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Books: A nurse whose letter touched hearts of fighting men in WWII

By CHARLENE NEUWILLER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 7, 2004

She died a heroine and never knew it. She died never knowing that in the eyes of hundreds of doughboys, she was an angel, a modern Florence Nightingale.

This she managed through a single letter to the editor in The Stars and Stripes.

Frances Slanger was a nurse. That’s about all she ever wanted to be, really. That, and a writer.

Slanger’s story is told in the new book “American Nightingale,” by Bob Welch.

He has written from the heart, and it shows page after page as he takes his readers back to World War II and introduces us to a woman unique, compassionate and un-knowing of her legacy. I’m glad he found her, and you will be, too, after reading his book.

Welch is a columnist at The Register- Guard in Eugene, Oregon. In December 2000, he received a phone call from a reader requesting that he do a column about a World War II nurse about whom the reader had some information. Welch obliged and couldn’t believe his ears when receiving one particular response: one from an 82-year- old woman who lived only 10 minutes from Welch’s house.

“My goodness,” she said, “you’ve written about my friend Frances Slanger.”

Her name is Sallylou Cummings, and she was one of the nurses who landed at Normandy with Slanger. Stunned by such chances, Welch was compelled to find out more about Slanger, and would spend the next two years re-creating her story.

Slanger, along with 18 other nurses of the Women’s Army Corps, didn’t exactly storm ashore at 2 p.m. on June 10, 1944. Frances, petite at 5-foot, 1-inch, wearing boots, a 3-pound life belt and a too-large helmet that kept sliding sideways on her head, didn’t have the physical strength to “storm.” Instead, she sank — more than once — before finally being pulled to shore by a couple of GIs who were better able to withstand the heaving waves.

Frances was the daughter of a Jewish fruit peddler who had brought his family from Lódz, Poland, to Boston.

During her childhood in Boston, Frances always seemed to find someone to nurture, a sign that nursing was perhaps her destiny. Whether it was a Jewish schoolmate whose nose was bloodied by a thug or a neighborhood friend disabled with polio, Frances was most happy when she was taking care of someone.

Despite a lack of support from her family, and anti-Semitism — which resulted in a quota of Jewish medical students — she eventually attended Boston City Hospital's School of Nursing.

When she joined the Army Nurse Corps in the spring of 1943, she was told that her poor eyesight would disqualify her from overseas duty. However, she vowed to find a way to go to the war front, where she knew she would be needed.

Her chance came when the severe shortage of nurses in the war overseas was realized. With the upcoming invasion of France, even more would be needed. Originally, the nurses were scheduled for entry no less than a week after D-day, but as the casualties mounted, word was received that the nurses were to be sent sooner.

It was Saturday, June 10 that the William N. Pendleton cut through the rough seas toward the Normandy coast, carrying 640 soldiers, 18 of them members of the Army Nurse Corps.

Writing, her first passion, was how Frances spent most of her hours when not tending the patients. While comrades were engrossed in games of poker or craps, or listening to the radio, or chatting about anything and everything, Frances would be off to the side, in a world of her own, adding notes and poems to the chapbook that she kept. It seems that even in her childhood in Lódz, writing was her solace and what kept her in check when the world around here seemed to be going to hell.

It was Oct. 21, 1944, 0200, when by flashlight on a particularly restless night, she decided to write a letter to The Stars and Stripes. Earlier conversations with tent mates kept coming back to her, about how the GIs praised the nurses, how they were so grateful for their presence and comforting words. But Frances pondered the validity of the praise. Was it not the GIs who deserved the bouquets? As the batteries dimmed, she penned one last thought:

"The wounded do not cry. Their buddies come first. The patience and determination they show, the courage and fortitude they have is sometimes awesome to behold. It is we who are proud to be here. Rough it? No. It is a privilege to be able to receive you, and a great distinction to see you open your eyes and with that swell American grin, say, 'Hi-ya, Babe!' "

As the new day began, Frances had her closest comrades read the letter. "What if it's not good enough?" she asked. After getting the encouragement she needed, she sat down, wrote a cover letter and got a few of her tent mates to sign it. Soon, the letter was crossing Belgium in the back of a mail truck, en route to Stars and Stripes, one of thousands of other pieces of mail. But this piece was different. As author Bob Welch wrote in his book "American Nightingale," this piece was "a handwritten fulfillment of all Frances Slanger hoped to be: Writer. Nurse. And above all, one who made a difference."

That evening, 60 years ago today, Frances Slanger was killed by enemy fire. At 9:20 pm the 45th was under attack in Elsenborn, Belgium. Chaos reigned as artillery fire lit the rainy night, members of the unit hunkering, moving from comrade to comrade, trying to save and further protect the wounded. Three members of a once-226-strong unit died that night, including Frances. A piece of shrapnel caught so deep in her in the stomach, there was no chance of survival.

It was rare for medical facilities to be deliberately targeted. Further investigation determined that a U.S. artillery unit had set up camp too close to the field hospital. The second platoon had been blown apart unintentionally and Frances Slanger's life cut short by accident.

Frances' letter didn't make it to Stars and Stripes' pages until Nov. 7, the editors not yet receiving word that the author had been killed. 2nd Lt. Frances Y. Slanger was never to realize the impact her words had made on those for whom she served. Her letter was published in the Editorial section, a box that only once before had been filled by someone other than a Stripes staff member, that being Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.

The letter brought responses from GIs all across northern Europe, hundreds of them taking the time in the middle of a war to thank a woman they didn't even know. One, a Pvt. First Class Millard Ireland read it from a foxhole somewhere in Luxembourg. His reply: "The S&S editorial of November 7 was such as to bring a lump to a dog-face's throat. It is more than touching to be told you are made of good stuff by somebody who ought to know, with such obvious sincerity as that of 2/Lt. Slanger." It was upon the news of her death, published in the same editorial box on Nov. 22nd that started letters pouring in.

Frances was buried at the U.S. Military Cemetery at Henri-Chapelle, Belgium, only 20 miles from where she was killed. She was 31 years old. Two years after the war ended, her body was returned to the States. Her final resting place is next to her father at the Independent Pride of Boston, a Jewish cemetery in West Roxbury. The headstone bore the words that were part of her letter: The wounded do not cry, their buddies come first."


Bob Welch, a columnist at the Register-Guard in Eugene, Oregon, is the author of "American Nightingale" (below).

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