Antoinette Slovik, 62-year-old widow of one of Americans history's most celebrated victims of war, sat in a wheelchair at the White House gates for almost 30 minutes yesterday, a cold rain splashing off an umbrella onto her pale, thin legs and new looking shoes.
She had tried telephone calls and a telegram, without success. Now, in an unabashedly dramatic ploy, she had come in person, riding almost 16 hours on an overnight Greyhound from Detroit, to try to talk to the President. She was no successful.
Her husband, Pvt. Eddie Slovik, in 1945 became the only American soldier to be executed for desertion since the Civil War. A book and TV dramatizations have made Slovik's name famous, but so far that fame has not brightened his widow's bleak legacy.
Crippled, epileptic and living on Social Security checks in a Detroit nursing home, Mrs. Slovik said she believes that Jimmy Carter, as commander in chief of the armed forces, could "cut the red tape" that has prevented her from collecting on her husband's military life insurance policy for over three decades.
In a voice that was strong and throaty, Mrs. Slovik said, "It might put me six feet under, but I'm going to stay in Washington until I see the President . . . I can't live on $25 a month."
White House guards turned Mrs. Slovik away, but William Gulley of the White House military office subsequently called her at her downtown motel and arranged to meet with her later in the day.
Robert DeFinis, one of several supporters of Mrs. Slovik who accompanied her to the White House, said later that Gulley promised to arrange for her to talk to representatives of the Army.
In the latest of several attempts dating back to the Eisenhower administration, Mrs. Slovik has petitioned the Army to approve payment of benefits on a $10,000 insurance policy for which Slovik paid $6.70 a month. Her lawyer says the policy now is worth $68,000 including 32 years accrued interest.
The Army "has no position" on the matter, according to a spokesman. "We're not sure whether we have jurisdiction." He said the matter is under review.
Mrs. Slovik's face was pale, mapped with lines and dominated by intent brown eyes. Whey she tried to answer questions about her husband, her eyes squeezed tightly shut.
She spends her days, she said, "crocheting, working crossword puzzles, reading and" - she threw up her hands, "staring at the four walls."
Slovik was among 40,000 World War II deserters, one of 49 who were sentenced to death and the only one actually executed, according to government records.
His story was recounted in a book by William Bradford Huie published in 1954, and 1974, a critically-acclaimed NBC television drama further cinched Slovik's status as an unlucky victim. They portrayed Slovik as a youth, growing up poor and Polish in Michigan, in and out of jails on petty offenses, until he met Antoinette and tried to straighten out his life.
He was drafted and, terrified of combat, confessed to desertion.