By Shruti Chaganti, AHF Intern
Friedel Yachet Schlanger was born into a Jewish family in 1913 in Lodz, Poland. As a child she witnessed the horrors of World War I. When she was seven, she immigrated with her family to the United States, where her name was changed to Frances Slanger. As she grew older, Frances became more and more aware of her two dreams in life–to become a professional writer and to become a nurse. Unfortunately, because her parents were not wealthy enough to send her to college, she was unable to fully develop her writing skills. She was unwilling to forgo her dream to become a nurse, however, and enrolled in the Boston Nursing School. After barely graduating with her class, she worked at Boston City Hospital for two years. By 1940, however, she saw the horrors that her own relatives and many other Jewish people were being put through in Europe. As a result, she resolved to help those who needed it most. She enlisted in the Army Nurse Corps and began readying herself for service overseas.
In 1943, Slanger was ordered to report to Fort Devens, Massachusetts. Her dream, however, had been to serve overseas and she argued for her right to be there. Whether it was the conviction of her argument or the realization that there was a drastic shortage of nurses overseas, the Army finally relented and sent her to Europe as a part of the 2d Platoon, 45th Field Hospital.
Slanger landed in Normandy on 10 June 1944 and quickly learned that life as an Army nurse was quite different from taking care of the elderly back in Boston. Nurses were in short supply, while the wounded were quite abundant, creating long and hard twelve-hour shifts for each nurse. While Slanger loved to take care of people, the death that she saw in the hospitals of Boston could not prepare her for the death of so many young men on the battlefields of Europe. Adding to the long work days was the constant shifting of camp. During her trek across Europe, Slanger and her field hospital moved from France to Belgium until finally reaching the outskirts of Germany.
Even through these hard times, Slanger knew that she had finally found her calling. She cared for each and every patient of hers as if they were a long lost brother or friend that she had met again. Here she was free to help her patients as much as she wanted and in any way that she wanted. If the patient was having trouble lifting his head to drink water, she put an IV bottle and rubber tubing together to create a water bottle. If they wanted the bullet or a piece of shrapnel that wounded them as a souvenir, she gave them what would make them happy. And if she wanted to sing to a wide-eyed soldier to remind him of home, then she did just that. Slanger quickly realized that many times the soldiers needed more than just IVs and surgery to heal. These shell-shocked boys needed love and care, as was evident from their frequent moans for their mother. What stood Slanger apart from other nurses was that while most nurses only tended to the soldier’s physical needs, she tended to their psychological needs as well. She often gave them the will to continue fighting to live. To these boys, the nurses in mud-stained dresses and unkempt hair were angels. Slanger’s unwearied and loving care of her patients elicited more than one “hi-ya babe” from the mouths of young boys finally just being boys.
Throughout her service, Slanger made many close friends, including her tent mates and one very special Isadore Schwartz, a doctor with the 45th Field Hospital. They shared a bond that ran deeper than the romantic feelings observers speculate existed. Her caring spirit won many admirers not only in her platoon but also around the world. In her final letter sent to Stars and Stripes, she eloquently thanked the soldiers that fought in the war, putting their service above her own. “We wade ankle deep in mud,” she wrote. “You lie in it.” The publication of this letter would elicit a tremendous response for this nurse who cared so deeply about others.
On 21 October 1944, the rain fell hard in Elsenborn, Belgium, a town not far from the German border. The area had been quiet for days and dinner was a normal affair. Quite unexpectedly, the 45th Field Hospital came under attack by German artillery. Foxholes had not been dug on the assumption that Elsenborn was in a safe area, and as a result, there was little cover from the barrage of German shells. Days before she would get to live her dream as a published writer, Slanger was killed in the attack as shrapnel slashed through her stomach. Her death created a worldwide response, especially among the community of soldiers who had been inspired by her last letter. She was the only nurse to die as the result of enemy action in the European Theater, and she was later immortalized with the commissioning of the Frances Y. Slanger, a hospital ship. Throughout her relatively short life, Frances was able to carry out her dream to serve those who were less fortunate than her, and her death greatly affected all who worked with her, came under her care, or read her letter in Stars and Stripes.