Nurse touched GIs with her words
By Anne Koppel Conway
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Register Guard columnist Bob Welch has been writing Eugene-area human-interest-stories for the last five years.
So, how did he happen to write a column and then a book about the first U.S. Army nurse killed in Europe during World War II?
Nathan Fendrich gets credit for that.
Fendrich, 70, a retired furniture store owner, volunteers his time giving World War II and Holocaust presentations. Always looking for material to enhance his seminars, he chanced upon letter written by the nurse and first published in the Army newspaper Stars and Stripes on Nov. 7, 1944.
"The letter" penned in a field hospital tent "grabbed me," said Fendrich. "It was so powerful; it brought tears to my eyes."
The letter writer was Lt. Frances Slanger. Slanger came to the United States from Poland when she was 7 years old. At age 31, she returned to Europe via Utah Beach four days after D-Day in 1944.
In her letter Slanger wrote, "Sure we rough it, but in comparison to the way you men are taking it, we can't complain." To "the men who pave the way and the men who were left behind-??we doff our helmets."
Slanger and her unit of nurses first set foot on Utah Beach in France on June 10, 1944. Like the soldiers, they wore three-pound helmets and battle fatigues. The petite Slanger almost drowned when the ocean floor dropped from four to 10 feet but she was pulled ashore by soldiers. The nurses found "complete chaos" with 17 truckloads of wounded soldiers waiting for them.
Four months later she wrote her letter to Stars and Stripes. "The wounded do not cry," she wrote. "Their buddies come first-??It is a great distinction to see you open your eyes and with that swell American grin, say, 'Hi-ya Babe!'"
Welch's column, published in December 2000, tied the letter to the dwindling number of surviving World War II veterans. Then the story took on a life of its own.
Welch received a call from retired nurse Sallylou Cummings Bonzer, now 86, who served with Slanger at the U.S. 45th Army Field Hospital and now lives just 10 minutes from Welch.
"I was absolutely amazed to read (Welch's) column about things I hadn't thought about in 60 years and to see the name of someone (Slanger), long gone -?" it was a real shock," Bonzer said.
In her letter written in the wee hours of Oct. 21, 1944, Slanger says, "I have been lying awake for one hour, listening to the steady, even breathing of the other three nurses in the tent."
Sallylou remembers, "(Frances') letter amazed everyone. "Most of the (18) nurses" (four still alive) "never realized she wrote so much. The rest of us weren't writing anything. We were lucky to know where we were." Where the army hospital was set up that day was Elsenborn, Belgium, just two miles from the German border.
Slanger mailed her letter that morning.
Thousands of GIs responded to her poignant words with letters praising Slanger and other nurses. Streets, schools and U.S. hospital ship were named for her. "She infused hope in people," Welch said.
But Lt. Slanger would never know any of the heart-felt praise and honors heaped on her. A few hours after mailing the letter a piece of shrapnel from a German artillery barrage went deep into her stomach -?" giving her no chance to survive.
Welch spent two years researching Slanger but never quit his day job. He met Slanger's nephew Irwin Sidman, only eight when his Aunt Frances died. "She was my heroine; she always will be," Sidman said. The last time he saw her, she sang him a lullaby.
Born in Lódz, Poland, in 1913, Slanger arrived in Boston's south end in 1920, where she was known as the fruit peddler's daughter. Bucking family wishes and a nursing supervisor who thought Slanger was too headstrong to succeed, she became a nurse and joined the Army Nurse Corps in 1937. With bad eyesight, she had to talk her way overseas. "She wrote poetry and short stories, valued life, took risks and wanted to make a difference, including helping to resist Hitler's forces," Welch said.
She knew Jews in Lódz were being shipped to Auschwitz and Chelmno. Her Polish relatives, of whom only one survived the Holocaust, were being forced to make German uniforms.
Twenty-six agents turned down Welch's "American Nightingale-??The Story of Frances Slanger, Forgotten Heroine of Normandy" manuscript. "I found it hard to get people to wake up to the value of Frances Slanger. She was a true hero-??a role model."
Atria, a division of Simon and Shuster finally agreed with him, publishing the book on the 60th anniversary of D-Day.
The book is 320 pages. It is priced at $22.