FROM READERS: A book review on 'The Deserters'

Wednesday, November 20, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CST

Joe G. Dillard, a longtime Columbia resident, has been compiling the history of Wayne Powers, a World War II deserter from Chillicothe, since 2010. Powers was born in Blue Mound, where Dillard lived for about nine years.

“The Deserters: A Hidden History of World War II” by Charles Glass

A Review by Joe G. Dillard


My interest in this story started before it became a book! On January 24, 2010, I received an email on my Blue Mound, Missouri website ( It stated: “I just found your website, and I was wondering if you could tell me more about Wayne Powers, who was born in Blue Mound in 1921, and arrested in France for deserting the U.S. Army during the Second World War.”

Well, that piqued my curiosity right away, and in subsequent months I found more information about Wayne and emailed it to Mr. Glass, and asked him why he needed it, and he replied that he was writing a book about the deserters of World War II and was considering including Wayne in the book. (I found out after reading the book that he also included another former Chillicothean, William K. Scruby Jr., who was not a deserter.)

“The Deserters” is an eye-opening account of desertion during World War II. (Did you know, or even fathom, that almost 50,000 American and nearly 100,000 British soldiers deserted during WWII? What an eye opener!) Glass, an international journalist and author of five previous books, explores in-depth the three basic reasons for desertion: greed, disgust and fear.

“Few deserters were cowards,” Glass writes, adding that the people who “showed the greatest sympathy to deserters were other front-line soldiers. They had, at one time or another, felt the temptation. ...”

He renders in detail why well-intended and well-trained soldiers would run away, rather than stay and fight. (I was never in the military but was struck by his descriptions of the horrors and terrors of combat.) As one reviewer put it, “Glass has shown us a new way to look at war!” (This is not a book for the meek and mild!)

Through various paper trails (Army archives, personal diaries and court-martial records) and personal interviews, Mr. Glass explored the how’s and why’s of desertion. He neither condoned nor condemned the deserters but told their stories of what they did, why they did it and the consequences of doing it (which in many cases was almost as bad as fighting the war).

The book follows the war time exploits of three individuals that represent the three basic reasons for desertion: Alfred Whitehead from Tennessee (greed), Steve Weiss from New York (fear) and John Bain (who actually deserted three times!) from Scotland (disgust). Each of them were court-martialed and sentenced to long-term incarceration. But, each had also fought bravely and continuously through a series of campaigns in Africa and Europe. They also were decorated for various acts of bravery.

Whitehead was a farm boy from Tennessee representing the greed motive. He had earned a Silver Star and two Bronze Stars for bravery in Normandy. After an emergency appendicitis operation in France, he was sent back to the front-line with a sub-standard gun and a bunch of untested recruits. He asked for a three-day pass and was denied. That was the last straw. He went on to become a gangster in post-liberation Paris. His type of deserter, who the French Press labeled as the “Chicago Gangs," caused more worry to the Allied command than the other two types. They not only did not fight but often profited by stealing and selling supplies from the military that were sorely needed by the other soldiers! These were the Real Bad Boys. He was finally arrested for desertion and served half of a five-year sentence.

Weiss, from New York, represented the fear motive. He was in some of the heaviest of fighting and appeared to be suffering from shell-shock. After leaving his post once, he returned of his own accord only to leave again 12 days later. Just like Whitehead, he also won medals for bravery, and, when separated from his unit, he joined up and served with paratroops and the French Resistance. And, he was one of the few American regular soldiers to fight with them. He was later caught and punished as a deserter. In later years, Weiss spent many years on a psychiatrist’s couch and finally became a psychiatrist himself.

Bain was the disgusted example. War was against his morals. He deserted three times: once during training in the U.K.; once after he witnessed gruesome corpse-pillaging in North Africa; and once shortly after VE Day, when he was in England recovering from serious leg wounds. He was convicted but discharged after a brief stint in a mental ward. Later in life, he explained that he walked away because of that hideous business of war and denied that cowardice had anything to do with it.

Wayne Powers, formerly from Chillicothe, is mentioned in the Introduction of the book where Mr. Glass contrasts two (the most unlucky vs. the most lucky) of many thousands of WWII deserters.

The most unlucky, and most famous deserter of them all was Eddie Slovik, an Army private who was the only American or British soldier to ever be executed for the crime during World War II. A draftee from Detroit, Slovik arrived in Europe after D-Day and was headed for likely death in a slaughterhouse campaign known as the Battle of Hürtgen Forest. He felt like he couldn’t face combat, so he deserted, turned himself in at a command post behind the lines, and made it clear to officers that he understood the possible consequences of what he was doing.

Running away might have been a better idea. As Glass explains, 49 Americans were sentenced to death for desertion during World War II, but only Slovik was put in front of a firing squad.

On the other hand, Wayne Powers was the luckiest deserter. Wayne was born in Blue Mound, Missouri, in 1921 to Jacob E. Powers and Myrtle McCracken Powers. He left Missouri in 1943 to join the Army. Three days after D-Day, he was driving a truck to Germany and stopped in Mont d’Orginy, France, for some coffee. When he went back outside, his truck was gone (more than likely hi-jacked by some other deserter). He then met a smiling young French gal that took him into her apartment. Long story short, he lived with her for 14 years and had five kids before he was finally caught by the French police. He was court-martialed and sentenced to 10 years of hard labor, but only served a few months. After his release, he married the gal and had one more child. He decided to stay in France and died there in 1982. Supposedly, he asked that an American Flag be draped over his casket. Quite a contrast to Mr. Slovik!

Sergeant William Scruby, also formerly from Chillicothe, was not a deserter, but is mentioned in the book as saving the lives of several other soldiers, including one of the deserters (Steve Weiss). William, along with Steve and six others, became trapped in battle in German-controlled territory. It was William who braved enemy fire to bring the others to safety in a French farm house, where they were later able to escape with the aid of the Free French Army.

A most exciting account!

This story is part of a section of the Missourian called From Readers, which is dedicated to your voices and your stories. We hope you'll consider sharing. Here's how. Supervising editor is Joy Mayer.

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