Book Excerpt: 'American Nightingale'

Once ashore, the nurses were to rendezvous with the men of the Forty-fifth's 226-person unit, who were arriving on a different transport to preclude an entire outfit from being lost should the Germans sink the ship. From Utah Beach, the Forty-fifth would divide into three platoons and, with help from veteran doctors who'd finished surgical stints in North Africa, leapfrog across France, patching the wounded.

As the Pendleton bobbed on anchor, stomachs grew queasy, palms moist — these weren't sailors used to the chop of the sea, or, for that matter, the idea of fighting a war. Lying on her bunk, Frances fidgeted in her wool uniform; a gunnysack, she figured, would be less scratchy. The whole getup had been designed, and sized, for men, not women: a wool uniform that hung on the nurses like tree moss, a field jacket, and "coveralls" coated with some ungodly waxy substance — it looked like axle grease — that was supposed to protect against mustard gas. For now, the grease simply made Frances stink, itch, and sweat. Canvas leggings connected the uniform to man-sized boots, akin to wearing a couple of leather anchors. Finally, when called to go, Frances and the others would wrap life belts around their waists, complete with a couple of rubber tubes used to inflate the flotation devices. The ensemble made Frances and her fellow nurses resemble snow-day kids bundled up by overprotective moms.

She twisted her short-cropped hair into spit curls, securing them with bobby pins. A hairnet would go over her head, then the helmet: Each nurse had been issued a steel helmet, supposedly strong enough to deflect most shrapnel but not a direct hit from a bullet. Each helmet had a single gold bar painted on the front to signify the wearer's status as a second lieutenant. Each nurse wore a red cross on a white band, wrapped and pinned to her left arm. The latter, supposedly, would signal to the Germans that this person — as per the Geneva Convention — was not to be targeted. Alas, those in the Forty-fifth would soon learn that the rules of war were sometimes broken.

The ship's bell rang every half hour. Eleven bells came, then twelve noon, then 1 P.M. The bunks in the ship's hold — more like glorified stretchers — rolled with the sea. Nerves tightened, wound by the tedious passing of time and the wondering of the unknown. Beads of condensation formed on the steel ceilings, then dripped on soldiers and nurses below. Suddenly, with petrifying urgency, the bosun's whistle sounded and the ship's loudspeaker squawked to life. "Now hear this! Now hear this! All troops to your debarkation areas! All troops to your debarkation areas!" Frances stuffed her notebook in a musette bag and donned her oversized helmet. The time had come. It was shortly before 2 P.M. on June 10, 1944. Everywhere, soldiers and nurses ran through last-minute mental checklists. Frances zipped, then buttoned her field jacket and fastened her canvas life belt. Soldiers double-checked their M-1 Garand rifles, carbines, and Thompson submachine guns. Then, guts churning from a sickening blend of nausea and fear, they all filed through the ship's narrow passageways, up to the windswept deck, and toward whatever lay beyond.

Excerpted from American Nightingale: The Story of Frances Slanger, Forgotten Heroine of Normandy by Bob Welch. Copyright © 2004 by Bob Welch. To learn more about the author go to bobwelch.net

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