Linda Bennett Pennell Interviews Sarah Barrett of Casablanca: Appointment at Dawn
Today we welcome Sarah Barrett, U.S Army R.N. to Getting into Character. Her story, Casablanca: Appointment at Dawn, is set during the weeks leading up to the First Allied conference in 1943. Montgomery is chasing Rommel out of Egypt across North Africa toward Tunisia. The Allies have just taken Morocco and are racing to help trap the Afrika Korps before it can escape capture through one of the few remaining open ports. Casablanca is rife with spies, double agents, and intrigue. Deployed with the 8th Evacuation Hospital, Sarah drops into this brew on her first real wartime assignment.
LBP: Before we get to your time in Casablanca, why don’t you tell us how a lovely young woman wound up there in the first place.
SB: Well, I guess you could say it all started with my desire to make a difference in the world. This was not such an easy thing for a girl to do in 1940, the year I graduated high school, but from the time I was a little girl, I knew I wanted to help people. Nursing seemed like the best way to do that.
LBP: You’ve mentioned high school. So, where did you grow up and did it have any influence on your becoming a nurse?
SB: I grew up in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley on a farm. My early years were spent riding Daddy’s plow mule when he wasn’t working or playing with the dogs and cats. I love anything with four legs. Besides the animals, playing in the creek and gathering wild flowers from the fields and hills were always lots of fun.
After daddy bought his first truck, my brothers and I rode in the bed when the family went somewhere. My mother was horrified, but we loved it. We must have looked like Ma and Pa Kettle rolling into the churchyard each first Sunday of the month. Our social life centered around the little Methodist church that served our far-flung community. It was an idyllic childhood in many ways.
We weren’t exactly destitute, but the Great Depression and the agricultural depression that preceded it made life hard. We had more than some people and not as much as others. I grew up wearing my cousins’ hand-me-downs and clothes that Mama and I made from flour sacks. Despite not having much money, we were rich in the important things and we didn’t know we were poor. We loved each other and we were never hungry or cold. It was a simple, yet very happy childhood. And yes, I think the environment in which I grew up had a great influence on who I am today.
My family and the community believed in helping those who could not help themselves. They believed they had a duty to each other and to their fellow man. I absorbed that philosophy and it made me want to do something more with my life.
LBP: So how did you go from farm girl to army nurse?
SB: I won a scholarship to the University of Virginia School of Nursing. When America entered the war, the army needed nurses and I decided to help with the war effort in the best way I knew how, so when I graduated, I joined the Nurse Corps.
LBP: And you were shipped out to Casablanca right away?
SB: No, I spent a little time in England for additional training such as dealing with battlefield conditions, intensive triage – things like that.
LBP: When you finally arrived in Casablanca was it what you expected?
SB: Not at all. We had trained for battlefield conditions, but our unit, the 8th Evac Hospital, wound up being housed in the former Italian Consulate. It was a lovely old building with ornate plaster and gardens. We did receive wounded shipped to us by train from where fighting was taking place, but we didn’t feel like we were in a war zone. Casablanca was only bombed once while I was stationed there.
LBP: Since this was Casablanca, did the nightlife live up to the movie? Was there a Rick’s Cafe Americain?
SB: While I never met Rick, there were certainly enough nightlife and tourist attractions to suit anyone. It amazed me how quickly the city reopened after the Nazis left and the Allies moved in. I had heard that Casablanca bent with the prevailing winds and it turned out to be very true. The local dance bands learned American jazz incredibly quickly. It wasn’t as good as what we heard at home, but it was fun all the same. The restaurant and bar at the Anfa Hotel were my favorites. There was plenty to do in Casablanca, if you had the time and money. In fact, my mother sent me a Life magazine from February ’43 and asked if the cover photo was how I was spending the war!
LBP: Thank you for showing us that cover. I see that young people continued normal activities as much as possible even during wartime. I know that there is a special guy in your life. In fact, he was interviewed here several weeks ago. Did you and Captain Heinz take a carriage ride like the one on the cover?
SB: It looks like fun, doesn’t it? I’m afraid Kurt and I never had time for anything so romantic. We were too focused on catching spies, double agents, and a murderer. There was so much at stake in the weeks leading up to the Casablanca Conference. The perimeter around the Anfa Hotel, where the conference took place, was on near lock down, but with good reason considering who attended.
LBP: I understand that you and Captain Heinz were rather instrumental to the conference’s success. Can you share with us what your role was?
SB: I’m afraid not. All of that is still classified.
LBP: Did you at least get to meet President Roosevelt or Prime Minster Churchill?
SB: Mr. Churchill, but only once.
LBP: Can you tell us about that?
SB: No, that’s classified, too.
LBP: Is there anything that you can tell us about your and Captain Heinz’s adventures?
SB: Classified – all of it.
LBP: Well, I guess we’ll just have to read about it in Casablanca: Appointment at Dawn. Thank you for joining us today!
“I’m Heinz. What do you want?”
“Oh. It’s you.”
“From the restaurant on New Year’s Eve.”
Kurt was silent for a moment, then it came back to
him. “I remember. Sarah, right? You’re the girl who refused to dance
A red flush crawled from her throat onto the apples
of her cheeks. “Yes. I’m sorry if I was rude.”
“I’ve been cut dead before. I got over it.”
The girl’s eyes glittered. “I’m sure you did. Are
you going to keep me standing here on the doorstep for
everyone to see?”
“Why? I’m not expecting company. Would it be a
“It certainly might if the people who tore my
apartment apart followed me here.”
Kurt looked into her eyes with complete attention
for the first time since opening the door. Whatever had
happened to this girl, she looked terrified and angry.
Not a particularly good combination for the covert
activities he and Phelps were up to.
Kurt made a quick decision. He stepped back and
pulled the door wide while raising his voice. “You
better come inside and tell me why you think what
happened to your apartment has anything to do with
When they stepped into the living area, Phelps had
disappeared. Kurt gestured toward the sofa and the girl
Propping himself on the sofa’s arm, he looked
down into her frightened eyes.
“Now tell me how I can help you, Miss, uh…”
“Barrett, Sarah. US Army. RN.”
“Well, Nurse Barrett, what can I do for you?”
The girl stuck her hand in her coat pocket and
whipped out a scrap of paper that she waved in his face.
“By telling me what’s on this paper and why it’s so
important that somebody took a knife to my furniture.”
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