When the military comes to mind, the word “court-martial” is not something we like to think about. Yet, in World War II, “some 2 million people were court-martialed for varying offenses, resulting in 80,000 felony convictions.” On occasion, as a regimental personnel officer, my father was required to attend court-martial hearings. An account from Journals of War summarizes his initial court-martial experience, which took place on December 6, 1944:
I sat on my first court-martial today. It was a general court-martial,
and the offense was violation of the 75th Article of War,
“Misbehavior before the Enemy,” or in other words, cowardice. In
secret ballot, the sentence was to be dishonorably discharged from the
service, to forfeit all pay and allowances due or to become due, and to
serve at hard labor for the rest of his natural life. Severe as this sentence
was, the man narrowly missed the maximum sentence, “to be shot to
death by musketry.” Needless to say, the thing was quite an ordeal to
me, for I had never sat on one of the proceedings before, and I could
scarcely enjoy my supper after the court was adjourned. The man was
guilty beyond all doubt and had endangered the lives of the rest of the
men in his squad by his actions.
One of the most infamous cases of a court-martial involved Private Eddie Slovik (not of the 104th Infantry), “who abandoned his unit while in France. Following a military trial in 1944, Slovik was shot dead at 24 years old by a firing squad, the only U.S. service member to be executed for desertion since the Civil War.”
A court-martial is unpleasant to contemplate, but unfortunately, military courts-martial are an indelible part of history. You can read more about how my father experienced them in Journals of War.
Quotations other than those from Journals of War attributed to the following author: James, R. (2009, November). The court-martial. Time. Retrieved from http://content.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1940201,00.html.