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Eula Mae Awbrey Sforza, who escaped poverty, became a WWII nurse, has died at 99

Eula Mae Awbrey Sforza was a country girl who escaped poverty by borrowing $225 and signing up for nursing school. She was an Army nurse in WWII. | Provided photo

Nearly 75 years after the dainty, green glass was found in a dark European wood, Eula Sforza’s daughters still treasure it as a relic of war, courage and love.

Their father, soldier Arthur Sforza, was on the German-Belgian border during World War II when he spotted a green glimmer in the Hurtgen Forest. He fished the four-and-a-half-inch-high glass out of the mud and presented it to Eula Mae Awbrey, the Army nurse he was courting.

He was a city kid, and she was a country girl. Arthur was a New Yorker, from the Bronx, son of an Italian immigrant father and an Italian-American mom. Eula Mae was from the hills of Kentucky. Her father never could make a go of it on their rented farm, and one day he just disappeared. She escaped poverty by borrowing $225 and signing up for nursing school.

They met in the Mojave Desert, where she was doing Army training amid “rattlesnakes and scorpions,” she later wrote in a memoir.

Eula Mae Awbrey met Art Sforza (the couple on the right) in the Army, and he tracked and visited her throughout the United States and Europe. | Provided photo
Eula Mae Awbrey met Art Sforza (the couple on the right) in the Army, and he tracked and visited her throughout the United States and Europe. | Provided photo

After that, no matter where she was, he found her. He tracked her through the United States, England and Germany, visiting when he could.

“When my dad had leave,” said their daughter Jeanne Stevens, ”he’d hunt her down.”

When he spotted the aperitif glass in the Hurtgen Forest, “He said he was walking a muddy path thinking of me, looked down and saw that green glass. He put it in his pocket. . . . and realized that he would see me and was happy that he had a small gift to bring me,” Mrs. Sforza wrote in her book, “A Nurse Remembers.”

Army nurse Eula Awbrey was a first lieutenant when she married another first lieutenant, Art Sforza. Here they are on their wedding day in Belgium, a month after WWII ended in Europe. | Provided photo
Army nurse Eula Awbrey was a first lieutenant when she married another first lieutenant, Art Sforza. Here they are on their wedding day in Belgium, a month after WWII ended in Europe. | Provided photo

A month after the war ended in Europe, the two first lieutenants were married in Verviers, Belgium. She found a clean, white parachute at a nearby airfield and had it sewn into a wedding dress. Their wedding cake was made of powdered milk and powdered eggs.

Through all of their moves, from Germany to Belgium to New York City, then Towson, Maryland, and Elmhurst, their green talisman accompanied them. “That little green glass has remained one of my dearest possessions and remains in a place of honor among my very best crystal to this day,” she wrote.

Eula Sforza, with husband Art, had her wedding dress made from a parachute. | Provided photo
Eula Sforza, with husband Art, had her wedding dress made from a parachute. | Provided photo

Mrs. Sforza died March 30 at 99 at The Grove of St. Charles. Arthur Sforza, who rose to be a vice president at Boyer Insurance, died in 1975. Her daughters encouraged her to date again, but she never wanted to.

“I’m a one-man woman,” she’d say. And she always wore her wedding ring, said their daughter Christine Kefer.

Eula and Art Sforza were married for 30 years, until his death in 1975. She never dated after that, saying, “I’m a one-man woman.” | Provided photo
Eula and Art Sforza were married for 30 years, until his death in 1975. She never dated after that, saying, “I’m a one-man woman.” | Provided photo

Just before he died, she completed a bachelor’s degree in psychology, at 55, at Elmhurst College. In 1983, she earned a master’s in community mental health from Northern Illinois University. She worked as a nurse at Immaculate Conception Grade School in Elmhurst and at Elmhurst Hospital. In 1985, she retired from the Hines VA Hospital.

Eula Awbrey at her high school graduation in Kentucky. | Provided photo
Eula Awbrey at her high school graduation in Kentucky. | Provided photo

Her story started on a family farm in Kentucky. There was no electricity or running water, and she didn’t have shoes. Her sisters were ill for weeks from typhoid. When her dog Blackie died from an infected tongue, she buried him behind the barn. “I grieved for him,” she said in her book. “He was my only playmate.”

After winning a spelling bee in Cloverport, Kentucky, she had a chance to go to a bigger competition but no way to get there. “Somebody lent her a horse, and she rode bareback” to get to the county bee, said her daughter Mary Anne Spartos.

Mrs. Sforza became a chauffeur for a doctor, driving her to house calls at night. The doctor encouraged her to become a student nurse at St. Mary’s Hospital in Evansville, Indiana. After the war began, she volunteered for the Army Nurse Corps.

Nurse Eula Awbrey (second from top) training with the Army Nurse Corps. | Provided photo
Nurse Eula Awbrey (second from top) training with the Army Nurse Corps. | Provided photo

In Camp Bowie, Texas, she pitched tents, dug latrines and marched for miles. Next came training in the desert.

“There was nothing in sight but a small frame building and sand–in fact miles of sand. A small sign on this building read: Freda, California,” she said in her book. At one point, “Our task was to crawl on our belly through the mines, being careful not to detonate any of them. One did not dare stand up because of the machine gun fire which could cut you down. The gunner was firing real bullets!”

Eula Awbrey was a first lieutenant when she married another first lieutenant, Art Sforza. | Provided photo
Eula Awbrey was a first lieutenant when she married another first lieutenant, Art Sforza. | Provided photo

She was among the first nurses to arrive on the beaches of Normandy after D-Day. Everywhere, “We saw dead soldiers and abandoned equipment,” she wrote.

At a makeshift morgue, “I looked down and saw a hand that looked like Art’s. I died a thousand deaths until I read the dog tags. It was not Art.”

Shells exploded as she rode by ambulance to Cherbourg to help at a newly liberated French military hospital. “We had to wait for the engineers to inspect the place, checking for bombs. They found them behind pictures, in flower pots, and in other places of concealment. The Germans had retreated just hours before . . . leaving their wounded behind,” she wrote. “The operating rooms were another horrible sight . . . [amputated] arms and legs even filled the trash cans.”

Eula Sforza, a longtime resident of Elmhurst, Wheaton and St. Charles, lived to be 99. | Provided photo
Eula Sforza, a longtime resident of Elmhurst, Wheaton and St. Charles, lived to be 99. | Provided photo

Mrs. Sforza didn’t ruminate about the war. But for the rest of her life, her daughters said, she hated thunder and other loud noises. And she never forgot the things she’d seen.

She recalled being on high alert in Valognes, France, in 1944, digging foxholes because of so-called “Bed Check Charlies.” German air fighters played cat-and-mouse at night with a nearby train that would try to hide by stopping and going silent. The nurses were ready to “just roll from our cots into the foxholes until the strafing or bombing was over.”

Mrs. Sforza remembered a 3-year-old German girl disemboweled by picking up a grenade. “Such is the cruelty of war,” she said. “The very innocent were victims.”

Another of her patients, a French noblewoman, had survived Nazi interrogation. “They submerged her in tubs of water, and she was fed only a thin grass soup . . . because she had helped U.S. airmen who had been shot down over France,” she said. “The lady was so emaciated. . . . Her limbs were drawn up in the fetal position. It took us several days and frequent small feedings to get her to the point where she could tolerate food.”

Days after liberation, the nurses “were given permission to visit Paris, which we did in full battle dress — helmet, green fatigues, and high shoes and leggings,” she wrote. “Our welcome was of course not quite as demonstrative as that given to the GIs, but almost. People offered to buy us drinks and show us beautiful Paris.”

“She was the kind of person who took whatever came her way,” Jeanne Stevens said. “I think it was typical of her generation. They didn’t complain and felt somebody else had it worse.”

Eula Sforza’s granddaughter Eleni (with groom Michael O’Donovan) wore her wedding gown, made from a WWII parachute, at her own wedding in 2004. | Provided photo
Eula Sforza’s granddaughter Eleni (with groom Michael O’Donovan) wore her wedding gown, made from a WWII parachute, at her own wedding in 2004. | Provided photo

Mrs. Sforza was delighted when her heirloom wedding dress was worn by her granddaughter Eleni when she got married in 2004.

In her mid-70s, “She bought herself a bright red Mustang convertible, and she loved that car,” said her daughter Catherine Nichols. “She did not consult any of us before she bought that car.”

Eula Sforza with daughters Jeanne Stevens, Catherine Nichols, Christine Kefer and Mary Anne Spartos. | Provided photo
Eula Sforza with daughters Jeanne Stevens, Catherine Nichols, Christine Kefer and Mary Anne Spartos. | Provided photo

Her work on a master’s degree in public health resulted in her writing 52 public service “puppet plays.” To spread messages about good nutrition and the importance of sleep, she commissioned the creation of puppets like “Grandma Staywell.” Her plays were performed in schools and on a suburban public radio station, Catherine Nichols said.

She also served as leader of a troop of Girl Scouts with disabilities. “Wherever there was a Girl Scout trip,” Jeanne Stevens said, “she always made sure her girls could go, too.”

Mrs. Sforza was “a motherly mother,” according to Mary Anne Spartos.

She also helped found the National Association of Catholic Nurses.

In addition to her four daughters, she is survived by 13 grandchildren and 24 great-grandchildren. Services have been held. She was laid to rest next to her husband in the veterans’ section of Queen of Heaven Cemetery in Hillside.

Eula Sforza’s family treasures the little green goblet her future husband Art presented to her as a gift after he found it in the mud of the Hurtgen Forest during World War II. | Provided photo
Eula Sforza’s family treasures the little green goblet her future husband Art presented to her as a gift after he found it in the mud of the Hurtgen Forest during World War II. | Provided photo