The long, twisted case of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl took another turn Monday after the Army announced he would face a general court martial on charges of desertion and misbehaving before the enemy. In prior desertion cases, a guilty conviction might have meant a death sentence, but military prosecutors ruled out that possibility for Bergdahl when they charged him in March. Instead, if found guilty, he could face life in prison.
But that hasn’t stopped multitudes of people calling for his death — and by firing squad at that. Some examples:
Never mind that most states eliminated the firing squad as a method for carrying out death sentences, as did the U.S. military in 1995. The military itself hasn’t executed a soldier this way since January 1945, when Army Pvt. Eddie D. Slovik was shot by eleven of his rifle-laden peers for desertion.
Slovik’s case makes for fascinating history and at times gruesome reading.
He was one of thousands who deserted during the war, yet he was the only one sentenced to death for it. His rare sentence was likely directly related to the timing of his case and the example his death would serve. U.S. forces in Germany had been put on their heels after German troops launched a surprise offensive in the Ardennes forest–in what would become known as the Battle of the Bulge–just before Christmas and desertions among American troops were becoming evermore frequent.
A draftee, Slovik showed up in France in August 1944 to fight alongside the 28th infantry division. He was a combat replacement, a new face in a unit that had seen its fair share of combat in Normandy and in the breakout campaign across France that followed. On his way to his regiment, and shortly after arriving in France, Slovik and a detachment of soldiers came under artillery fire. He briefly joined a group of Canadian soldiers who took him in after the shelling, and then afterwards, linked up with the 28th Infantry and subsequently refused to fight. After repeated attempts from various levels of leadership to convince Slovik to reconsider his desire to desert, he was detained and charged.
On Nov. 11 1944, he went to court martial, where he was found guilty and sentenced to death. With frontline units engaged in heavy combat, Slovik’s division commander upheld the sentence. On Jan. 30, 1945, Slovik was put to death by firing squad, even after writing Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower for clemency — something that Eisenhower refused.
The Army’s 1944 “Procedure for Military Executions” manual doesn’t even call such sentences death by firing squad.’ Instead they are ‘Execution by Musketry,’ described in six pages of procedures to follow before the person in question can be shot to death properly. The most recent manual for military executions from 2006, however, only addresses protocols associated with the lethal injection.
The “execution party,” as it is called, is helmed by one officer who is charged with directing the twelve men of the firing squad and ensuring a number of tasks are performed prior to the execution of the prisoner.
– “Cause a post with proper rings placed therein for securing the prisoner in an upright position to be erected at the place of execution. ”
-“Cause twelve rifles to be loaded in his presence. Not more than four nor less than one will be loaded with blank ammunition. He will place the rifles at random in the rack provided for that purpose.”
– “Provide a 4-inch, round, white target.”
The target, if needed, is for the firing squad to properly aim at the prisoner’s heart.
After the proper preliminary procedures, the prisoner is then marched out in the middle of the firing squad while a band trails behind playing the “Dead March.” Once the prisoner is affixed to their post, the officer in charge will read the prisoner’s sentence aloud before allowing some final prayer with the chaplain and their last words.
For Slovik, his last words were to his chaplain–Father Carl Patrick Cummings–in a small garden outside the French village of Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines.
In the 1954 book “The Execution of Private Slovik,” author William Bradford Huie managed to interview numerous members of the firing squad and those present during the trial and subsequent execution of Slovik. Huie’s book was ground breaking at the time because Slovik’s death and the circumstances surrounding it were not widely reported.
Just before his execution, Cummings told Slovik, “Eddie, when you get up there, say a little prayer for me.” And 24-year-old Slovik replied, “Okay Father, I’ll pray that you don’t follow me too soon.”
With Slovik’s hood pulled over his head, Cummings walked away and the firing squad marched out.
Just after 10:01am, 11 rounds fired from 11 M-1 rifles entered Slovik’s body, according to Huie’s account. None struck the heart. The firing squad detail, made up entirely of combat veterans, had foregone affixing the white paper target to Slovik’s chest.
In the moments that followed, the firing squad realized that Slovik was still alive, and some even recounted to Huie years later that Slovik had tried to pick himself up in his restraints. The bullets, according to the doctor present, had gone mostly in Slovik’s chest, though one had entered his neck and another had struck his left arm. Slovik, breathing quietly and with a rapid pulse, waited for the firing squad to reload.
The commanding general of the 28th Infantry Division, Maj. Gen. Norman Cota, recounted to Huie later that the execution “was the roughest fifteen minutes of my life.”
Slovik died before the detail was ready to fire again.