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Welch tracks down story of heroic nurse

Author visits Madras this week


by: SUBMITTED PHOTO - Eugene author Bob Welch spent two years researching the life of Frances Slanger, the nurse who inspired thousands of World War II soldiers.He had no particular interest in World War II, or nursing, but the more newspaper columnist Bob Welch found out about Army nurse Frances Slanger, who waded ashore to treat soldiers following the D-Day invasion of Normandy, the more fascinated he became.

Welch was a newspaper columnist at the Eugene Register-Guard when a man told him about a book he’d seen that contained an amazing letter written by Frances Slanger, the first American nurse to be killed in action during World War II.

Slanger’s letter, famous at the time, had been published in the “Stars and Stripes” military newspaper and helped inspire thousands of soldiers as they battled their way through Europe against German forces.

“You’ve got to write a column about Frances,” he said. The story intrigued Welch, but he couldn’t come up with a local angle, since the nurse was Jewish and from Boston. Finally, desperate for a column topic that week, he cranked the story out anyway.

“The day after the column came out, a Eugene woman named Sallylou Cummings called me and said `You wrote about my friend,’” Welch said.

Cummings told him she not only knew Slanger, but served with her in the Army Nurse Corps, and said her husband Dr. John Bonzer was with Slanger when she died. It turned out they lived only 10 minutes from Welch’s house, and had phone numbers from others in the unit who were still alive.

“One thing led to another, and four years later I’d written a book,” Welch said.

During his two years of extensive research, Welch traveled to Ellis Island where Slanger arrived with her Polish Jewish immigrant parents in 1920, Boston where she grew up and attended nursing school, sites in France and Belgium where she had served with the Army’s 45th Field Hospital Unit, he pored through records at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and chased down leads on elderly acquaintances in six states.

“It was the most profound journalistic experience I’ve ever had. I was drawn by the story and couldn’t wait to look under the next rock to find the next clue as to who Frances Slanger was,” Welch said, comparing it to tackling a giant jigsaw puzzle.

He ended up with 31 notebooks of information, each covering a different facet of Slanger’s life, such as the Jewish experience in Boston in the early 1920s, and medics of World War II. Besides that hard copy information, he had a computer system with additional information.

“It was like wrestling a dinosaur,” he observed, noting, “The more information you get, the harder it is to organize. I built an entire index system with 250 different subjects to search.”

Only four of the 18 nurses in the 45th were still living, and he also tracked down six doctors and enlisted men from the unit. But some found it hard to talk about the war.

“That was challenging. It was extremely hard for some because it was painful for them. Others just said they did what they had to do, while others wanted to talk, but couldn’t remember,” Welch said.

To turn his stacks of information into a story, Welch organized it and wrote the tale in chronological order, from her harsh childhood in Poland to landing on the beaches of Normandy and working in a hospital tent behind the front lines.

“I was rejected 26 times after the book was done, just trying to get an agent to represent me. They said I was doing the story in cradle-to-grave form and readers wouldn’t put up with all her early year stuff,” Welch said, noting, “I refused to believe it.”

He is a good friend of Oregon author Jane Kirkpatrick, and the two hold the Beachside Writers Workshop in Yachats each year. So, he sent the book to Kirkpatrick and asked her opinion.

“She wrote back and said `Don’t use the cradle-to-grave fashion of writing,’ and then I believed it,” he admitted.

Revising the book, he moved chapters around, starting with the Normandy landing and using flashbacks to her childhood when it seemed appropriate. The result was an enthralling story, in which the reader pieces things together, while watching Slanger develop into the heroic figure she became.

Her famous letter, written ironically the day before the bombing attack that killed her, and published by editors that thought she was alive, is reprinted in full at the start of the “American Nightingale.”

“That letter showed she was a very caring person, with pride in her country and her profession, and I thought that would make readers curious enough to read the rest of the book,” Welch said.

As for the importance of retelling this World War II story, Welch said, “It’s a reminder that we all can make a difference in the world, whether we’re rich and famous, or not – we can have an impact on the world.”

The most powerful part of the story to him is visualizing Slanger entering Ellis Island in 1920, at age 7, and being taken away from her mother and put in a cage because she had an eye infection.

“She was in a cage with no country, no mother, and no status. No one ever would have thought she’d go on to inspire thousands of people,” Welch said.

But Slanger bucked the system, eked her way into nursing school when working women were frowned upon, and begged to be sent overseas to comfort and care for America’s soldiers.

“Her story is a lesson in how much we matter to each other. She instilled hope, dignity and purpose to soldiers who’d almost forgotten what they were there for. Her letter reminded them that they were important,” Welch said.




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