Savannah G. Vernarelli, 85, Army nurse in two wars


Savannah G. "Penny" Vernarelli, a registered nurse who served in the Army in World War II and Korea, died of lung cancer Tuesday at Gilchrist Center for Hospice Care. The longtime Hamilton resident was 85.

She was born Savannah Georgia Swaim and raised in Ironto, Va., and graduated from high school in Roanoke, Va.

"People think she was named for Savannah, Georgia, but she wasn't. Her father, a Norfolk and Western Railway conductor, gave her the nickname of Penny because she was so small," said a son, Mark A. Vernarelli of Baldwin, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services and former television news reporter.

Mrs. Vernarelli planned to be an airline stewardess, and in those days, her son said, stewardesses were required to be nurses.

By the time she earned her nursing degree from Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta in 1941, World War II had begun, and she enlisted in the Army Nurse Corps in 1942.

"That's when the globe-trotting and, at times, life-threatening adventures began," her son said.

Mrs. Vernarelli was assigned to the USS Ernestine Koranda, an Army hospital ship in the Pacific.

In an unpublished memoir, Mrs. Vernarelli recalled a powerful typhoon while serving aboard the ship.

"It was horrible. The water was coming from above the upper deck. We got a distress call from another vessel nearby," she wrote.

"I watched the lifeboat go out and thought they would never make it. It was beating back and forth in the storm. It took them a while, but they made it. They came back with a soldier who needed an emergency appendectomy, and our crew got him through it," she wrote.

After the war, Mrs. Vernarelli was assigned to the Kyoto Army Hospital in Japan and briefly at a veterans hospital in Long Beach, Calif.

In 1952, she was sent to Korea and served at the front for a year with several MASH units that often had to move because of intense enemy action or guerrilla attacks.

She recalled the dreadful conditions in the field and bitterly cold winters that "tested the mettle of even the most strong-willed Christian service people," her son said.

Mrs. Vernarelli wrote that a "helmetful of water had to suffice for washing and toothbrushing," and recalled months of "ingrained dirt" that came from being unable to take a bath.

Her son said that after Korea, his mother "pretty much gave up on showers. She wanted baths - to soak - after all those months of washing on the run."

However, there were moments of relief from the war, such as a Christmas Day show for the troops that was staged in a rice paddy and starred Bob Hope.

Mrs. Vernarelli, who had attained the rank of major while in Korea, was subsequently assigned to Germany and ended her Army nursing career at Fort Sill, Okla., in 1960.

While she was at Fort Sill, she met Lt. Col. Arnold Vernarelli, a career military officer and highly decorated World War II and Korean War veteran. They married in 1960. After his retirement in 1961, the couple moved to Baltimore and later settled in Hamilton, where they raised their family.

Her husband, who was supervisor of housekeeping for 14 years at the old Baltimore City Hospitals, died in 1995.

From 1966 to 1971, Mrs. Vernarelli worked as a school nurse at Baltimore County's Glenmount Elementary School.

Mrs. Vernarelli enjoyed traveling and visited 43 states, Canada, Mexico and Europe.

She was a longtime member of Parkville Baptist Church, 3309 Taylor Ave., where a memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. tomorrow.

"She was very faithfully here every Sunday morning for years until her health began to fail. And she was always concerned about and prayed for those who were ill," said the church's pastor, the Rev. David R. Schell.

Also surviving are another son, Stephen M. Vernarelli of Sedona, Ariz.; a daughter, Susan C. DePasquale of Holiday, Fla.; and seven grandchildren.

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