OUR HEALTH: Angel of Mercy for D-Day Injured
Most people who work in healthcare are heroes in their own right, but some exhibit a special kind of heroism. Some practice their craft under horrid circumstances, even under the threat of gunfire from an armed enemy army, and a few of those are honored for their bravery.
One of those few was Evelyn “Chappy” Kowalchuk, RN, one of 25 flight nurses to brave the hell of Omaha Beach three days after the initial D-Day invasion. Her mission was to rescue and evacuate wounded soldiers, often under fire from German forces, and keep them alive until they could be transported to safety and further care. This year marks the 69th anniversary of the D-Day invasion.
Evelyn and her husband Andrew became Bedford County residents in 1988, moving to Huddleston after her retirement from a lifelong career in nursing.
She became a fixture as a volunteer for many community activities. One of her involvements included escorting then President George W. Bush to the dedication of the National D-Day Memorial on June 6, 2001, 12 years ago this year. And on Memorial Day, 2012, she was part of the program dedicating a new narrative plaque at the D-Day Memorial commemorating the role of flight nurses during World War II.
Bedford County and the country lost Evelyn on April 7, 2013 at the age of 93. Predeceased by her husband and their son Ivan, her family is planning her burial at Arlington National Cemetery. Another son, Peter Andrew, survives.
A New Jersey native born as Evelyn Chaychuk, she earned her RN degree from Newark Memorial Hospital in 1941 and enlisted in the U.S. Army the following year.
After entering the Army, she told the Bedford Bulletin, she saw a notice on a bulletin board in the military hospital where she was working. The Army was looking for nurses to volunteer as flight nurses. Kowalchuk and some others asked the head nurse what flight nurses were.
“I have no idea,” the head nurse replied.
But she volunteered anyway, and found herself riding in C-46 and C-47 cargo planes flying across the English Channel to land on improvised runways on the Normandy beachhead in the days following D-Day.
The planes ferried badly wounded men to hospitals in Great Britain. It was the job of the flight nurses to take care of the 24 wounded soldiers as they were transported to hospitals. The men were missing arms, missing legs and had head and chest wounds.
“My C-47 landed on Omaha Beach,” Kowalchuk told the Bulletin. “Although a number of planes were shot down, that particular danger was not very worrisome at the time. Our real concern was to get the wounded boys on the planes and to a hospital.”
"When we got those boys on the plane,” she continued “we had the worst shock. We had nurses that were training in New York and California. They had never, never seen the injuries and the blood and the pain these boys were going through."
Flight nurses served in all embattled theaters during World War II, and they did so with distinction. It is a testament to their training and dedication that of the 1,176,048 patients air evacuated during the war, only 46 died en route. Seventeen flight nurses were killed during the war.
After her military service, Evelyn continued her nursing career, first as a school nurse in the Newark Board of Education and Health, then becoming the first female school nurse at Newark Academy in Livingston, NJ. She finished her nursing career in the Irvington, NJ, Board of Education.
Moving to Bedford County, she became active as a volunteer with community organizations and made numerous speaking engagements about her military and nursing experiences. She was also recognized for many more accomplishments and achievements, but most of all was known for her sense of humor, her courageous ambitions, her remarkable smile and loving nature, all of which served her well as a pioneer flight nurse who took care of so many.
Editor’s note: stories such as Evelyn Kowalchuk’s and many more are included in Volume III of the History of Healthcare in Lynchburg. Look for free copies of the history at many locations in the summer.