At four o’clock in the morning on 28 October 1944, Private Stephen James Weiss of the 36th US Infantry Division emerged from his foxhole in the foothills of the Vosges mountains, in northeastern France, and walked off. Weiss, a 19-year-old night watchman’s son from Brooklyn, had crossed the Atlantic after his stateside boot camp training back in May. He had fought with the 36th Division ever since arriving in Europe, first in Italy, then in the Allied advance from the French Riviera through the Rhône valley to Lorraine. Weiss’s regiment, the 143rd, had been continuously on the front line since August. During that time German machine guns, artillery, mortars and mines had taken a heavy toll on its men. Some of the 143rd’s rifle companies were down from their nominal strength of around 200 soldiers to just 70. Still wearing their thin summer uniforms, Weiss and his comrades spent their days hunkered in frozen, muddy slit trenches, awaiting the inevitable order for the division to take part in another bloody, gruelling, inconclusive attack. Eventually Weiss could stomach it no more. He and two of his fellow GIs quietly left their positions and began walking south, away from the front line. They were no longer America’s heroic fighting men but wanted criminals.
Desertion from the Allied armies between 1939 and 1945 is, according to Charles Glass in his new history of the subject, ‘the final taboo’ of Second World War studies. As many as 100,000 British and 50,000 US servicemen are believed to have deserted at some point during the war. Some,