Plot “E”: one of the world's loneliest places and, perhaps, one of its least publicized.
The little known Plot “E” is appended to a cemetery for the fallen of World War I, the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery and Memorial. This well-maintained place of rest is roughly a mile-and-a-half east of Fère-en-Tardenois (formerly Chateau Fère-en-Tardenois, established in 1206) in the Picardy district of France (about 70 miles northeast of Paris). Inside are burial sections labeled “Plot A” through “Plot D”.Credit: Vic Dillinger, 2012
Unlike the respectfully memorialized WWI-fallen of the main cemetery, there is a quieter, lesser-visited plot outside the walls of the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery and Memorial. This is Plot “E”. Buried there are some of the World War II dead. But it is not war heroes interred there. Instead, the shunned Plot “E” contains the bodies of rapists and murderers.
Everyone buried in Plot “E” was a military man. Everyone there was processed under General Court Martial conditions and each was remanded for execution by the US military. Human dignity required burying even these miscreants with some semblance of civility, but they are most definitely segregated from the other fallen buried in the World War I section of the park.
Generally, military personnel executed for serious crimes were hastily buried near their place of execution in the European Theater of Operations area. This meant American soldiers were interred in Italy, France, and other locales. During WWII, 98 US servicemen of the ETO were executed by order of the US military for violent offenses such as rape and murder.
Plot “E” was purposefully designed and landscaped on the contingency of burying such people. However, many of the dishonorable dead – those executed by the military for crimes against foreign citizenry – originally had a different final resting place. This was Brookwood Cemetery in London, England.
Brookwood was established in 1849 to handle London’s growing problem of remains disposal. It is sometimes called the London Necropolis, and it is not only the largest cemetery in the UK, but it is also one of the larger ones of Western Europe. [By 1854 it was the world’s largest, holding that title for a time.]
Plot “X” was set up in Brookwood Cemetery (after August 1944) specifically to receive executed US military men. The selection of the plot was purely Puritanical – the chosen site was not “consecrated ground” and, therefore, would not offend the tender sensibilities of the acutely religious.
Nor was it immediately accessible, either. Plot “X” was given over to a remote corner of the Necropolis – nearby were grounds-keeping tool sheds and the grounds’ compost heap. In keeping with the need to further denigrate the dead men (and to insure their “Everlasting” social place was enforced) these executed men received no caskets – they were stuffed into cotton mattress covers, dumped into a grave, and given a numbered marker (mostly for identification for civilian reasons, such as perhaps later having a need to dig up the area for utility work or things of that nature). Names, ranks, and dates of birth and death were not important.
The ignominious Plot “X” had space for 100 bodies, and it was the first time a concerted effort was made to segregate executed soldiers from the ones who had been killed, presumably more honorably, in combat. [An irony is that Dr. Robert Knox, the Scottish anatomist who purchased the corpses of murdered people – turning a blind eye to their source – from notorious early-19th Century body snatchers-turned-killers Burke and Hare, was buried in Brookwood in 1862. He rests peacefully in the “nice” section.]
Plot “E” saw its first interments right around the time of the French Liberation. The graves are barely noted on the landscape – they are marked with flat stone placards (about the size of a standard index card) carrying only a number engraved in black (the spaces are numbered sequentially, in 4 rows). There is a small, solitary, white cross at the head of the space, standing watch over the stone index markers. US flags are not allowed on the grave sites in the section, nor are American flags permitted to fly over Plot “E”. Publicity is generally by word of mouth; visitation is not encouraged per policy, and the mere fact of its existence is not noted on any of the cemetery’s promotional literature, guide pamphlets, or on its website.Credit: Stranger 20824, July 4, 2012
The occupants of the English Brookwood Cemetery’s Plot “X” (18 of them) were disinterred in 1949 and shipped over to the Oise-Aisne Plot “E” in France. In all, 96 graves remain (3 have been repatriated since burial in the 1940s).
After the French Occupation, American military personnel remained stationed all over the country, awaiting orders, or for shipment home, or to provide materiel and aid to the war-torn country. The same American military presence was in Italy and other countries as well in varying numbers.
One thing made perfectly clear by General George S. Patton about US military personnel remaining in these countries after the French Liberation: there would be zero tolerance for molesting the civilian populations wherever they were met. This meant no assaults, no sexual aggression toward the local women, and certainly no mindless murdering of innocent civilians. He had circulated a memo in August 1944 that read, “I am gravely concerned with the increasing number of crimes of violence against French civilians which are being committed within the Army, particularly by service troops.” He solidified his position: “It is not to be tolerated that a comparative few shall, by their criminal conduct, bring discredit upon us.”
Sadly, this was not clear to many American G.I.s, some of whom perceived the locals in whatever country in which they happened to be stationed as not only inferior but to be used and abused as seen fit. The disdain for the natives by some G.I.s was ridiculous considering most of the natives encountered by the average G.I. (more than likely a farm boy who’d probably never been very far outside the US county of his birth) had little in the way of an appreciation for foreign cultures.
A later military slang phrase summed up how US military personnel should behave when in foreign lands, particularly within the boundaries of an allied or host country: “Be nice to Mommy”. This phrase simply means to be tolerant and do no harm to the natives where the soldier is stationed.
Among the quiet despair of Plot “E” are three tragically exceptional stories. Of these, one was that of a deserter, another of a black soldier in Italy (whose son was fatally touched by racism a few years later), and finally of a black soldier in France who was likely the victim of racial prejudice at the hands of the military. Two of the three were not nice to Mommy.
In World War II, there was only one deserter whose name anyone knew, Private Edward Donald Slovik. He carries the infamous distinction of being the only soldier executed for desertion during the years of World War II.
Eddie Slovik (born in 1920), unlike many of his American compatriots, was a city boy, a street punk. Raised in Detroit, Michigan, he was a two-bit crook and an ex-con, and the US military had originally declared him unfit for duty because of his temperament and criminality. However, as the circumstances changed and WWII dragged on longer, men like Slovik were tapped for active duty anyway. He was drafted in late 1943 (a month after getting married), then shipped off to France in August 1944.
The Battle of Hürtgen Forest was fought between the Allies and the Germans and, despite its name, was a series of on-going engagements. It lasted from September 19, 1944 to February 10, 1945. The battle yielded about 24,000 casualties as a result of active combat; another 9,000 casualties were racked up from illness, fatigue, and “friendly fire”. The Battle of Hürtgen Forest remains the longest single battle in US Army history.
Into the maw was thrown the recalcitrant Pvt. Slovik about a month after his arrival in France. As expected, he was not a good soldier. Upon exposure to combat Slovik repeatedly asked for reassignment to the rear lines. His requests for removal from the front were denied, and he deserted. He later turned himself in to military authorities; however, he adamantly asserted (in writing) that if he were sent back into combat he would flee from duty.
Slovik was confined in a division stockade. Despite the threat of a court-martial, he flatly refused to cooperate and to return to his unit (actively fighting at the time). He faced charges on November 11, 1944 (roughly a year after being drafted). He pled “not guilty” to the desertion charge, but was convicted anyway. Slovik sent a letter to General Dwight D. Eisenhower (later, President of the United States in the 1950s), begging for leniency if not outright clemency. Eisenhower upheld and confirmed the court-martial decision on December 23, 1944. Slovik was destined to die. His sentence was carried out before a firing squad on January 31, 1945.
Pvt. Edward Donald Slovik was buried in Plot “E”, under the standard stone marker bearing his number among the dishonorable dead: Grave #65.
Slightly more than 21,000 of World War II’s soldiers were sentenced for desertion. Of that number, only 49 drew death sentences. Of that group, only one was ever executed: Pvt. Slovik. It is almost certain that Slovik was meant to serve as an example of the swift and irreversible consequences of desertion. He was the first US soldier executed for desertion since The Civil War, and – to date – he remains the last.
Efforts were made by Slovik’s wife to have his body removed from Plot “E” and sent back to the United States for re-interment. The US Government denied and then ignored these requests; she died in 1981. Later lobbying by a more influential and tenacious individual (a WWII veteran named Bernard V. Calka) led to Grave #65 in Plot “E” being exhumed and brought back to Michigan. Pvt. Slovik was buried next to his wife in Michigan’s Woodmere Cemetery.
[Slovik’s was the second repatriation from Plot “E”. The first was of an Alabama G.I. executed at England’s Shepton Mallet for murder on March 12, 1943. His remains were shipped home in 1949; this repatriation is recorded as the result of an administrative error as none of the bodies assigned to eternity in Plot “E” were supposed to ever be granted that right.
The latest repatriation occurred in 1990 when Pvt. Alex Miranda’s remains were shipped from Plot “E” back to the California. A surviving nephew successfully argued that racism had been involved in Miranda’s murder conviction in 1944. Miranda, drunk and agitated, had shot a sergeant in their barracks. Miranda faced a firing squad. He was one of only two Hispanics in the Plot “E” burial site.]
Mamie managed to get a restraining order against Till. He violated this order repeatedly, however, and a judge (as was common up until the 1970s), offered him a choice: either sign up for the Army or go to jail. Till decided enlistment was the lesser of two evils, and he joined the Army in 1943. [Almost two decades later a young black man, James Hendrix, was faced with a similar dilemma. Caught joy-riding in stolen cars on two occasions, he was offered the same choice as Louis Till, the wife-beater: join the Army or go to jail. Hendrix chose the Army. He entered in 1961, and was assigned later to the 101st Airborne Division stationed in Ft. Campbell, Kentucky. However, Pvt. Hendrix was not a model military man – after serving only one year of a three-year hitch, he was drummed out. One of the reasons for his discharge was noted on his paperwork in May 1962 as “apprehended masturbating in platoon area while supposed to be on detail”. This soldier later changed the spelling of his first name to “Jimi” and revolutionized rock music with his guitar pyrotechnics, recording with his band as The Jimi Hendrix Experience.]
Louis Till’s Army life was one of la dolce vita as he was stationed in Italy. His not being “nice to Mommy” led to his death in his early 20s. Till raped two civilian Italian women and murdered another. He was imprisoned in the same venue holding poet Ezra Pound (in prison for fascist radio broadcasts lionizing the Axis powers). Till was convicted and sentenced to death. He was hanged in the Italian city of Pisa on July 2, 1945. [Pound later referenced Louis Till in one of his poems: “Till was hung yesterday/for murder and rape with trimmings”.]
Pvt. Louis Till occupies Grave #73 in Plot “E”.
Till’s story does not end with his burial in the No-Man’s Land of Plot “E”, though. Till’s estranged wife, Mamie, was not advised at the time of how or why her husband died. She had been told only that his death was due to “willful misconduct’. Thanks to bureaucratic stonewalling she would learn nothing more substantial until almost ten years later.
Her son, Emmett, grew up without a father. Mississippi in the 1950s was a dangerous place to be for any young black male. Emmett lost his life for being just that – a young black male. On August 28, 1955, the 14-year-old was accused of having whistled at a white woman, and he was abducted, brutally murdered, and savagely mutilated (his eyes were cut out). The two killers were the “offended” white woman’s husband and her half-brother. Mamie Till caused a great stir when she insisted on having her son’s casket remain open during his funeral services, insuring that the world could see the boy’s mutilated face. [The photos of him in his casket are stomach-churning.]
Emmett’s killers were apprehended handily enough, but naturally justice would not be served in Mississippi. The pair was acquitted. Immediately in the aftermath of the trial, two racist Mississippi state senators dug up the details of Louis Till’s military criminal record and execution. This was given over to the press. In effect, these public servants left an all-too-willing Mississippi public with the idea that Louis Till’s rapist behavior had somehow passed into the boy, Emmett. The two white men had perhaps nipped another rapist in the bud. Thus, the murder of Emmett Louis Till for allegedly whistling at a white woman was perfectly justified.
Like many blacks in the armed forces during that time, Pvt. Hendricks worked in a support capacity, driving a supply truck. He and a few of his buddies had drawn guard duty one night. As there was really nothing to do the men sat around drinking the local pop-skull, playing cards, and jawing. At around 10 PM or so Pvt. Hendricks – a very slightly built young man with almost no tolerance for alcohol – rose and muttered to his comrades, “I’m going to get some.” He walked off into the night, leaving his mates to think he’d gone to visit a local farmhouse where prostitutes were in residence.
Hendricks, however, didn’t make it to the correct house. Instead, he barged in the door of a farmhouse near the town of Plumaudan (in the Brittany department of northwest France). The family inside were startled to find this black American G.I. standing at their threshold, but Hendricks muttered a few words of unintelligible French. He did manage to convey his interest in sex-for-hire, but the family assured him there were no prostitutes there. They gave him something to eat and he wandered off.
He crossed over to another residence and banged roughly on it, calling out a French term that made it clear he thought this place was the rural brothel. Inside were Victor Bignon, his wife Noémie, and their teenage daughter. Victor opened the door – Hendricks, very drunk and wavering, tried to make it clear what he wanted. Bignon did not understand him well, but he understood enough to know that what Hendricks wanted was not to be found in his humble abode.
Hendricks, on the other hand, thought the man was giving him short shrift – he could see Noémie and the girl cowering within the cottage. Victor managed to slam the door on Hendricks. Rather than leave, Hendricks stood back a few feet, still yelling about his sexual needs, and fired a few shots into the closed door from his military-issue rifle.
Victor Bignon unfortunately was standing right near the door – the shots pierced it, and he died from the wounds. Noémie and her daughter fled and ironically sought safety in the home of the family Hendricks had just visited. He caught up with them there; the girl escaped, but Noémie was held at bay by Hendricks. The other family cowered in terror as he forced her to a rough bed and pawed at her (in court, a visibly traumatized and embarrassed Noémie testified that she thought he might have exposed himself as she thinks she touched or handled his penis).
He did not rape her, however, and by then a cry had been raised. Hendricks was later taken in, and he confessed to his commanding officer of discharging his weapon through the Bignon’s door. In a line-up, neither Noémie nor her daughter could pick out Hendricks as the man who had shot through their door, killing Victor, nor could Noémie identify him definitely as the man who had attempted to rape her.
Probably because of Gen. Patton’s recent condemnation (in writing) of rape and other molestations against civilians in the European Theater of Operation, Hendricks was destined for the worst. The charges against him were strange, however – his killing of Victor Bignon in any other setting would probably have been considered manslaughter (when he might have drawn some prison time, possibly without parole in the 1940s – he was drunk and he had no premeditation to kill Bignon).
Instead, he was charged with felony murder, a charge usually reserved for those who kill while committing another offense. [In a felony murder involving a sexual assault, for example, the assault occurs before the killing. This was not Hendricks’ situation.] In his case, Hendricks had inadvertently shot Bignon before attempting to rape Noémie.
Regardless, Hendricks was brought to court martial. Hendricks’ confession weighed heavily against him. His defense lawyer was untried in such a situation – he was a recent law school graduate who had not yet taken the bar exam. Legal nuances aside, Hendricks was handily convicted and sentenced to death. On November 24, 1944, he was hanged on a gallows set up for him in the barnyard of a rundown farm near the crime site.
Pvt. James E. Hendricks was buried in Plot “E” where he remains today.
Although all executions carried out by the Army during World War II were done under the Articles of War of June 4, 1920 (an Act of Congress), it appears that racial prejudice and Jim Crow sentiments may have had a heavy hand in who was ultimately sentenced to death. For example, of the 181 soldiers charged by the US Army with rape in France, 139 were black (again, an improbably high percentage as compared to their numbers in the military).
Slovik (of Polish descent and not of “good character”) and Hendricks (an African-American) most likely represent terrific abuses of authority and miscarriages of justice because of ethnic bias and racial hatreds. Slovik, a mere deserter, was needlessly made an example of. Hendricks was a drunken country bumpkin who got turned around one night and acted out. Although his behavior was criminal, the death sentence probably should not have been applied.
But, Slovik was a dumb Polack and Hendricks was a “Colored boy” in a time when being anything other than a WASP in the military could get one killed, and not necessarily by enemy fire.
Plot “E” sits quietly, unremarked and unpublicized, as a testament to that fact.
Second rule is: Be Nice to Mommy
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