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After Pearl Harbor, Lansford woman recognized her duty, joined the Army

  • A treasured old photo album includes pictures taken of Estelle Sverchek, now 92, when she served as a U.S. Army nurse in Australia and New Guinea. That's her on the left, in Australia, holding a dog; her then-roommate is in the center.
    A treasured old photo album includes pictures taken of Estelle Sverchek, now 92, when she served as a U.S. Army nurse in Australia and New Guinea. That's her on the left, in Australia, holding a dog; her then-roommate is in the center.
Published December 07. 2010 05:00PM

On Dec. 7, 1941, Estelle Pickle, fresh out of nursing school, was sitting with her cousin Bertha Villano in a darkened movie theater in Bridgeport, Connecticut, when the news flashed on the screen that the Japanese had attacked the United States Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor.

Pickle, who had come from Lansford to attend nursing school, didn't follow world events, and so was unaware of the growing hostilities between Japan and the United States. She had no idea where Pearl Harbor was, nor it's significance to World War II.

She also didn't know that just three months later, she would don the proud uniform of a United States Army nurse.

One recent day, Pickle, now Estelle Sverchek, 92 and still sharp and bright as a razor's edge, sits in her Lansford home, her knitting close at hand, watching a neighbor decorate her Christmas tree as she recounts her experiences as one of roughly 350,000 women who served in the military during World War II.

Sverchek, a 1936 alumnus of Lansford High School, graduated from St. Vincent's nursing school in Bridgeport in 1941.

She was working in Bridgeport as a general duty nurse, not sure exactly what she wanted to do with her life.

"I was thinking of coming back to Pennsylvania to work, but I wasn't too keen on it," she says. "Then I thought, maybe I want to join the Army. So I did."

Her mother was not happy with her decision, she says.

"My mother was against it, totally," she says. "But I didn't tell her until I had signed up. There was nothing I could do about it then."

Sverchek enlisted on March 13, 1942.

"I didn't even know one officer from another when I went in."

By the time her tour of duty ended, she had attained the rank of captain.

She was assigned to Fort Devon (Massachusetts), "and the soldiers wouldn't even talk to me. I wanted to know how to get to the camp. I got into Massachusetts, and nobody would tell me how to get to the camp. It was a military secret, you know. Sverchek vowed to turn around and go back if somebody didn't give her directions. Eventually, someone did get her on a bus to the camp.

On May 19, less than five weeks after her arrival at Fort Devon, Sverchek found herself aboard the U.S.S. West Point, bound for Australia.

A notice was posted on the bulletin board seeking volunteers to staff a hospital unit overseas.

"Not many people signed up for it," Sverchek recalls. "So then they just said 'You're going. You. You. You. You.' So we went."

The ship landed in Melbourne on June 4.

"We were in Camp Darley. It was a cute little place," she says. She and her tent-mates, once off-duty, would relax, getting "all dolled up" as if for a night on the town, Sverchek recalls with a smile. They made sure their uniforms were pressed, with sharp creases.

"We thought we were the cat's meow," she says.

They stayed at the camp, at Townesville, Victoria, for three months, then moved on to northern Australia.

"We formed the 13th Station Hospital. We were there for maybe five months, when another notice went up: They were forming a unit to go to Oro Bay, New Guinea."

Nobody signed up. So officers again chose recruits.

"That was the first evacuation hospital, so we were the first ones to get wounded soldiers," she says.

The station was a shock to the young nurse.

"There was nothing but jungle," she says.

She quickly made friends with other nurses.

"We were in this together, the whole group of us. I met up with some girls who lived in New England. I think the friendships you formed were closer than your own family," she says. "Everybody looked out for everybody else."

A good thing that was, too: Sverchek was in New Guinea for 33 months.

"Christmases came and went," she recalls.

While there, she worked on the Japanese prisoner ward.

"They imported the Japanese prisoners that the Americans captured," she says. "They were so pathetic ... they were wounded prisoners."

Sverchek did her duty as an Army nurse.

"The American soldiers wouldn't talk to me for a long time because I was taking care of them," she recalls. "I always looked at it this way: Hopefully, our American soldiers are getting good care from them."

Her Japanese charges, Sverchek says, were polite and mostly compliant.

"They were actually cute. They couldn't have been more than 18 or 19 years old. They were afraid of everything," she says. "They didn't understand the language. Whatever you showed them, they did."

They had an older soldier in that ward, who had cancer. Sverchek and her fellow nurses cared for him, too. One night, she arrived at his bedside to turn him and bathe him, only to find that he was gone.

"Here they had this guy on sheets, and were carrying him down to the end of the ward, to the bathrooms. She followed. "They took him back there, cleaned him up and brought him back to bed," she says.

Another patient, an officer, challenged her.

"We went in one day with a doctor to examine him, and he's sitting on the springs of the bed. The mattress was off the bed," she recalls. "I yelled at him. I shouldn't have, but I did. I said 'Look, the mattress is supposed to be on the bed, and you are supposed to be on the mattress.' He argued back at her in Japanese. She argued right back, telling the man that she knew he understood her, and that if he had been forced to sleep on springs, "you would say the Americans were barbarians. Now put the mattress back on the bed and get into it."

The Japanese officer complied.

Some time later, when Sverchek was again in Australia on furlough, another nurse ran into the room and excitedly told her there was someone on the ward who wanted to see her.

Sverchek went.

"There were these Japanese prisoners. They were transferring them to Australia. They greeted her, she says, "like a long lost relative. They were so happy to see me."

After new Guinea, her unit went to the Philippines, where they stayed about four months.

"We were there while they signed the Peace Treaty," she says. "In January 1946, we came home, and I got out of the Army."

Officials offered Sverchek a raise in rank and the offer of taking a unit to Europe if she would stay, but she declined. "I said, 'You guys are crazy. I haven't see American pizza in 45 months'."

She'd miss her military pals, but she also missed the independence and freedom of movement that are so often taken for granted in civilian life.

"Just little things, like being able to go and get salt for yourself. Once you left the mess hall, that was it," she says. "Just doing what you want."

Sverchek worked as a nurse at St. Joseph's Hospital in Philadelphia, then returned to Lansford when her father, Frank Pickle, was hurt in a mine accident. She worked at the then-Coaldale Hospital, wed Joseph Sverchek, who went on to become a district judge, in 1948. The couple had a son, Joseph P., in 1952, and Sverchek continued to work as a nurse for local companies.

Leafing through a box of old photo albums, she remembers her Army life.

"I was never sorry I joined," she says. "It was a good experience."

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