American Nightingale : The Story of Frances Slanger, Forgotten Heroine of Normandy
Of the 350,000 American women in uniform during World War II, none instilled more hope in American GIs than Frances Slanger. In Army fatigues and helmet she splashed ashore with the first nurses to hit the Normandy beach in June 1944. Later, from a storm-whipped tent amid the thud of artillery shells, she wrote a letter to Stars and Stripes newspaper that would stir the souls of thousands of weary soldiers. Hundreds wrote heartfelt responses, praising Slanger and her fellow nurses and honoring her humility and patriotism. But Frances Slanger never got to read such praise. She was dead, killed the very next day when German troops shelled her field hospital, the first American nurse to die in Europe after the landing at Normandy. Frances Slanger was a Jewish fruit-peddler's daughter who survived a chilling childhood in World War I-torn Poland and immigrated to America at age seven. Inspired by memories of her bitter past and a Nazi-threatened future, she defied her parents' wishes by becoming a nurse and joining the military. A woman of great integrity and courage, she was also a passionate writer and keeper of chapbooks. This is the story of her too brief life.
Former newspaper columnist Welch (The Things That Matter Most) presents a detailed biography of a World War II army nurse for whom death and fame came nearly simultaneously. Frances Slanger was a shy, bookish woman who worked tirelessly to care for wounded soldiers. In June 1944, she was one of the first nurses to wade ashore on Normandy beach. One night, she wrote a letter in praise of her American G.I. charges, which was published in the military newspaper, The Stars and Stripes. Hundreds of soldiers wrote to thank her for the letter, not knowing that she had been killed by enemy fire within hours of posting it. Welch carefully traces the major events of Slanger's life: from her childhood in World War I Poland, where she suffered because she was Jewish, to her coming of age in Boston, where she decided, against her parents' wishes, to become a nurse so she could serve her adopted country and help stop the spread of Nazism in Europe. Thanks to her famous letter, Slanger received many posthumous honors, including having a warship named for her, but Welch's biography is the first extended account of her life. The book is at its best when describing the conditions of the army field hospital where Slanger worked. It is less assured when recounting Slanger's experiences before she entered the army, and the author's conceit of switching back and forth between the two time periods is needlessly confusing. Nonetheless, Slanger's life offers a stirring story of intense personal devotion and, despite its somewhat pedestrian prose, this book should be appreciated by WWII buffs, as well as those interested in women's history.Copyright @ Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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May 30, 2005
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Excerpt from American Nightingale by Bob Welch
A rainstorm lashed the field hospital tent that had been home to Frances Slanger since the nurses had landed at Normandy so long ago. Artillery shells pounded in the distant darkness, by now so common that, like the rumble of the Boston Elevated Railway back home, Frances sloughed them off as the normal percussion of life. Not that such familiarity was helping her sleep; she had too much else on her mind. So she turned on a flashlight, found a pen, and wrote the following letter:
It is 0200 and I have been lying awake for one hour, listening to the steady, even breathing of the other three nurses in the tent. Thinking about some of the things we had discussed during the day. The rain is beating down on the tent with a torrential force. The wind is on a mad rampage and its main objective seems to be to lift the tent off its poles and fling it about our heads.
The fire is burning low and just a few live coals are on the bottom. With the slow feeding of wood, and finally coal, a roaring fire is started. I couldn't help thinking how similar to a human being a fire is; if it is allowed to run down too low and if there is a spark of life left in it, it can be nursed back....So can a human being. It is slow, it is gradual, it is done all the time in these Field Hospitals and other hospitals in the ETO.
We had read several articles in different magazines and papers sent in by grateful GIs, praising the work of the nurses around the combat areas. Praising us -- for what? I climbed back into my cot. Lt. Bowler was the only one I had awakened. I whispered to her. Lt. Cox and Lt. Powers slept on. Fine nurses and great girls to live with...of course, like in all families, an occasional quarrel, but these were quickly forgotten.
I'm writing this by flashlight. In this light it looks something like a "dive." In the center of the tent are two poles, one part chimney, the other a plain tent pole. Kindling wood lies in disorderly confusion on the ground. We don't have a tarp on the ground. A French wine pitcher, filled with water, stands by. The GIs say we rough it. We in our little tent can't see it. True, we are set up in tents, sleep on cots and are subject to the temperament of the weather.
We wade ankle deep in mud. You have to lie in it. We are restricted to our immediate area, a cow pasture or hay field, but then, who is not restricted? We have a stove and coal. We even have a laundry line in the tent. Our GI drawers are at this moment doing the dance of the pants, what with the wind howling, the tent waving precariously, the rain beating down, the guns firing, and me with a flashlight, writing. It all adds up to a feeling of unrealness.
Sure, we rough it, but in comparison to the way you men are taking it, we can't complain, nor do we feel that bouquets are due us. But you, the men behind the guns, the men driving our tanks, flying our planes, sailing our ships, building bridges and to the men who pave the way and to the men who are left behind -- it is to you we doff our helmets. To every GI wearing the American uniform, for you we have the greatest admiration and respect.
Yes, this time we are handing out the bouquets...but after taking care of some of your buddies; seeing them when 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. Usually they kid, hurt as they are. It doesn't amaze us to hear one of them say, "How'ya, babe," or "Holy Mackerel, an American woman!" or most indiscreetly, "How about a kiss?"
These soldiers stay with us but a short time, from 10 days to possibly two weeks. We have learned a great deal about our American soldier, and the stuff he is made of. The wounded do not cry. Their buddies come first. The patience and determination they show, the courage and fortitude they have is sometimes awesome to behold. It is we who are proud to be here. Rough it? No. 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 following night Frances Slanger was killed. She was the first American nurse to die in Europe after the D-Day landings at Normandy.