Jewish SOB."

Eventually he calmed down and returned to his foxhole. But later that day his buddy, a big man, came to Wilson and put on a similar performance, but he wasn't as convincing as the first guy. "I blew my top," Wilson wrote, "and shouted at him that the two of them were trying to play me for an idiot, and I'd had it with them.

"Surprisingly, he readily admitted it and even went on to describe how they had spent the night before planning the charade. It seems they had both been actors in college and had had some training."

The following day, another shelling. The bigger of the two replacements went bonkers. Tears streaming down his face, he begged Wilson to send him to the rear. "I turned on him angrily and pointed my rifle at his chest, saying that if I heard one more word out of him I'd shoot. He stopped bawling instantly."

The shelling resumed. The man got a piece of shrapnel in his arm, the million-dollar wound. He was out of there. Wilson never saw him again. Nor the first guy, who took himself to the rear and talked his way into a hospital as a battle fatigue case.

Copyright © 1997 by Ambrose-Tubbs, Inc. Converted for the Web with the permission of Simon & Schuster.

This text is from Chapter 14 of Stephen E. Ambrose's book "Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army From The Normandy Beaches, To The Bulge, To The Surrender Of Germany." To read another online chapter, "Expanding the Beachhead, June 7-30, 1944," click here. Click here for purchasing information from Amazon.

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