4 of the most famous deserters in US military history
Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl now faces charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy, and if he’s found guilty, he’ll join a list of U.S. military deserters throughout history that includes famous names such as Steve McQueen and Mark Twain.
We looked back and found some of the more infamous cases of soldiers deserting or going AWOL from their military service. Here’s what we found.
1. Mark Twain
Before his writing career took off under his pen name of “Mark Twain,” Samuel Clemens was training as an apprentice steamboat pilot in New Orleans in the late 1850s. According to the Hannibal Courier-Post, he received his pilot’s license in 1859, but his career was cut short after the outbreak of Civil War shut down traffic on the Mississippi River.
The Civil War severely curtailed river traffic, and, fearing that he might be impressed as a Union gunboat pilot, Clemens brought his years on the river to a halt a mere two years after he had acquired his license. He returned to Hannibal, where he joined the prosecessionist Marion Rangers, a ragtag lot of about a dozen men. After only two uneventful weeks, during which the soldiers mostly retreated from Union troops rumoured to be in the vicinity, the group disbanded. A few of the men joined other Confederate units, and the rest, along with Clemens, scattered. Twain would recall this experience, a bit fuzzily and with some fictional embellishments, in The Private History of the Campaign That Failed (1885). In that memoir he extenuated his history as a deserter on the grounds that he was not made for soldiering.
2. Steve McQueen
The actor who became known as “The King of Cool” had a rocky time while serving in the Marine Corps. Having joined the Marines in 1947, McQueen was promoted to Private First Class and was demoted back to private seven times, according to AllDay.com. Yes, SEVEN.
It gets better, via Military.com:
His rebellious nature came to a head when he let a weekend pass turn into a two week tryst with his girlfriend. Shore patrol apprehended him, but he resisted and spent 41 days in the brig; the first 21 were spent living off of bread and water.
3. Gen. George Custer
Before his famous “Last Stand” at the Battle of Little Big Horn, George Custer was court-martialed for abandoning his post to go and see his wife. After taking over the newly-formed 7th Cavalry, Custer led an expedition against the Sioux and Cheyenne indians in 1867.
But he took a slight detour and left his regiment to see his wife Libbie back at Fort Riley, according to History.com. He was court-martialed and convicted on eight counts, including absence without leave (AWOL), and was suspended from duty for one year without pay. Ironically, his court-martial also included testimony that Custer ordered deserters to be shot without trial, according to the Kansas Historical Society.
4. Private Eddie Slovik
A World War II draftee, Eddie Slovik was sent to France to serve with the 28th Infantry in Aug. 1944. As combat replacements, Slovik and a companion become lost while trying to join the unit at the front lines and they ended up joining a Canadian unit that took them in, according to History.com.
History.com has more:
Slovik stayed on with the Canadians until October 5, when they turned him and his buddy over to the American military police, who reunited them with the 28th Division, now in Elsenborn, Belgium. No charges were brought; replacements getting lost early on in their tours of duty were not unusual. But exactly one day after Slovik returned to his unit, he claimed he was “too scared and too nervous” to be a rifleman and threatened to run away if forced into combat. His admission was ignored-and Slovik took off. One day after that he returned, and Slovik signed a confession of desertion, claiming he would run away again if forced to fight, and submitted it to an officer of the 28th. The officer advised Slovik to take the confession back, as the consequences would be serious. Slovik refused, and he was confined to the stockade.
Slovik admitted in his confession that he was so scared at times that he “couldn’t move.” He wrote: “I said that if I had to go out their again I’d run away. He said their was nothing he could do for me so I ran away again AND ILL RUN AWAY AGAIN IF I HAVE TO GO OUT THEIR [sic].”
His trial lasted less than two hours, and he was sentenced to death by firing squad. His sentence was carried out on Jan. 31, 1945, Business Insider reported.
Before he was killed, Slovik said (according to The Spectator):
“They’re not shooting me for deserting; thousands of guys have done that. They just need to make an example out of somebody and I’m it … I used to steal things when I was a kid, and that’s what they’re shooting me for. They’re shooting me for the bread and chewing gum I stole when I was 12 years old.”