The bravest act Nick Gozik witnessed during World War II wasn't on the battlefield.
On his 25th birthday, Gozik stood witness as Pvt. Eddie Slovik became the only U.S. service member executed for desertion since the Civil War.
Slovik did not try to run from his fate in a French courtyard. He knew he would die within moments, yet he did not cry or whimper or beg for his life.
He was branded a deserter, but he was no coward, Gozik said.
"I've seen a lot of people in the service who didn't want to die, but he knew he was going to die," said Gozik, 90, of Whitehall. "He knew what to expect, and he was going to abide by it."
In November, about 65 years later, Gozik paid his respects to a man he never met but knew at his final hour.
"He paid the price of several thousand people deserting during the war," Gozik said. "Believe me when I tell you, to me, he was the bravest soldier I ever met."
Gozik joined the Army National Guard shortly after his 19th birthday. When the United States entered World War II after Pearl Harbor was attacked, Gozik and his fellow Guardsmen ended up on active duty.
He served with the Army's 28th Infantry Division in an artillery unit that made its way through Europe. In eastern France, after he survived the Battle of the Bulge, Gozik found himself a witness to history.
The war was still raging, but Gozik and his unit were taking a breather. He and a few others were told to report to battalion headquarters on the morning of Jan. 31, 1945. They were not told why.
They traveled through the wet snow that blanketed the hills the night before and into Sainte-Marie-Aux-Mines in the Vosges Mountains.
"When we drove down into this little town, we weren't sure what we were expecting," Gozik said.
They were taken to what Gozik described as a castle-like villa at the end of town with iron gates, a bridge and a stone wall surrounding it. They entered a courtyard.
"They had put up a large pole in the center of this area close to the stone wall," he said.
The murmurs began. Somebody was being executed today.
Gozik and the others were supposed to stand at attention. Nobody did.
Instead, they watched as Slovik, wearing his uniform stripped of its insignia, emerged from a small shed.
He was flanked by two soldiers, a blanket draped over his shoulders. His head was bare.
Slovik was a "little fellow," Gozik said. "He was going to be 25 years old in February. And that day was my birthday — Jan. 31. I was 25 years old."
Slovik was strapped to the post — his feet, legs, waist and under his arms — so that when he died, he wouldn't slump to the ground.
A Catholic priest — a chaplain who had celebrated Mass around a Jeep with Gozik and his comrades — went to Slovik's side.
Gozik thought he made out the words of "Hail Mary."
He heard the end of their exchange: "'Eddie,'" the priest said, "'when you get up there, say a prayer for me.' Eddie said he would."
A satiny black hood, made by a local woman, was pulled over Slovik's head.
Twelve more soldiers marched in — the firing squad. They were the sharpshooters, picked from various units in the 28th.
Each loaded his rifle with one round. Eleven had live ammunition; one had a blank.
The general read the charges against Slovik. The declaration lasted five minutes and then — "Ready, aim, fire!"
"When they fired, you expected the bang to go off, but it shook us — 12 rounds," Gozik said. "It just shattered the stillness of the day."
Slovik slumped a bit. A physician checked his vital signs. He was still alive.
"I heard the doctor say, 'What's the matter with you guysâ¢ Can't you shoot straight?' " Gozik said.
As they reloaded, Slovik took his last breath.
The witnesses were ordered to march out before the body was removed.
Gozik went back to his unit and told the guys what he had seen. He wrote home about it.
But he never heard mention of it from his superiors. There was no article in "Stars and Stripes."
While the death stuck with him, and he didn't feel it was right, Gozik never knew the details of Slovik's crimes until years later when he came across William Bradford Huie's book, "The Execution of Private Slovik."
Gozik learned about the man whom he knew only in death. He learned Slovik was a petty thief from Detroit deemed unsuitable for the military until more soldiers were needed.
"They were scraping the bottom of the barrel," Gozik said. "They needed cannon fodder.
"He didn't belong there. He didn't belong there. It was sad."
In Europe, Slovik and another soldier were separated from their unit. For weeks, they helped a Canadian unit while they tried to find their way back. When they did, Slovik told a commander he would prefer a job in the rear of the unit. He would serve, but he did not want to fire a rifle.
When Slovik was told he follows orders or else, he chose desertion. Time and again, when given a choice, Slovik said he would desert.
"They could have probably found another job for him," Gozik said. "But they wanted to make him pay the price."
Upwards of 40,000 U.S. service members evaded combat during World War II. Most were tried by lesser courts-martial, but 2,864 cases were heard by general courts-martial and received sentences from 20 years to death. While 49 death sentences were approved, only Slovik's was carried out.
"They said he was a nobody, but he was a somebody," Gozik said, his eyes filling with tears. "They felt nobody would worry or care about him."
Gozik said the execution was a blatant injustice.
"If he died as a deterrent to eliminate the possibility of further deserters, it really didn't make a difference," Gozik said, "It was just awful as far as I'm concerned."
Slovik was buried in a section of a French cemetery reserved for 96 American soldiers executed in the European Theater. All but Slovik had been hanged for violent crimes — the murder or rape of civilians.
For years, a Michigan politician, himself a World War II vet, petitioned for Slovik's body to be returned to the States and buried next to his wife, who died in 1979. In 1987, those pleas were heard. But attempts over the years to get Slovik a presidential pardon have not been successful.
For years, Gozik wanted to pay his respects to Slovik. Last November, he decided it was time to go to Detroit.
He wanted to meet with Slovik's sister.
"I just wanted to tell her what a brave man her brother was, and whatever happened to him, he did not deserve it," Gozik said. "I wanted to put her mind at ease that there was no justification."
Slovik's sister declined to meet. The memories were still too painful.
On the day after Veterans Day, on the way to a granddaughter's wedding, Gozik and many of his family members went to Slovik's grave.
With the help of a daughter, he placed a small American flag at the grave.
"It was the end of my journey for Eddie," he said. "I did what I wanted to do, but I'm sorry it took that many years."