Book Excerpt: 'American Nightingale'

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?"

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