Book Excerpt: 'American Nightingale'

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."

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