American Nightingale by Bob Welch tells the true story of Frances Slanger, a Jewish nurse who, against the odds, ending up serving in the front lines of Normandy. Slanger and the 45th Field Hospital Unit were among the first American nurses in France. Read the excerpt below.
Die when I may, I want it said of me by those who knew me best, that I always plucked a thistle and planted a flower where I thought a flower would grow. — Abraham Lincoln, found in Frances Slanger's Chapbook
The bow of the William N. Pendleton, a U.S. Merchant Marine freighter, sliced through the chop of the English Channel, cutting a wake soon lost in the trails of a hundred other ships. It was daybreak, Saturday, June 10, 1944, off France's Normandy coast.
From his lookout station on the bridge, a seaman scanned the waters with a slow, steady sweep of his binoculars. Beyond the swells that gently rocked the Pendleton, he saw the ships of the Allied Expeditionary Force — all sizes, all shapes — scattered across the Bay of the Seine. He saw the smoke-shrouded beach a few miles away, an occasional church spire jutting skyward beyond. And he saw the occasional floating corpse, a rag-doll remnant of the D-Day invasion four days before: some sailor who'd been on the destroyer USS Corry when it had hit a submerged German mine off Utah Beach. Or some GI in a life belt who'd been killed while landing at Omaha Beach and been sucked to sea by an outgoing tide.
Up top, deckhands and naval gun crews shouted to hear one another above the wind and drone of engines. The brackish gusts plastered the men's uniforms to their skin, clanged halyards, and whipped an American flag that splashed a rare touch of color from the after mast. Soon, muted sunlight burned through the smoke and mist that shrouded the Normandy shore. The Pendleton churned on toward the debarkation area. It was shortly before 6 A.M. Like all of America's 2,710 Liberty ships, some of which were built by round-the-clock work crews in less than two weeks, the 441-foot Pendleton looked more like a cargo ship than a warship. Three masts jutted skyward, framing a squatty bridge amidships. Gaunt and devoid of portholes, she was painted a bleak gray with no lines, numbers, or anything else to distinguish her from other such craft. Guns were mounted on the fore and aft decks, small and obscured by the ship's sheer bulk. In 1941, when President Franklin Roosevelt had first been shown drawings of such a ship, he told Admiral Emory Scott Land that the Liberty appeared to be the kind of workhorse America needed to transport soldiers to battle. "She isn't much to look at though, is she?" he said. "A real ugly duckling."
Now, in the belly of one such duckling, 640 soldiers waited word to head for shore. They lay on canvas bunks that, stacked a claustrophobic four high, looked like trays in a baker's bread rack. They shuffled cards. Played craps. Talked. Argued. Boasted. Took drags on Lucky Strikes and Camels. Glanced at watches. Read one of the reduced-sized magazines published especially for troops. Some even whistled, presumably to remind themselves of how calm they were.