By Jessica Ullian
Frances Slanger, a nurse with the 45th Field Hospital Unit of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps, had been in Normandy for four months when she decided to express her gratitude to the young soldiers of World War II.
It was early on October 20, 1944, and 2nd Lieutenant Slanger couldn’t sleep. Her unit had been the first to arrive in Normandy after D-Day in June, and the nurses spent the following months caring for thousands of wounded soldiers. Slanger was touched by their courage and strength, and when the G.I.s praised the nurses for their devotion, Slanger returned their admiration in a letter to Stars and Stripes, the military newspaper.
“Sure, we rough it, but in comparison to the way you men are taking it, we can’t complain, nor do we feel that bouquets are due us,” she wrote. “. . . it is to you we doff our helmets. To every G.I. wearing the American uniform, for you we have the greatest admiration and respect.”
The 31-year-old nurse mailed her letter the next day. She was killed that night when her unit was attacked by German artillery, becoming the first American nurse to die in Europe during World War II.
The letter appeared in Stars and Stripes as a guest editorial two weeks later, and earned Slanger, raised in Roxbury, great posthumous recognition. Moved by her letter, hundreds of soldiers mourned her. The Boston Globe’s headline was “ Boston army nurse dies like heroes she praised”; a Kansas newspaper’s was “Plucky little nurse is killed in Belgium.”
The details of her death and its aftermath are well-known: a hospital ship was christened after her, an award was named for her at her alma mater, the Boston City Hospital School of Nursing, and a Purple Heart was presented to her mother.
But the details of her life — handwritten drafts of her poetry, short stories published in her high-school yearbook, a crushed bouquet preserved in the pages of a scrapbook — were not discovered until decades later.
Bob Welch, a columnist for the Register-Guard of Eugene, Ore., went searching for Slanger’s past after reading a copy of her celebrated letter four years ago. Although it had no local connection, “there was just something that grabbed me about it,” he says.
Welch wrote a column about Slanger’s letter, and received a surprising phone call the next day from an elderly Eugene couple — a retired doctor and nurse — who had served in Normandy with Slanger. They had scrapbooks, photographs, and the phone numbers of more than 40 people who had served in the unit with them.
The contacts led Welch to Slanger’s nephew, Irwin Sidman, of Sharon, Mass., who told Welch of a suitcase containing Slanger’s journals, personal items, and newspaper clippings.
Unfortunately, he didn’t know where the suitcase was.
Welch searched the Jewish War Veterans Museum and the Smithsonian Institution before he found an author who had written about the Slanger hospital ship, and who directed him to the “ Boston University archives” — better known as the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University, home to Slanger’s collection since 1967.
“Those three words, 10 weeks into my research, were manna from heaven,” Welch said. “I was pretty sure at that point that we’d hit the mother lode.” He had discovered the source that would enable him to write the story of Slanger’s life, American Nightingale, published this year.
The book tells the story of both Frances Slanger, the Jewish immigrant child who helped her Polish father peddle fruit on the streets of Boston, and the American nurses in World War II. It counters the perception of nurses as “women in nice neat uniforms walking down the hallways of nice neat French hospitals,” Welch says, and reveals the harsh reality of 12-hour shifts and surgical procedures performed by flashlight.
But Welch’s principal interest in the story was Slanger herself, and what that one letter revealed about her. “There was such compassion, such appreciation of those around her,” he says. “It kind of jumped out at me and said this was someone special.”
Her interest in writing had been well documented; in addition to her famous letter to Stars and Stripes, she contributed short poems and jokes to local newspapers, and even published an account of her first training session with the Army Nurse Corps. “The first time I saw my gas mask I looked at it with awe,” she wrote. “How could I ever wear a thing like that. I soon learned.”
But while her patriotic wartime writings received much attention, the poetry, short stories, and essays preserved in the Gotlieb Center show sides of her that were not revealed in the newspapers.
“I think her writing was the most insightful portal into her life,” Welch says. “It unlocked so much.”
Some of her poems, such as “The Flag” and “To General Douglas McArthur [sic],” reflect her fervent patriotism; others, such as “Temptation,” indicate a longing for romance.
Still others, such as “About a Patient,” reveal a wry sense of humor:
The collection is rife with other souvenirs as well: a scrapbook full of quotations that she found inspiring; her self-titled “buddy book,” inscribed by other nurses and soldiers she encountered in her work; meticulously saved newspaper clippings on the plight of Polish and German Jews.
Her memorabilia ultimately seems to reveal two Frances Slangers. One was the fiercely patriotic nurse who idolized Douglas MacArthur, believed the war was “a challenge to every nurse,” and became so enmeshed in American traditions that she sent out Christmas cards. The other was an aspiring poet and novelist who admired Edna St. Vincent Millay, wrote stories about dances and party dresses and finding true love, and preserved a newspaper article arguing against the theory that Jews were responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus.
Now, as the 60th anniversary of her death approaches, American Nightingale has brought Slanger a new wave of recognition. A legislative bill calling for a memorial to her in the Massachusetts State House, sponsored by State Representatives William C. Galvin of Canton, and Louis L. Kafka of Sharon, was delayed for seven years because of a lack of information about her. As a result of Welch’s research, the bill passed in July, and a plaque commemorating Slanger is currently being designed.
The lasting impact of her voice is fitting for someone who pasted a quotation from Abraham Lincoln into her chapbook: “Die when I may, I want it said of me . . . that I always plucked a thistle and planted a flower where I thought a flower would grow.”
“She tried hard to leave her mark on the world, and to make the world a better place,” Welch says. “I think she did.”