Plot E, Oise-Aisne Cemetery, France,
the final resting place for “dishonored soldiers,” and the stories of Eddie Slovik, a WWII deserter, and of Louis Till (Emmett Till’s father), who was accused of rape and murder
written by Tilly Gaillard and Karen Kenny
Just across the road from the four A, B, C, D plots in the Oise-Aisne Cemetery in France lies Plot E, out of the sight of the public, tourists, and passers-by. This is where 96 dishonorably discharged US WWII soldiers are buried. The Plot E soldiers, the “dishonored dead,” were executed by a firing squad, called a “musketry”, or hanged for the rape and/or murder of fellow soldiers or civilians (with one exception, a deserter), mainly in France but also in the UK, North Africa, Belgium, Germany, and Italy, between 1943 and 1945. They were originally buried near the scenes of their crimes, but in 1949 the remains of all these soldiers were transferred to Oise-Aisne Plot E, which was unofficially recognized by the ABMC (American Battlefield Monuments Commission) in 2004.
The shame involved in Plot E was so great that information of who was buried under each marker stone only became available in 2009 when the Freedom of Information Act was adopted. The number of dishonored servicemen is extremely small considering the huge number of honorable servicemen and women who fought in WWII.
How was this location chosen? The Oise-Aisne cemetery, established in 1918, had space across the road from the main cemetery. No country wanted a stain of shame to scar a glorious record of French liberation, and the fact was that most of the crimes had been committed somewhere in France.
Plot E, aka "the Fifth Field," was created in 1949. This 100 x 50m well-tended grass area surrounded by neatly trimmed hedges has flat stone markers distributed in four rows with a number representing each of the 96 deceased, and a large unmarked white cross but no US flag. It lies next to the cemetery's administration building. Its peaceful landscape is a sign of respect for the next of kin.
Eighty of the deceased were African American soldiers from 22 states – but the majority were from the South, e.g., Georgia, North Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, Texas, etc. They were between 19 and 38 years of age; 61 had previous court-martial records ranging from AWOL to felony. 71 of their victims were civilians. All were found guilty of either murder or rape, with 5 being found guilty of both. Rape victims ranged in age from 7 to 75.
The condemned soldiers at the time of death were dressed in unadorned regulation uniforms stripped of all rank, decorations, insignia, and other signs of identity. The time between hanging (drop) and pronounced dead (no heartbeat) varied between 3.5 and 22 minutes; the average time was just under 15 minutes. Four of the executions were by firing squad, the rest from hanging by US soldiers. It is noteworthy that not all the hangmen were professionals. Four stone markers denote the remains of four men convicted to life imprisonment for capital crimes, but who died before being sent to prison. Four others were never buried in Plot E; their remains were sent back to the U.S. right after the War. Two (Slovik [1987 Michigan] and Miranda [1990 CA]) were buried, exhumed, and returned to the U.S. at the cost of their families.
The executions had to be approved at the highest level of government, with 71 of them being confirmed by General Dwight Eisenhower. In December 1943, General Eisenhower decided that in the Army General Courts-Martial, the jury must include one black member if a black man was on trial. In one case, four men were sentenced to death for raping one woman. There were four separate cases, but the same jury expediently heard all four. As a rule, the relatives were told that these men had died in combat, or because of “willful misconduct,” a very ambiguous term that could mean suicide, but in any case, was less damning than the truth.
In 1943, in response to the dire need for more soldiers, the IQ level required for enlistment was lowered from 80 to 70 to 60 (at least three), and finally to 50 (one soldier was said to have the mental age of a 9-yr old). Some of the condemned soldiers were mentally deficient, or were psychopathic or schizophrenic, in other words, unfit to serve. In the world of today, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a recognized malady …
Two cases stand out for very different reasons: Eddie Slovik, because he was hanged for being a deserter and refusing to return to his unit, and Louis Till because he was the father of an assassinated 14-year-old who became an icon of the civil rights movement. Their stories:
Louis Till, father of Emmett Till
Louis Till (1922-1945) and Mamie Carthan were married when they were both 18. Mamie left Louis when she found out that he was being unfaithful, which infuriated Louis. He strangled Mamie to unconsciousness; thereafter, she reacted by throwing scalding water at him. In 1943, for disobeying a restraining order, the judge gave Louis a choice : either prison or the Army. He chose the latter.
The couple had a son, Emmett, who at age 14 left their Chicago home to visit relatives in Mississippi. For ostensibly offending a white woman in a grocery store of which she recanted years later, the woman’s husband and brother-in-law beat, mutilated, and shot Emmett, and threw his body in a river. The assassins were acquitted by an all white jury in September 1955. Mamie insisted that the mutilated body be brought back to Chicago and viewed in an open casket, which thousands of people saw, and the photo was reproduced in newspapers across the country. 14-year-old Emmett became an icon of the civil rights movement.
Eddie D. Slovik
The death of Private Eddie D. Slovik (born in 1920 in Detroit, died 1945), was a warning about the essential importance of discipline. He was accused of deserting his outfit in Belgium on or about August 25, 1944. The Canadian military returned him to U.S. authorities near Brussels on or about Oct 4, 1944. He said he would desert again and was accused of “intent to avoid hazardous duty and shirk important service.” One explanation was that he wanted to be tried and then jailed in a safe place. (He had been in and out of jails and detention centers for years.) But this didn’t happen and he was dishonorably discharged from the Army, had to “forfeit all pay and allowances,” and was sentenced to be shot to death by a firing squad composed of members of the unit he deserted.
His trial took less than two hours. Since the 1800s, no one had been sentenced to death for desertion. He was given a chance––but refused it––to return to his unit, which had suffered heavy losses. On November 27, 1944, Major General Norman Cota approved the death sentence, but said nothing about the “forfeiture of pay and allowances.” In 1987, his remains were returned from Plot E in France to Michigan via San Francisco, where, apparently, his remains were “lost” in transit at the airport, but then quickly found and sent on. At the Detroit Woodmere Cemetery, his gravestone shows his name, but no mention of his having been executed as a deserter. Note that in other battle situations there were many desertion-surrender cases, but the norm was for them to be returned to their units, generally without punishment.
The policy on the “dishonored” changed from WWI and mainly at the end of WWII. The “dishonored” of WWI were buried alongside their comrades on the other side of the road in the Oise-Aisne Cemetery where the U.S. Stars and Stripes flies prominently over the graves of all 6012 servicemen and women.
On another note, It would be interesting to know how long each of the “dishonored” fought bravely prior to going afoul, prior to contracting what now might be diagnosed as PTSD. Did the WWII families eventually receive some benefits accruing to their servicemen for that period? There is quite some room for doubt… but who knows?