The Army is a reflection of society, it has different layers and characters.It has clergy men, Physicians, Nurses, Police and even teachers. But like the wider society it also has members whose intentions are less honorable. Even those who are considered the good guys and the liberators.
Paris 1944, and French citizens are cowering in their homes and businesses, fearful of the soldiers who will show no mercy, who will steal, assault, rape and murder without compunction.
But it’s not Nazis that they are afraid of, it’s former American GIs… deserters, who roamed the streets in highly organised gangs.
It’s a fascinating and little known fact that in the weeks and months following the liberation of Paris, the city was hit by a wave of crime and violence like something out of Prohibition era America.
While the Allies fought against Hitler’s forces in Europe, law enforcers fought against the criminals who threatened that victory. Men who had abandoned the ‘greater good’ in favour of self-interest, black-market profits and the lure of the cafes and brothels of Paris: deserters.
Highly organised, armed to the teeth and merciless, these deserters used their US uniforms as another tool of their trade along with the vast arrays of stolen weapons, forged passes and hijacked vehicles they had at their disposal.Between June 1944 and April 1945 the US army’s Criminal Investigation Department handled a total of 7,912 cases. Forty per cent involved misappropriation of US supplies.
Greater yet was the proportion of crimes of violence – rape, murder, manslaughter and assault which accounted for 44 per cent of the force’s workload. The remaining 12 per cent were crimes such as robbery, housebreaking and riot.
Up to 50,000 American and 100,000 British soldiers deserted during World War II, and in a new book, The Deserters: A Hidden History of World War II, Charles Glass lifts the lid on one of the most violent and shameless episodes in American military history.
Charles Glass had long harboured an interest in the subject. But it was only truly ignited by a chance meeting with Steve Weiss – decorated combat veteran of the US 36th Infantry Division and former deserter.
They met for coffee and Weiss asked Glass what he was working on. Glass recalls: ‘I told him it was a book on American and British deserters in the Second World War and asked if he knew anything about it.
‘He answered, “I was a deserter.”‘
This once idealistic boy from Brooklyn who enlisted at 17, had fought on the beachhead at Anzio and through the perilous Ardennes forest, he was one of the very few regular American soldiers to fight with the Resistance in 1944. And he had deserted.
His story was, both secret and emblematic of a group of men, wreathed together under a banner of shame that branded them cowards. Yet the truth was far more complex.
Many were afraid. They had reached a point beyond which they could not endure and chosen disgrace over the grave. Some recounted waking, as if from a dream, to find their bodies had led them away from the battelfield.
Others, like Weiss, fought until their faith in their immediate commanders disappeared. Was it a form of madness or a dawning lucidity that led them to desert?
50,000 American and 100,000 British soldiers deserted during World War II.Yet only one was executed for it, Eddie Slovik. He was, until that point, by his own assessment the unluckiest man alive.
Of the 49 Americans sentenced to death for desertion during the Second World War he was the only one whose appeal for commutation was rejected. His greatest sin, as Glass tells it, was his timing.
His appeal came in January 1945 just as the German counter-offensive, the Battle of the Bulge, was at its peak. Allied forces were near breaking point. It was not, Supreme Allied Commander, General Dwight Eisenhower decided, time to risk seeming to condone desertion.
Slovik was shot for his crime on the morning of 31 January 1945.
He was dispatched in the remote French village of Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines and the truth concealed even from his wife, Antoinette.
She was informed that her husband had died in the European Theatre of Operations.
Private Alfred T Whitehead’s was a very different story.
Private Alfred T Whitehead, a farm boy from Tennessee, His story reveals an interesting insight into the actions of one particular type of deserter.
Whitehead fought at Normandy and claims to have stormed the beaches on the D-Day landings and been in continuous combat up to December 30. In the process he earned the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars, Combat Infantry Badge and Distinguished Unit Citation.
After suffering an illness, he was invalided out to Paris. Upon his recovery, Whithead was sent to the 94th Reinforcement Battalion, a replacement depot in Fontainebleau.
Bored by is new posting, he deserted and quickly moved into life as a criminal in the Paris underworld – and into one of the many gangs of ex-soldiers terrorizing Paris.
Led by an ex-paratrooper sergeant, raids were planned like military operations. Whitehead later admitted, ‘we stole trucks, sold whatever they carried, and used the trucks to rob warehouses of the goods in them.’
The gang used combat tactics, hijacked goods, attacking civilians and military targets indiscriminately. They robbed crates of alcohol, hijacked jeeps and raided private houses. They stole petrol, cigarettes, liquor and weapons. And there seemed to be nobody able to stop them as their crime wave even spread into neighbouring Belgium
Such was their ‘success’ that Whithead estimated that after just six months his own share of the plunder ran to an astonishing $100,000.Whitehead’s luck eventually ran out and he was captured, court martialled and
dishonourably discharged, serving time at the Delta Disciplinary Training Barracks in the south of France and, when repatriated to the States, in federal penitentiaries in New Jersey before his release.
Many years later he had that ‘dishonourable discharge,’ turned into a General one on rather disingenuous legal grounds.
In peacetime appearances mattered more to Whitehead than they ever had in war.
Back then, he admitted: ‘I never knew what tomorrow would hold, so I took every day as it came. War does strange things to people, especially their morality.’
Those ‘strange things’ rather than the false extremes of courage and cowardice are the truths set out in this account of the War and its deserters.