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.
Ventilation ducts piped in fresh air, but it was quickly tainted by the stench of sweat, smoke, latrines, vomit, and the gaseous return of K-rations — not to mention the smell of some greasy substance that the soldiers' fatigues had been coated with to guard against the possibility of mustard gas. Spend a few days in the bowels of a Liberty ship, word had it, and you'd happily fight your way to shore.
In a narrow passageway on the troops' deck, a pug-nosed soldier stood outside a head, rocking lightly from foot to foot. "C'mon, c'mon," he said, hammering home his point with a knuckle rap on the door. "Speed it up, pal." A moment later, the door swung open. The soldier froze. There in olive-green army fatigues stood a young woman with almost-blond hair. She was so stunningly out of context, so refreshingly unmale, so mind-numbingly gorgeous that the soldier momentarily forgot his bladder was about to burst like a grenade.
"Sorry," said 2d Lt. Sallylou Cummings. She smiled and tilted her head in a slight, if intentional, touch of flirtation. Then she limped past him, having torn ligaments in her left foot earlier that morning when a German glider bomb had jolted the ship.
Men weren't the only ones going ashore at Normandy. Nurses from the U.S. Army Nurse Corps were also aboard the Pendleton, including eighteen from the Forty-fifth Field Hospital Unit of which Cummings was part. Originally, the plan was for nurses to come ashore at least a week after D-Day, when their safety was more assured. But mounting casualties hastened their involvement. On D-Day alone, nearly 10,000 Allied soldiers had been killed or wounded in assaults on five beaches across a sixty-mile swath. Surgeons and medics were overwhelmed. Word came down from the Allied command center in England: Send the nurses to Normandy.
Lying on her port side bunk, Sallylou, a twenty-six-year-old Wisconsin girl, stuck a hand in one pouch to make sure she had her gas mask and another hand in a second pouch to make sure she had her makeup kit. Frankly, she was far more concerned about losing her makeup than her mask. She had joined the army because she didn't want to wind up working in a five-and-dime like her friends. And she had been so naive that she showed up for her first hike at Wisconsin's Camp McCoy wearing a pink dress and huarache sandals. She had no idea where she was headed, but wherever it was, she wanted to look good, which wasn't difficult for her. She was five-feet-four inches tall, blue-eyed, and nicely curved. Despite her light brown hair, she had the look of a young Katharine Hepburn, which hadn't been lost on the guy waiting outside the head nor on other girl-starved military men, one of whom she had already fallen in love with. A soldier offered Sallylou a potato latke that had been sent from home. Though stale, it tasted better than some of the cold, unheated C-rations that some soldiers likened to wet cat food. "Thanks," she said.
Across the way, in a bottom bunk on the Pendleton's starboard side, another nurse from the Forty-fifth lay on her stomach, gamely attempting to write a letter home amid the bob and pitch of the transport. She was thirty, short, and plump in a friendly sort of way. She had brown hair, brown eyes, a dark complexion, and a small mouth.
"Frances," said Sallylou, her voice raised to overcome the thrum of the engine and countless conversations and arguments, "do you ever stop writing?"
Frances Slanger hesitated, as if surprised she was being spoken to. "Lots to say after that air raid this morning," she said. "Bit more exciting than Fort Bragg, huh?"
Sallylou noticed how Frances's Boston accent had turned fort into fawt. "Anything's more exciting than Bragg," said Sallylou. "Wisconsin is more exciting than Bragg."
Frances laughed a little uneasily. Sallylou seldom talked to Frances. She found the Boston nurse to be a quiet girl, a mysterious girl, though friendly enough when engaged in conversation —and the first Jew the Wisconsin nurse had ever met. Like most of the nurses in the Forty-fifth, Frances was from the Northeast, specifically from Boston's South End.
Sallylou Cummings was everything Frances Slanger was not. During training at Camp Ellis, Illinois, Cummings had been selected by an army photographer to pose for the Chicago Tribune. In a picture of her saluting the American flag, the count-me-in look on her face is so warm, earnest, and patriotic that it could have melted ice cream on Mom's apple pie. Meanwhile, Frances had, by accident, appeared in a Boston Traveler photograph that heralded the opening of a new cafeteria at Boston City Hospital. She is wearing thick glasses. Her self-conscious expression suggests a certain acceptance of her role in life as an "also-pictured" person.
And yet something about Frances Slanger intrigued people, among them Isadore "Tiny" Schwartz, a Jewish doctor who'd grown up in Quincy, Massachusetts, just south of Boston and was fast becoming Frances's closest friend. Even if some enlisted men considered Frances as cold as cod on ice and one captain called her "The Kike" behind her back, her uncommonness drew people to her.
Maybe it was the way she saw beyond herself, a woman whose good-naturedness inspired the inevitable clichés. "Pounding away at her typewriter with a heart of gold," Florence Sayer of Haverhill, Massachusetts, had written in Frances's "buddy book" after the two had shared a stint at Fort Devens near Boston. "She'd give you the shirt off her back."
Maybe it was the way she was so serious. She had a sense of humor, but she used humor like a lifeguard uses a life ring: with great effectiveness, but only in emergencies. Instead, she carried with her a certain world-on-her-shoulders heaviness, the kind of heaviness one might inherit from growing up in the squalid streets of World War I-torn Poland, which she did. And a heaviness one might absorb by clipping and pasting articles about how the Nazis despised the Jews, which she also did. Maybe, as Forty-fifth Field Hospital Dr. John Bonzer realized, it was the way she saw more deeply than the rest, and took time to chronicle what she saw in words. Sometimes those words were hers and sometimes they were the words of philosophers and writers whose quotes she carefully cut out of magazines and pasted into a scrapbook-sized "chapbook" back home in Boston, but they spoke of the need to live an intentional life in pursuit of noble things. "Life is not to live merely, but to live well," reasoned the Roman philosopher Seneca in a quote Frances had saved. "There are some 'who lived without any design at all, and only pass in the world like straws on a river: they do not go; they are carried.' "
Even as a young girl, she had an almost extrasensory perception of life and her place in it. Frances was like a sailor who, so attuned to the sea, could tell the direction of the wind not only by looking at the telltales fluttering on the shrouds but by actually feeling that wind. Amid hundreds of thousands of troops pouring into France, then, she not only sensed the importance of what was happening, but believed she was keenly necessary to it all, as if it were part of some master plan that had begun that September day in 1920 when she'd arrived at Ellis Island. Evil was threatening the world — the newspaper articles she clipped and saved said so — and must be stopped. And so when, like others on board, she had been handed her "order of the day," ostensibly written by Gen. Dwight Eisenhower himself to troops coming ashore at Normandy, she believed the man's words were written especially for her, 2d Lt. Frances Y. Slanger, U.S. Army Nurse Corps. "You are," he wrote, "about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hope and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you… "Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle-hardened. He will fight savagely.
"But this is the year 1944!…The tide has turned! The free men of the world are marching together to Victory!
"I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full victory!
"Good luck! And let us all beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking."
Her going off to war, then, smacked of a certain personal destiny, some unseen force. She wanted to leave some sort of mark on the world. To make a difference. To matter. It was a lofty quest, given what the world had taught her the past three decades: that she didn't matter. Whether it was German soldiers in Poland who ransacked her family's flat, parents in Boston who reminded her that Jewish girls don't become nurses, or military bigwigs in Washington, D.C., who decided she was not fit for overseas duty, the message was always the same: you don't go, as the philosopher Seneca had said, you're carried, captive to the whims of the waters. But, in essence, her being on this ship— her going to war — marked a decision to start listening to herself.
The irony was that Frances Slanger hated war. In a poem she'd written, she pleaded with God to "Open the eyes of the aggressor nations so they will never forget the emptiness and futility of war/Open the eyes of their children and their children's children for generations to come." In an essay written in 1941, after Germany had attacked the Soviet Union, she wondered why "men have to go out to kill and be killed. Why?" She often prayed for peace. Still, she also understood that, sometimes, the only way to stop a fire was to create a backfire, a short-term loss for a long-term gain. Death, yes, but not death without purpose. Death as a means of righting the wrongs of the world, which was what her hero, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, was trying to do in the South Pacific. "Dear God," she had written after marching in the Armistice Day parade in Dothan, Alabama, the previous November, "let our men rest in deep contentment with the knowledge that they have not died in vain. Let them see our hands clasped with all the people of the world."
In some respects, Frances Slanger was like the seventeen others in the Forty-fifth: just another adventure-starved young nurse who'd become an officer in the Army Nurse Corps, much to the dismay of some back home who believed such women were, at best, man-hungry hussies and, at worst, a threat to foul the entire American military machine. But in other respects, she was as different from the others as France's Normandy region was from its Alps.
Frances Slanger's life was bracketed by war. She was fifteen months old when the ponies carrying the saber-wielding Cossacks first clomped through the cobblestone streets of Lødz, Poland, the horses' nostrils snorting steam in the brittle winter air. Grim-faced officers, clad in woolen greatcoats and topped with fur papakha hats, barked commands. Regiments of foot soldiers spread to posts at the city's outskirts. The officers' knee-high black boots dug into the horses' flanks and the animals bolted, some to the left, some to the right. Soon, the gossip birds on Piotrkow Street chattered with more dread than usual: Three months after the outbreak of World War I, the Russians, they'd heard, were bracing for battle with German soldiers who, even now, were rattling north on trains. The burly city of Lødz (pronounced "Woodge") was a stepchild of the Russian Empire. It was a place where the textile factory whistles blew, where the brick chimneys belched the roiling plumes of progress, and where the long-bearded Jews in skullcaps, round glasses, and long black gabardines tussled over theological questions like crows fighting over pieces of bread.
Like most of the Jews, particularly the Jews who didn't own the factories, Frances and her family lived in the slums of Baluty, thousands of them packed in the basements or in garrets of dilapidated houses like herring in dockside crates. In all of Poland, only Warsaw had a larger Jewish population than Lødz; nearly half the city's 410,000 people in 1910 were Jews. Flat-faced, stone tenements, two or three stories high, hugged the narrow streets that wound through the city in a maze of dark, narrow hallways — streets now sprinkled with Russian soldiers.
It wasn't supposed to be like this. Regina's husband, Dawid, had left for America two springs before, knowing full well that she was going to have the baby, but also knowing full well that Poland, for the Jews, would forever be more prison than home. He and Regina had both been born in 1881, the year the pogroms slaughtered Jews in villages across the pale. On ponies, the Cossacks swooped into villages at night like dogs ripped free from their leashes. They swept across Poland, torching synagogues. They shattered Stars of David symbols with their swords — Hep, hep Jude! They killed and maimed and laughed as they rode off into the darkness, their vodka-fueled violence triggered by well-worn stories of Jews murdering Christian children. New edicts were issued that robbed the Jews of the right to live in a particular place, to gain an education, to earn a living. Exiled, the Jews trudged toward cities such as Lødz to begin anew, everything they owned piled in carts or strapped to their backs. But the hatred followed them. Shortly after Dawid and Regina married in Lødz, the Revolution of 1905 sparked a new wave of vengeance against the Jews. It reached a crescendo in 1912 when the Jews voted for the "wrong candidate" in an election. They paid the price in blood.
Enough. Others had left for America. Why not the Schlangers? Dawid had a cousin, Jacob Grossman, in a place called Boston, Massachusetts. He had offered Dawid room in his flat on Harrison Avenue. Dawid figured that within a year he could earn enough money to bring his wife and children to America. He arrived at Ellis Island on May 22, 1913, aboard the steamship Pretoria, having turned thirty-two years old just two days out of New York Harbor. Once in Boston, he began work as a fruit peddler.
Three months later, back in Lødz, Regina gave birth to Freidel Yachet Schlanger. To the Poles, she was a Jew and, thus, a threat. To the Jews, she was a girl and, thus, a liability. "Many daughters, many troubles," went the Jewish saying. "Many sons, many honors." To Dawid she was a name that arrived in a letter and, thus, an unknown. But to her mother, Freidel was a shayna maidel — a beautiful girl, her blessed second daughter. Freidel was a brown-eyed, brown-haired babe whom Regina honored with the Yiddish name Faiga after the baby's paternal grandmother, Frajda Górska. The following June, in 1914, Dawid was close to having earned enough money for his family's passage to America when the news hit Lødz's Piotrkow Street: in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, had been assassinated by a Bosnian Serb. Like a lightning strike on a tinder-dry forest, World War I exploded. And Regina's worst fears soon came to pass: with German submarines prowling the Atlantic Ocean's shipping lanes, steamship owners decided the passage to America was too dangerous to risk under any flag. Immigration ground to a halt.
Thus did Freidel Schlanger begin her life: no more free than the hardened streams that only weeks before had flowed into Poland's Vistula River but were now frozen in place by forces beyond themselves.
As November deepened, the icy breath of war chilled the neck of Lødz. German troops — 250,000 of them — advanced north by train as winter hardened the lifeless plains in a sea of white. In and around Lødz, some 150,000 Russian troops braced for the attack. In the Schlanger family's drafty flat, amid coughs and sniffles, Regina huddled Chaja and Freidel close, her body far warmer than their straw beds. Around them: relatives, bound by blood and, for now, a common fear that deepened with the sound in the distance. Cannons began pounding. It was November 18, 1914. The Battle of Lødz had begun.
The two forces clashed on the city's fringes, and occasionally in the city itself, day after bitter day. Temperatures dipped to 10 degrees Fahrenheit. Soldiers froze to death in trenches while trying to sleep. "The battlefield was swimming in blood," reported The Times of London. "Discarded German capes, Prayer-books, notebooks, gaiters, gloves, cartridge boxes, haversacks, gnawed bones, tinned meat cans, and straw from the trenches littered the hill slopes. Deep pits had been made by shells in front of the trenches, and in the trenches were heaps of corpses. From the battlefield, Lødz appeared to be enveloped in red flames, and several fires occurred daily in the town. Parts of the cities had been shelled. The people were defenceless."
After nearly three weeks of fighting, the Russians fell back and reorganized their line. But Germany's victory was costly. When the battle was over, Germany had suffered 35,000 casualties, the Russians considerably more. But the other losers wore no uniforms at all. They were people like Regina Schlanger and her daughters who now lived in a city that belonged to someone else: Germany. Few citizens had been killed or wounded in actual battle. Many were, or would one day become, casualties of a different kind.
The capture of Lødz would be only a prelude to far greater German dominance in the future. In fact, the newborn sons of these German soldiers — sons born in Germany this same year and essentially the same age as Freidel Schlanger— would someday be stamped with a mark of national German nobility. Twenty-one years hence, they would become Adolf Hitler's first conscripted military class. During World War II, some would wind up fighting in the hedgerows of Normandy or on the Eastern Front. Others would wind up working in a quaint tourist village 120 miles south of Lødz, a 700-year-old town where tourists visited to see castles, churches, and synagogues, and stopped to enjoy a cup of tea at the Hotel Herz. Its name was Oswiecim. But in time it would be better known by its German moniker: Auschwitz.
After the battle, the once-vibrant city lay still, like a frozen animal left in the wake of a snowstorm. People walked around in a daze, some having lost fortunes, others jobs, others family members to the typhoid fever that had broken out. Regina broke off pieces of dry bread and gave them to Chaja and Freidel; later, thanks to a local relief agency, she would get a quart of cabbage soup to feed the three of them for a day.
Water pumps froze. To get water, Regina would melt snow on a meager fire, fueled by whatever wood scraps she could find in a city so desperate that people had ripped down the fence around the New Jewish Cemetery and burned it in their apartments. At night, when the cold awakened her, Regina broke the ice that would form in the jug of water so her daughters would have something to drink come morning.
The Schlangers' experience was virtually everyone's experience in Lødz. Regina and her daughters waited in food-ration lines while the horse-drawn carts rolled down the street carrying the German wounded, their uniforms dirty, their bodies splotched with the dry, crusted blood of war, their eyes looking into nothingness. This was the childhood Freidel Schlanger knew. "The poor, half-mad women run after you, seize you by the sleeves, and gaze at you with inflamed eyes," wrote a Times correspondent, "while the children follow them, swollen faces livid from the cold."
In weeks to come, German soldiers, wearing formed-leather helmets with brass spikes on top and wrapped in woolen greatcoats, swaggered from flat to flat. Freidel heard the soldiers bang on the door with the butts of their rifles and watched them kick it open with their knee-high jackboots. Freidel and her aunts and uncles and cousins cowered together. The soldiers entered and took what they pleased: copper pots and brass doorknobs and menorahs. Whatever might be melted down and used for ammunition. Whatever war demanded. Tuberculosis and typhoid fever epidemics broke out. Hospitals were too crowded to handle all the afflicted people. Hordes of paupers were hauled off to disinfecting stations to be scrubbed, shaved, and deloused. Soldiers mocked the Jewish poor as they were stripped for scrubbings. As weeks became months, Regina hung on to her monthly ration card as if it were made of gold. But her paltry diet diluted whatever nutrients she might pass on to Freidel through her milk. She'd all but forgotten the taste of potato cakes or hot chickpeas. For two weeks, Lødzhad no bread at all. For months, no meat.
Meanwhile, the streets became the property of funeral processions. Unemployed women sold their bodies for a crust of bread. Some others offered their children to employers in exchange for something to eat or forced the boys and girls to become food smugglers. In Baluty, the weak sounds of Sabbath songs endured, an occasional violin softening the hard edges of hopelessness. The gossips lost their zeal for Baluty's smut. Instead, they whispered of unspeakable horrors that they'd heard from faraway families, like the bayoneted bodies of children outside Lødz. Have you heard? They were hung on fences like scarecrows! Finally, the spring of 1915 arrived, bringing with it not the usual smell of plowed fields and fresh vegetables, but the whiff of thawed sewers — and the rancid stench of thawed bodies from the battlefields beyond. For four years, Germany and Russia took turns sucking life out of a once-vibrant city and its once-vibrant people, whether that meant plundering houses, retooling factories for the war effort, hoarding food for themselves, or ripping the beards off Orthodox Jews. At war's end, in 1918, foreign delegations arrived in the region to assess the damage. They disagreed as to whether Germans or Russians were responsible for the horror left behind, but this they agreed on: nowhere in eastern Europe was the suffering of civilians during World War I greater than in Lødz, Poland. Wrote one American journalist: "All that [is] left are the graves of the dead, the emaciated bodies of the living, and the shell-scarred land, denuded of almost every trace of vegetation."
Freidel Schlanger was nearly five years old when World War I ended. She was gaunt, with dark, hollow eyes that had seen far too much. But alive.
At 7:30 A.M., the Pendleton's engines stopped. By now, the drone had become so rote in the ears of the hundreds onboard that the new silence held an eerie foreboding, especially when punctuated by the sound of German shells lobbed into the flotilla from gun emplacements beyond the beach.
Frances awoke. She pulled out a French phrase book she'd been issued in England. Not all of the wounded they'd be treating would be soldiers; some would be French civilians. A few bunks away, the heart of a fellow nurse, Betty Belanger, pounded harder. Every shell or stray machine-gun bullet from a German plane seemed to ping closer and closer to the twenty-five-year-old nurse from Manchester, New Hampshire.
Above many of the ships in the Allied armada, silvery, fat, barrage balloons floated ghostlike in the sky, tethered to the ships to dissuade low-flying aerial attacks by the Luftwaffe. The balloons hadn't done much dissuading this particular morning. One merchant marine ship, the Charles Morgan, had been sunk by a Luftwaffe bomb and at 4:15 A.M., a glider bomb exploded in the water beside the Pendleton. The shell's impact buckled a bulkhead, caused an oil leak into a water tank, and reminded those on board that they weren't back in bucolic England anymore. In Upton-on-Severn, the English town where the Forty-fifth had been billeted for most of its time before leaving for France, the nurses had spent time at hand-driven sewing machines, making giant "Geneva" red crosses out of bed sheets. One nurse would turn the sewing-machine's wheel while another fed a sheet through.
"What is this for?" Sallylou had asked when first hearing of the task. "We'll put the crosses on the tents and in the field next to us," explained Capt. Elizabeth Hay, the Forty-fifth's chief nurse, "so the German airplanes won't target us."
Sallylou frowned ever so slightly. Until then, she hadn't given serious thought to the idea that their lives might be in danger. But if the lessons of war seemed far away in England, they were now getting closer. On the ship, soldiers repositioned themselves on their bunks again and again. "How long till we go?" The question passed from stem to stern and back like a subway rumor. The consensus: A helluva lot longer than we think—An hour—Maybe ten—Maybe never—After all, weren't we supposed to have gone in yesterday, at Omaha? The Pendleton, whose passenger list also included nurses from the 128th Evacuation Hospital, had left Falmouth, near England's farthest southwest reaches, at 2:30 A.M. Thursday, June 8. But after the 100-mile journey, the vessel was wrongly positioned off Omaha Beach and the error had cost the ship a full day in repositioning.
Meanwhile, soldiers had been kept in the dark about what was happening in France. They knew the basics: Hitler's troops had spent four years fortifying the French coast with their vaunted "Atlantic Wall" to defend territory Germany had occupied since 1940. The wall had fallen on D-Day. But to win back Europe, Allied troops now had to defeat the Germans. And that meant bringing ashore more than ten times as many men as had landed on June 6, which is why the soldiers below now awaited the command to board landing craft, hit the beaches, and join the cause of liberation. At stake? As simple as it was agonizingly complex: the freedom of the world.
Though some had heard erroneous BBC radio reports suggesting the D-Day invasion had been made with "surprising ease," most knew better. "What worries me about landing," said one commander of a ship heading across the English Channel, "is the bomb holes the Air Force may leave in the beach before we hit. The chart may show three feet of water, but the men may step into a ten-foot hole anywhere."
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