Editor’s Note: This is the sixth in a series of posts profiling the individuals whose stories make up Fighting for Democracy: Who Is the “We” in “We The People”?, the National Constitution Center’s featured fall exhibition. The exhibition, which runs through January 16, includes a world premiere theatrical production that brings to life the stories of men and women who fought discrimination while serving their country during World War II.
“We have learned a great deal about our American boy and the stuff he is made of.”
Born in Poland in 1913, Frances and her family immigrated to the United States in 1920 to escape the persecution of Jews. Frances was only seven upon arrival at Ellis Island, and almost didn’t make it into the country. An eye infection discovered during her examination led to a harsh separation from her family and she was subjected to several more inspections before being reunited with her parents and sister to begin her new life in America. Frances would continue to struggle with her eyesight. She would need to rise above what many considered a frailty to prove herself worthy to serve her country.
Her traditional Jewish parents hoped she would find a husband, settle down… but young Frances had bigger plans, she wanted to attend nursing school. She wrote in her journal about her passion for caring for others: “I have always loved to comfort those who were sick… I want to help those less fortunate than I.” She graduated from Boston City Hospital’s School of Nursing in 1937. She enlisted in the Army Nurse Corps in 1943, and four days after the D-Day invasion she waded ashore at Normandy to help care for 17 truckloads of injured soldiers.
On October 21, 1944, Frances lay awake writing a letter inspired by the young men she and the other nurses cared for during their time overseas. The following letter was published in the Stars and Stripes newspaper; it touched the hearts of hundreds of servicemen and their families:
It is 0200 hours and I have been lying awake for an hour listening to the steady even breathing of the other three nurses in the tent, thinking about some of the things we had discussed during the day.
The fire was burning low, and just a few live coals are on the bottom. With the slow feeding of wood and finally coal, a roaring fire is started. I couldn’t help thinking how similar to a human being a fire is. If it is not allowed to run down too low, and if there is a spark of life left in it, it can be nursed back. So can a human being. It is slow. It is gradual. It is done all the time in these field hospitals and other hospitals in the ETO.
We have read several different articles in magazines and papers sent in by grateful GIs praising the work of nurses around the combat zones . Praising us – for what?
We wade ankle-deep in mud – you have to lie in it. We are restricted to our immediate area, but then who is not restricted?
The wind is howling, the tent waving precariously, the rain beating down, the guns firing, and me with a flashlight writing. It all adds up to a feeling of unrealness. 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. But you- the men behind the guns, the men driving our tanks, flying our planes, sailing our ships, building bridges- it is to you we doff our helmets. To every GI wearing the American uniform, for you we have the greatest admiration and respect.
Yes, this time we are handing out the bouquets- but after taking care of some of your buddies, comforting them when they are brought in, bloody, dirty with the earth, mud and grime, and some of them so tired. Somebody’s brothers, somebody’s fathers, somebody’s sons, seeing them gradually come back to life, to consciousness, and their lips separate into a grin when they first welcome you. Usually they say, “Hiya babe, Holy Mackerel, an American woman!” – or more indiscreetly “How about a kiss?”
These soldiers stay with us but a short time, from ten days to possibly two weeks. We have learned a great deal about our American boy and the stuff he is made of. 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 of you, a great distinction to see you open your eyes and with that swell American grin, say “Hiya babe!”
Hours after writing this letter and posting it to the newspaper, Frances’ camp was attacked. Frances Slanger was killed by an enemy shell that exploded near her tent. She was the first American nurse to die in Europe. Her obituary was published in the Stars and Stripes just two weeks after her article honoring the young soldiers and their courage and spirit.
The Lt. Frances Y. Slanger Post #313, the first all-women’s chapter of the Jewish War Veterans of the U.S., was founded in 1946, and a U.S. Army hospital ship was also named in her memory.
To learn more about Frances Slanger, visit Fighting for Democracy: Who is the ‘We’ in ‘We The People’? on view now at the National Constitution Center.
Allison Heishman is the Theater Programs Manager at the National Constitution Center and a member of the Fighting for Democracy creative team.