Nearly seven decades after its end, the Second World War still provides fodder for historians, filmmakers, novelists, and other storytellers. With The Deserters, globe-trotting journalist and former ABC News correspondent Charles Glass sheds some light on an under-examined aspect of the great conflict of the 20th century.
The best known American deserter of World War II was Pvt. Eddie Slovik, who became the only U.S. soldier since the Civil War to be executed for desertion. Slovik’s death-penalty appeal occurred in January 1945, while the Battle of the Bulge was raging. It was not a good time for General Eisenhower to be seen as soft on deserters. The Army was apparently embarrassed by the execution and covered it up, telling his widow only that he died in the European theater. Slovik’s story was eventually revealed by William Bradford Huie, who published The Execution of Private Slovik in 1954.
While Glass briefly mentions Slovik and provides some background on the subject, The Deserters is an often fascinating group memoir that assembles into a single narrative the harrowing stories of three other men—two American one British—who decided they had experienced enough of war and deserted.
Men affected by the horrors of trench warfare during the Great War were described as having “shell shock.” Glass cites a report from 1943 in Fortune which revealed that “nearly half of the 67,000 beds in Veteran’s Administration hospitals are still occupied by the neuropsychiatric casualties of World War I.” The shell shock of the Great War era was described as “combat fatigue” during the Second World War. Glass describes the view that prevailed among the brass during World War II as favoring “psychiatric as well as traditional medical care in forward aid stations” over General Patton’s preferred treatment of shooting the “cowards.”
Even as military leaders were aware that men would crack under prolonged exposure to combat, the need for frontline troops was immense. The term “replacement” comes up repeatedly in The Deserters. Replacements were soldiers trained and inserted into combat units to, well, replace those who were killed, maimed, or otherwise unavailable for service. Army chief of staff George C. Marshall instituted the replacement policy to keep combat divisions on the line and simplify logistics, even at the cost eroding unit cohesion. Alfred Whitehead, one of the soldiers profiled by Glass, eventually deserted because he resented being a replacement—rather than returning to his old outfit—after recovering from appendicitis.
Whitehead—who wrote about his experiences in a self-published memoir (often viewed with skepticism by Glass) that he later sold in his barber shop—was sent to the 94th Reinforcement Battalion for reassignment. Before deserting Whitehead became insubordinate: instructing, for example, a superior officer to take an inadequate rifle and “shove it up his ass.” At that point Whitehead was a highly decorated combat veteran who had seen continuous action from D-Day through the end of 1944 and felt above the petty indignities foisted upon him by superiors, many of whom had seen no action.
There was a natural tension between frontline troops and those who had not been in combat. Paul Fussell wrote in The Boys Crusade of the infantryman’s “common hatred” for “anyone occupying … a position to the rear of the infantryman.” Most men who went AWOL—Absent With Out Leave—did so from combat units. While on the run, they were not infrequently helped out by other frontline troops. Glass quotes from a 1951 study published in the American Sociological Review stating that “most combat soldiers are sympathetic toward other fellows who go AWOL,” while those in the rear were reluctant to lend aid. Steven Weiss, a deserter who had fought in Italy and France, contemptuously referred to rear-area “pencil pushers” who ate well and treated their Parisian girlfriends to food and cigarettes intended for the infantry.
Although it is counterintuitive, occasionally soldiers went AWOL toward the front lines and back into the war. Weiss did not exactly do that, but becoming inadvertently detached from his unit in August 1944 did not mean his war ended: he was smuggled by the members of the French Resistance through a German-occupied area to relative safety. While separated from his unit, Weiss joined the Resistance. It was a style of fighting that suited him better than the infantry, where he had sometimes clashed his superiors. “Steve Weiss embraced clandestine warfare more than he had the life of an infantryman,” says Glass. “Resistance fighting allowed him his independence, and usually let him sleep in a bed at night. Such luxuries were denied the ordinary infantryman, who obeyed orders and spent nights outdoors under enemy fire.” From the Resistance, Weiss reluctantly went to serve with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS).
Weiss eventually came to respect his fellows in the OSS, as he did those in the Resistance, but an individual soldier’s preferences count for little during wartime and his request for an official transfer was denied. Still a teen and respectful of authority at this point, Weiss later stated that it didn’t occur to him simply to refuse and utter the words, “No, Major, I’m not going back. You might as well call the MPs.”
Eventually Weiss decided that he had seen enough after incidents both terrifying and humiliating convinced him that the consequences of desertion were less unappealing than those of staying in the infantry. For his desertion and refusal at the court martial to return to the infantry Weiss received a dishonorable discharge and a life sentence. He would later be paroled when he agreed to fight in the Pacific theater, though a directive from General Eisenhower that no soldier would be forced to serve in more than two theaters of operation exempted him from that fate. Having already served in the Mediterranean and European theaters, writes Glass, “Weiss was free, but he was not going to the Pacific. He was on his way to Paris. The last laugh was his.”
The one Englishman profiled in The Deserters became a well known poet in the postwar period under the name Vernon Scannell. While in the army he was known as John Bain, and he was a serial deserter. He had already taken an unexcused three-week break while still training in Scotland, and Bain again deserted while in the field in 1943 after witnessing his fellow soldiers plunder the corpses of both German and British dead after a battle in North Africa. Bain did not run from battle out of fear: instead, as he described it, he “seemed to float away” from the aftermath of combat.
The result for Bain was a term in an infamous prison in Britain’s Mustafa Barracks near Alexandria in Egypt. Inmates at Mustafa, known as SUSs—soldiers under sentence—were subject to an exhausting and humiliating regimen, one aspect of which would inspire a novel, The Hill by Ray Rigby, and a film of the same name starring Sean Connery. SUSs were required to perform tasks of “Sisyphean absurdity” involving a large pile of sand:
On the morning after the SUSs had piled the sand up in one corner of the square, the staff sergeants ordered them to collect two buckets each. Columns of inmates ran double-time with a bucket in each hand, filled them with sand, ran to the diagonal corner of the square and poured it out. The morning’s labor succeeded in moving the entire hill from one corner to the other. When they had finished, their lungs gasping for the dry desert air, the men were ordered to move the sand back again. This would be repeated, along with drills and physical training, every day.
One result of such harsh treatment was to make horrifying alternatives seem bearable. After serving six months, Bain went before a Sentence Review Board looking for prisoners who would return to combat. After hearing a colonel refer to his desertion as a “damned bad show,” Bain accepted an offer to return to the war and a new front in Europe.
Men frequently sought escape from the horrors and rigors of combat, but the final time Bain deserted, he was in England shortly after the end of the war in Europe. This time Bain ran from the banality of life in the military. As he put it, “if I stayed in the Army any longer I would be finished, I would become a brown automaton, a thing without imagination, intelligence, ambition.”
There is a tension, evident in The Deserters, pitting an army’s need to maintain discipline among the troops—to keep the men who are supposed to be on the front line there—against the risk of pushing men too far. It is essential to a functioning military that men subordinate their own interests, including their physical safety, to their mission. The stories told by Glass indicate that the armies of the United States and Great Britain in Europe had some difficulty maintaining the balance. Deserters quotes from a report to the deputy theater commander in Europe to the effect that “the problem of war weary men in the Infantry of the old divisions which fought in Italy is one of the most severe we have … these men should be removed from the Infantry because they have lost their ‘zip’ and tend to weaken the fighting spirit of the new men.”
Maj. Gen. John Dahlquist, one-time division commander over Steven Weiss, wrote those words in February 1945, and they marked a change in his thinking from earlier in the war when he wanted to see more men punished for desertion.
Glass is sympathetic to his subjects even when he is skeptical of their version of events. Humans have always engaged in warfare, but the sort of mechanized, mass-scale killing of the Second World War is a recent phenomenon, and the men of The Deserters had to endure it for prolonged periods of time. They, along with thousands of their fellow soldiers, knew what to do when they had seen enough.
Clark Stooksbury writes from Knoxville, Tennessee.