Sunday, January 30, 2011

A Witness to the Execution

Nick Gozik [above] turns 90-years old tomorrow. He spent the morning of his 25th birthday as a witness to the execution of Pvt. Eddie Slovik.

Tomorrow marks the 65th anniversary of the execution of Pvt. Eddie Slovik, who became the first U.S. service member executed for desertion since the Civil War. Although 48 other American soldiers were given similar varying sentences during World War II, Slovik's was the only one carried out.

Also 65 years ago tomorrow, Nick Gozik celebrated his 25th birthday. Gozik, now a 90-year old man living in Western Pennsylvania, spent his birthday as a witness to Slovik's execution. When Gozik celebrates tomorrow with his family, he will be thinking of Slovik and remember a courtyard in a castle-like villa at the edge of the town of Sainte-Marie-Aux-Mines in the Vosges Mountains in France. It was there that Slovik was executed - a botched one at that - by a firing squad.

Today, Gozik remembers Slovik not as a coward but as one of the bravest men he ever saw. "I've seen a lot of people in the service who didn't want to die, but he knew he was going to die," Gozik recently told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "He knew what to expect, and he was going to abide by it. He paid the price of several thousand people deserting during the war. Believe me when I tell you, to me, he was the bravest soldier I ever met."

Gozik and Slovik had very different paths to that French courtyard. Gozik joined the Army National Guard shortly after his 19th birthday - two years prior to U.S. entry into the war. Slovik was drafted well-into the conflict. When the United States did enter World War II, Gozik and his fellow Guardsmen ended up on active duty.

Gozik served with the Army's 28th Infantry Division in an artillery unit that made its way through Europe, ending up in eastern France, where he survived the Battle of the Bulge. On January 30, 1945, certainly, the war was still raging, but Gozik and his unit were taking a breather. Unexpectedly, however, he and a few others were told to report to battalion headquarters the next morning. They were not told why.

After reporting the next morning, they were taken by Jeep to what Gozik described as a castle-like villa at the end of town with iron gates, a bridge and a stone wall surrounding it. Strangely, a Catholic priest was waiting for them. Without a word, after Gozik and the other got out of the Jeep, the priest began to say Mass. After the impromptu service, Gozik and the other men entered a courtyard. "They had put up a large pole in the center of this area close to the stone wall," Gozik recalled. The murmurs began: somebody was being executed today.

Gozik recalled the shock that quickly ran through his mind as that reality sank in. While he and the others were supposed to stand at attention, Gozik recalled that nobody did. Instead, they watched as Pvt. Eddie Slovik - wearing his uniform stripped of its insignia, as mandated by the Army Code of Conduct for those to be executed for desertion - emerged from a small shed.

Slovik was flanked by two soldiers. His head was bare and he had a blanket draped over his shoulders. Gozik recalled that Slovik was a, "little fellow. He was going to be 25 years old in February. And that day was my birthday — January 31st. I was 25 years old." It was 18 days before Slovik's 25th.

Slovik was strapped to the post — his feet, legs, waist and under his arms — so that when he died, he wouldn't slump to the ground. Suddenly a Catholic priest — the same man who had celebrated Mass around the Jeep with Gozik and his comrades — went to Slovik's side. Gozik thought he made out the words of "Hail Mary." He is sure, though, that he accurately heard the end of their exchange: "'Eddie,'" the priest said, "'when you get up there, say a prayer for me.' Eddie said he would."

A satiny black hood, made by a local woman who had no idea what it was to be used for, was pulled over Slovik's head.

Twelve more soldiers marched in — the firing squad. They were supposed to be the best sharpshooters d from various units in the 28th. Either they weren't the best, or the 28th had a lot of poor shots.

They stood at attention as a general read the charges against Slovik. The declaration lasted five minutes. Slovik then issued a final statement that Gozik would only understand years later. The soldiers then loaded their riffles. Eleven had live ammunition, one had blanks. The general then said — "Ready, aim, fire!"

"When they fired, [although] you expected the bang to go shook us — 12 rounds," Gozik remembered. "It just shattered the stillness of the day."

While loud, it wasn't successful. Although Slovik slumped a bit as he was hit, the shooters had not accomplished their job. A physician checked Slovik's vital signs. He was still alive. "I heard the doctor say, 'What's the matter with you guys? Can't you shoot straight?' " Gozik remembered.

So, the twelve shooters reloaded as Slovik began moaning and breathing heavily. The second fusillade finally ended Slovik's life.

Gozik and the other witnesses were ordered to march out before Slovik's body was removed. Gozik went back to his unit and told his comrades what he had seen. He wrote home about it.

But he never heard mention of it from his superiors. There was no article in Stars and Stripes.

While the death stuck with him, and he didn't feel it was right, Gozik at the time didn't know the details of Slovik's crimes and wasn't terribly curious. He'd seen men get shot before - and he still had the task of trying to get out alive himself.

In fact, even after the war, Gozik never knew the details of Slovik's crimes. It was only years later - when he came across William Bradford Huie's book The Execution of Private Slovik- that he learned the story.

Gozik learned that Slovik - like himself - had been born into a Polish-American family; in Slovik's case it was in Detroit. At 12-years old, Slovik was arrested after he and some friends broke into a foundry to steal some brass. It was only the first arrest. In fact, between 1932 and 1937, Slovik was caught for several incidents of petty theft, breaking and entering, and disturbing the peace. In October 1937, he was sent to prison, only to be paroled in September 1938. He wasn't free long. After stealing and crashing a car with two friends while drunk, Slovik found himself back prison by January 1939 - the same month that Nick Gozik enlisted in the National Guard.

While Gozik ended up in the middle of a war, Slovik sat in prison. In April 1942, Slovik was paroled once more, and obtained a job at Montella Plumbing and Heating in Dearborn, Michigan. There he met the woman who would become his wife, Antoinette Wisniewski, while she was working as a bookkeeper for James Montella.

At the beginning of the war, once paroled, Slovik's criminal record made him classified as unfit for duty in the U.S. military [4-F]. As the war dragged on, however, that status changed. While he had been deemed unsuitable for the military at first, by late-1943 more soldiers were needed. "They were scraping the bottom of the barrel," Nick Gozik remembered. "They needed cannon fodder. He didn't belong there. He didn't belong there. It was sad."

After Slovik was reclassified as fit for duty [1-A], he was subsequently drafted by the Army. He arrived at Camp Wolters in Texas for basic military training on January 24, 1944. By August, he was dispatched to join the fighting in France. Arriving on August 20th, he was one of 12 reinforcements assigned to Company G of the 109th Infantry Regiment, U.S. 28th Infantry Division - Gozik's division.

While en route to his assigned unit, Slovik and a friend - Pvt. John Tankey - took cover during an artillery attack and became separated from their replacement detachment. The next morning, the two found a Canadian military police unit and remained with them for the next six weeks. Tankey wrote to their regiment to explain their absence before he and Slovik reported back for duty on October 7, 1944. The U.S. Army's rapid advance through France had caused many replacement soldiers to have trouble finding their assigned units, so no charges were filed against them.

That was when Slovik made a fatal error. The following day, on October 8th, Slovik informed his company commander - Captain Ralph Grotte - that he was "too scared" to serve in a rifle company and asked to be reassigned to a rear area unit. He told Grotte that he would run away if he were assigned to a rifle unit, and asked his captain if that would constitute desertion. Grotte confirmed that it would and refused Slovik's request for reassignment, sending him to a rifle platoon.

The fatal error Slovik made was thinking that - if he deserted - he would be sentenced to jail. Since he was quite familiar with being incarcerated, he figured that was preferable to ending up getting shot. Of course, at the time, he couldn't know that that would be his fate.

So, the next day - October 9th - Slovik deserted from his infantry unit. His friend - Tankey - caught up with him. Tankey was not as convinced as Slovik that he would only be looking at jail time. Tankey vainly attempted to persuade him to stay, but Slovik's only comment was that his "mind was made up".

With that, Slovik walked several miles to the rear and approached an enlisted cook at a head-quarters detachment, presenting him with a note in which he stated his intention to "run away" if he were sent into combat. The cook summoned his company commander and an MP, who read the note. The MP - who, like Tankey thought Slovik didn't realize the potential consequences of his actions - urged Slovik to destroy the note before he was taken into custody. Slovik refused.

He was brought before Lieutenant Colonel Ross Henbest, who again offered him the opportunity to tear up the note, return to his unit and face no further charges. After Slovik again refused, Henbest ordered Slovik to write another note on the back of the first one stating that he fully understood the legal consequences of deliberately incriminating himself with the note, and that it would be used as evidence against him in a court martial.

Slovik was taken into custody and confined to the division stockade. The divisional judge advocate, Lieutenant Colonel Henry Sommer, again offered Slovik an opportunity to rejoin his unit and have the charges against him suspended. Sommer even offered to transfer Slovik to a different infantry regiment where no one would know of his past and he could start with a "clean slate". Slovik, still convinced that he would face only jail time, declined these offers, saying, "I've made up my mind. I'll take my court martial."

The 28th Division was scheduled to begin an attack in the Hurtgen Forest. The coming attack was common knowledge among soldiers like Gozik. Casualty rates were expected to be very high, as the prolonged combat in the area had been unusually grueling. While America continued to have serious advantages over the Germans in armor and air support, the terrain and weather reduced that advantage considerably.

Here, it is important that we not operate under the facts as we now know them - namely, that the war would end in a few short months in Europe. In fact, in October 1944 it was thought that the war could in fact linger on indefinitely [although by that point there was no doubt that the Allies would win]. When considering the Slovik case, too, it is important to note that the rates of desertion and other crimes within the armed forces had begun to rise.

So, it was in that context that Slovik was charged with 'desertion to avoid hazardous duty' and tried by court martial on November 11, 1944. The prosecutor, Captain John Green, presented witnesses to whom Slovik had stated his intention to "run away." The defense counsel, Captain Edward Woods, announced that Slovik had elected not to testify. The nine officers of the court found Slovik guilty and sentenced him to death. The sentence was reviewed and approved by the division commander, Major General Norman Cota.

Perhaps realizing that he had made an incorrect assumption, on December 9th, Slovik wrote a letter to the Supreme Allied commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, pleading for clemency. However, desertion had become a systemic problem in France, and the surprise German offensive through the Ardennes had begun with severe U.S. casualties, pocketing several battalions and straining the morale of the infantry to the greatest extent yet seen during the war. It was in that context that Eisenhower confirmed the execution order on December 23rd, noting that it was necessary to discourage further desertions.

Needless to say, the sentence came as a shock to Slovik. It is understandable why Slovik had expected a dishonorable discharge and a jail term, as he had seen that same punishment meted out to other deserters from his division while he was confined to the stockade. Indeed, almost 40,000 U.S. service members evaded combat during World War II. Most were tried by lesser courts-martial, but 2,864 cases were heard by general courts-martial and received sentences from 20-years to death.

After reading about Slovik years later, Gozik finally made sense out of Slovik's last statement. Slovik's last words were "They're not shooting me for deserting the United States Army - thousands of guys have done that. They're shooting me for that brass I stole when I was 12 years old."

Today, Gozik calls the execution a blatant injustice. "If he died as a deterrent to eliminate the possibility of further deserters, it really didn't make a difference," Gozik said. "It was just awful as far as I'm concerned."

Slovik was buried in a section of a French cemetery reserved for 96 American soldiers executed in the European Theater. All but Slovik had been hanged for violent crimes — the murder or rape of civilians. For years, a Michigan politician named Bernard Calka - himself a World War II veteran - had tried to get Slovik's remains returned to the United States. In 1987 Calka finally succeeded, convincing President Ronald Reagan to order Slovik's remains be returned. Calka raised $8,000 to pay for their transfer from France to Detroit's Woodmere Cemetery, where Slovik was reburied next to his wife, Antoinette.

For years, Gozik wanted to pay his respects to Slovik. Finally, in November 2010, Gozik decided it was time to go to Detroit.

While there, he wanted to meet with Slovik's sister. "I just wanted to tell her what a brave man her brother was, and whatever happened to him, he did not deserve it," Gozik said. "I wanted to put her mind at ease that there was no justification." Slovik's sister declined to meet. The memories were still too painful.

So, on the day after Veterans Day 2010, Gozik and many of his family members went to Slovik's grave. With the help of a daughter, he placed a small American flag at the grave.

"It was the end of my journey for Eddie," Gozik said. "I did what I wanted to do, but I'm sorry it took that many years."

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1 comment:

  1. I too was in the 28th Div and as I remember one officer and one noncom was invited to attend the execution. One of my gun sgts attended. The in justice of the execution was that he was the only one. There should have been others but that is not the US Army way.