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Serving their nation

  • RON GOWER/TIMES NEWS Estelle Sverchek, 96, left, of Lansford, and Betty Chabala, 92, of Summit Hill, both served as nurses during World War II. They will be participating in the Memorial Day Parade on Monday in Summit Hill.
    RON GOWER/TIMES NEWS Estelle Sverchek, 96, left, of Lansford, and Betty Chabala, 92, of Summit Hill, both served as nurses during World War II. They will be participating in the Memorial Day Parade on Monday in Summit Hill.
Published May 24. 2014 09:00AM

Estelle Sverchek, 96, of Lansford was sitting in a movie theater on Dec. 7, 1941, when she heard about the attack on Pearl Harbor.

She was 23 at the time and single, so she immediately signed up as a nurse for military duty.

Her mother wasn't happy about her decision.

"I came home and told my mother I joined the Army, and she wouldn't talk to me," Estelle said. "She was angry."

She never regretted the decision.

Sverchek is one of two Panther Valley women who served in the armed forces with the Army Nurses Corps during World War II.

Betty Chabala, 92, of Summit Hill joined in 1942. Both took almost identical paths, serving in Australia, New Guinea and the Philippines.

They met each other briefly in Australia. Sverchek was already serving there when Chabala arrived.

Although the two women live only about 2 miles away from each other, they haven't seen each other in years.

They got together last week at Sverchek's home and talked about their military careers.

On Monday, on the suggestion of Sverchek, the two women will ride in the Memorial Day parade in Summit Hill.

The participation in the parade was arranged through members of St. Katharine Drexel Catholic Church in Lansford, where Sverchek is a member.

Mary Ellen Ogozalek, also a member, said Sverchek casually mentioned she would like to be in this year's parade. Another member, Jean Balas, knew Chabala, and the group arranged their meeting and parade participation.

Both women met Eleanor Roosevelt while serving in Australia. Sverchek met John Wayne in New Guinea.

Both, after fulfilling their duties, returned to Panther Valley and became nurses at the former Coaldale State Hospital, which is now St. Luke's Miners Health Center.

After serving in the military, Sverchek, who rose to the rank of 1st lieutenant, donated her uniform to the Smithsonian.

A soldier dies

Both have good and bad memories of serving in the military.

They treated soldiers from both sides: Americans and Japanese, usually in the same hospital.

One of the saddest moments for Sverchek happened while she was serving in New Guinea.

A young soldier, maybe 20 years old, was brought in. He was dying and knew it.

"He was crying and calling for his momma," said Sverchek, her voice choking a little as the pages of her memory turned back to that day. "He was an American soldier."

Chabala said, and Sverchek agreed, that although they were close enough to the war that they could hear bombs exploding, they never were afraid.

"You expected it," Chabala said. "You were at war."

She also noted that some items were in such short supply that she had to patch the rubber gloves used in the hospital with glue.

No uniform

Sverchek served in the military from December 1941 until V-J Day in 1945.

She was the daughter of the late Frank and Teofila Pickle, who were Polish immigrants.

She was born in Lansford but was living in Connecticut, where she attended nursing school, when the war broke out. When Pearl Harbor was attacked, she was a nurse in St. Vincent's Hospital in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

After the war, she married Joseph Sverchek, who died in 2006. He was a magistrate in Lansford.

In 1942, she was sent to Fort Devons, Massachusetts, and then to Australia, where she served for 18 months. When she was sent overseas, she didn't even have a uniform.

From Australia, she was sent to the jungles of New Guinea, where "they forgot me."

She was there for 33 months, working mostly at an evacuation hospital.

For a while at the hospital, George Thomas of Nesquehoning worked in the kitchen.

Because she was forced to treat Japanese soldiers, some American soldiers resented it and wouldn't talk to her.

"All we had to do with the Japanese soldiers was feed them," she said. "They were friendly. They were kids. Most of them were under 18."

Heavy fighting was going on in New Guinea, and soldiers were brought in from the front lines.

Sverchek recalled the visit from John Wayne. When he came to the New Guinea hospital, American soldiers were on one side and Japanese soldiers were on the other side.

When Wayne saw the Japanese soldiers, he remarked, "Give me a gun."

Sverchek cut him off, saying, "You wouldn't know what the hell to do with a gun."

From there, she went to the Philippines for four weeks, and then to San Francisco.

She saw Gen. Douglas MacArthur in Australia, and was in the Philippines when he landed there.

She also met Andy Vanno, a soldier from Lansford, in the Philippines.

Working for 24 straight hours

Chabala grew up in Lansford, a daughter of the late Frank and Anna Veron of Lansford.

She graduated from the former Lansford High School in 1939 and then trained for nursing at Philadelphia General Hospital from 1939 to 1942.

In 1942, she signed for the Nurses Corp and served for 3 1/2 years.

In 1950, she married John Chabala. He died Dec. 4, 2008. They had two children.

After training and serving in Virginia, Palm Springs and San Francisco, she was sent to Australia, where she was stationed for 1 1/2 years.

"Australia was like living in the United States 20 years earlier," she said. The bathrooms were outhouses with little shades on them. "You could see who was inside," she said.

She then went to New Guinea for two months "during the rainy season," and then to the Philippines, where she helped to set up 13 station hospitals. There she lived in tents.

She usually worked 12 hours at a time, but "sometimes we worked 24 hours, depending on how the movement (of soldiers) came in." There were times they worked eight hours, took a shower, and were immediately called back out.

"We had pork three times a day for about two months," she said, noting that due to the rainy season, planes couldn't land to bring other food.

She added, "We did get a few of the Japanese. They would get fresh eggs and bacon for breakfast while we got scrambled eggs. They treated the prisoners like kings. This was because they wanted them to talk."

When transferred, Chabala recalled the rope steps she had to go up and down.

In Australia, Chabala met football great Mike Holovac of Lansford, who went on to become a finalist for the Heisman Trophy in college and was a coach in professional football.

"He was in the Navy," she said of Holovac. "We were in a restaurant and he came and sat with us. The next day he met us and treated us."

She also met Mike Dotsy of Lansford, who was en route home from serving. "I told him to tell my mother where I was and how I was," she said.

She met Eleanor Roosevelt and Big Band great Artie Shaw in Australia.

Chabala said she made the most of her time in the military. During time off, "I went to any large city I could."

A funny story she shared was one time in Australia, a cook told her he was going to make Southern fried chicken the next day. The sergeant from the mess hall had brought 10 chickens.

Unknown to her, they were live chickens. Nobody thought of penning them up, and they ran away.

"We didn't have any of the chickens," she laughed.

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