The crippled widow of Pvt. Eddie Slovik, the only U.S. soldier executed for desertion in World War II, yesterday got the government hearing she has been seeking for more than 20 years.
Slumped in a wheelchair because of epilepsy, Antoinette Slovik, 63, listened and once broke into sobs as witnesses argued before the Army Board for the Correction of Military Records that the Army had unfairly singled out Slovik for execution in an attempt to stem the flow of deserters.
Although 21,049 American GIs deserted during World War II and 49 were sentenced to death, only one, Pvt. Slovik, was executed. He was shot to death on the morning of Jan. 31, 1945 - the first and last deserter executed since the Civil War.
"It was a perversion of justice to have singled him out," Bernard Edelman of Media, Pa., Mrs. Slovik's lawyer, contended before the Review Board, comprised of five civilians employed by the Army.
Although Slovik cannot be brought back to life, Edelman argued, the board can make amends to his widow by awarding her the insurance he had paid for while in the Army from 1944 to 1945.
This insurance - amounting to $72,000, counting accrued interest - and moving Slovik's remains from the unmarked grave in France, where he is buried "next to murderers and rapists," would "ease the pain," the lawyer argued.
Mrs. Slovik, who lives in a Detroit nursing home under an assumed name, sat in a wheelchair behind the witness table as Edelman and others presented her case. She broke into sobs when a chaplain's letter about her husband's bravery on the morning of his execution was read into the hearing record.
Slovik, wrote the chaplain in a letter to Mrs. Slovik that she never received, showed "as great a courage as any soldier I saw go into battle and die."
Dabbing at her eyes with a crumpled handkerchief. Mrs. Slovik said "it's the first time I've heard the contents" of that letter. She said that no one in the government told her how her husband had died.
"Nine years after execution is when I found out," Mrs. Slovik said. "All I got from the Army was a telegram that he died in the European Theatre of war and a letter to return the $55 allotment check, which I did. After that, nothing."
She testified that her husband was a hard-working, "jolly" young man who dreaded the thought of going into the Army but told her he would do the best job he could.
"I think he did try to serve the country the best he knew how," Mrs. Slovik told the Army board. The only request he made before leaving home, she said, was that "in case he died on foreign soil that he be buried on foreign soil."
Another witness at yesterday's hearing. Arnold Shaw of Lufkin, Tex., said that Slovik had "a deadly fear" of his own rifle and also had trouble with Army training in 1944.
Shaw, commander of Slovik's training company, said he felt that the young private was so unsuited for combat that he should have been discharged from the Army or confined to non-combat roles.
Shaw said that Army superiors never responded to his recommendations. Slovik was shipped overseas in 1944 as an infantry replacement. Later that same year he was charged with deserting "with intent to avoid hazardous duty."
Army officials connected with the case theorized that Slovik deserted so he would be put in jail rather than have to face the terrors of combat. But instead of being jailed, the 24-year-old Slovik was sentenced "to be shot death with musketry."
Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower approved the execution. The court martial, witness said, took 90 minutes, and Slovik was represented by a layman, not a lawyer, as defense attorney.
Although Slovik's case was meant to be a warning to GIs, his execution was never reported in the military newspaper, and all the records of the case were classified.
The Army Revew Board is expected to consider Mrs. Slovik's plea for two to three weeks and then make a recommendation to Secretary of the Army Clifford Alexander.