Book Excerpt: 'American Nightingale'

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."

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