American Nightingale by Bob Welch
American Nightingale, Bob Welch (Atria Books, 2004)
Frances Slanger was one of the first U.S. Army nurses to land on the Normandy beaches in June 1944, and the first to die in Europe after D-Day when German artillery shelled her 45th Field Hospital in Elsenborn, Belgium in October 1944. Lt. Slanger’s path to Belgium began in the ghetto-slums of Lodz, Poland, where she was born in 1913 to a poor Jewish couple at a time of programs and persecutions. Her father emigrated to America before Frances’ birth and found work as a fruit peddler in Boston. Before he could send for his family to join him, World War I broke out. After enduring the frightening hardships of that conflagration and its aftermath, Frances, her sister, and her mother managed to reunite with her father in 1920. As the family struggled through the 1920s and 1930s, Frances worked hard in school and helped her father on his fruit-selling route. She became a nurse. She volunteered for the US Army, then protested its decision to keep her stateside because of her poor eyesight. She joined a unit designated to serve on the front. Barely more than five feet tall, she nearly drowned on June 10 in the surf between her landing craft and the shore of Utah Beach. During the ensuing four months she endured the hardships near combat from a storm-whipped tent amidst the anguish of wounded soldiers.
On rainy night in late October 1944, Lt. Frances Slanger and her fellow nurses were in their tent, talking among themselves before turning in. They were discussing some letters-to-the-editor they had read in the military newspaper, Stars and Stripes. Some GIs had written some words in praise of Army nurses. Frances wondered aloud if such praise was valid. Wasn’t such praise owed to the men in the foxholes, not the nurses in their tents? To the guys who were putting their lives on the line every day? Frances continued to think about this after the other nurses had gone to sleep. Around 1 AM, unable to get to sleep herself, Frances got out her flashlight and wrote a letter to the editor of the Stars and Stripes.
Frances wrote by flashlight in her tent a letter of tribute to the GI’s whose wounds she tended. It began, “They are brought in bloody, dirty, with the earth, mud, and grime, and most of them so tired. Somebody’s brothers, somebody’s fathers, and somebody’s sons. Seeing them gradually brought back to life, to consciousness and to see their lips separate into a grin when they first welcome you. … We have learned a great deal about our American soldier, and the stuff he is made of. … The patience and determination they show, the courage and fortitude they have is sometimes awesome to behold. … It is a privilege to be able to receive you, and a great distinction to see you open your eyes and with that swell American grin, say, “Hi-ya babe!”
The next day, Frances mailed the letter to the military’s newspaper, The Stars and Stripes. That night, a German artillery shell ended her life.
Thousands of soldiers’ hearts were stirred when they read Frances’ letter, which appeared as a guest editorial in the November 7 issue of the newspaper. Hundreds of them wrote their own responses of grateful praise. Then, when news of Frances’ death spread, there was a surge of sorrow and adulation in newspapers and other media throughout the United States and its armed forces. Memorials were dedicated in her honor and a refurbished hospital ship was named for her. Frances Slanger became, for a brief period, a heroine and sweetheart of her adopted country. Gradually, however, her story faded. The hospital ship bearing her name was decommissioned and scrapped. The sign marking “Frances Slanger Square” in Roxbury, Massachusetts, was removed. The handful of survivors of the 45th Field Hospital were scattered across the country.
In 2000 Bob Welch, a newspaper columnist in Oregon, received an obscure book about Jewish women in the military. The book contained a copy of Frances Slanger’s 1944 letter to The Stars and Stripes and a brief account of the circumstances around it. Welch wrote a column about it, and among the many warm responses from readers was a phone call from a former nurse who had served with Frances in the 45th. Her memories and memorabilia started Welch on a two-year expedition to rediscover the life and death of Frances Slanger. The result is his memoir, American Nightingale, (Atria Books, 2004, 295 pages, paperback). Very informative and moving.
The book review above was originally published in a feature titled “Book Notes”, published in the May, 2009 edition of Amitié, the newsletter of Normandy Allies, Inc. This note was written by Walter Ford Carter, member of the Normandy Allies Board and the team that leads its history-study experience each summer. Walter, the son of Captain Elmer Norval Carter, a US Army battalion surgeon in the 29th Division who was killed in action on June 17 1944, is the author of No Greater Sacrifice, No Greater Love: A Son’s Journey to Normandy.