Former Army nurse recounts her adventures during wartime

(Lancaster Online) Not many women can say they married a soldier in an Italian village in the middle of a war while wearing a silk wedding gown made from a parachute.

Elizabethtown native Sara Harting can, and she reflected on her experiences before this Memorial Day weekend.

It was spring, 1942, and Harting, then Sara Hertlzer, was 21 years old. She’d been working as a nurse for several months when she heard that some of her classmates from Jefferson Hospital School of Nursing were joining the U.S. Army as nurses to serve overseas.

“It was looking forward to a new adventure, with new experiences,” the 93-year-old Harting said. “I didn’t really think about what I was doing. I just wanted to do something different.”

Harting and her friends were assigned to the 38th General Hospital. They soon found themselves crossing the Atlantic Ocean aboard the RMS Aquitania, a Cunard White Star liner converted to wartime duty. (The Aquitania’s sister ship, The Lusitania, was sunk by a German submarine in World War I.)

The Aquitania dropped anchor off Egypt in October 1942, but the hospital the nurses were assigned to was not yet ready, forcing them to remain on the ship until November.

“Think of it,” Harting said. “Eating British food for a whole month.”

Once ashore, the 38th was sent to Camp Huckstep, a 1,000-bed hospital at Heliopolis, 10 miles south of Cairo.

The hospital had few patients with battle injuries because the war had moved further west.

German Gen. Erwin Rommel “had begun to retreat, so we didn’t get battle casualties from the front,” she said. “We got mostly just medical patients.”

Wanting to be nearer the action, Harting transferred to the 4th Field Hospital, a forerunner of the modern-day Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, or M*A*S*H, near Tripoli in Libya.

“I thought it’d be more exciting, being closer to the front,” Harting recalled. “And it was, because we were always moving.”

Here the nurses treated sick and wounded Americans and British — and even some Germans.

“They were prisoners of war and were under guard,” she said. “We hardly spoke to them. We just came in and did what needed to be done for them.”

During off-duty hours, the Elizabethtown girl played tourist, visiting the pyramids and other exotic sites. Some things she chose not to do.

“I never rode a camel,” she said. “I didn’t want to.”

As the Afrika Korps fell back, the Allies advanced, as did the 4th Field Hospital, finally reaching Bizerte in Tunisia.

By now, the North African war was over and the fighting had moved to Sicily and Italy. In late 1943, Harting’s unit boarded an LST — a Landing Ship Tank or, derisively, Large Slow Target — bound for Naples. As the nurses rode through the city on jeeps, Harting said, the Italian women “were so happy to see us.”

At Naples, the nurses were told to avoid a local fairground because retreating Germans were believed to have planted booby traps there.

“They warned us about the bombs, but we were nosy and went anyway to just look around,” she said.

Wounded men flowed from the front. Nurses tended them until they could be flown to better-equipped hospitals.

“Some of the men were in pretty bad shape,” Harting recalled. “But as a whole, they did very well. They never complained. They were great patients.”

Harting’s unit followed British and Australian forces on the Adriatic side of the Italian boot, much to everyone’s delight.

“We’d go to their camps and have a dance or two,” Harting remembered. “The Australians were fun. They were outgoing and really friendly. They British weren’t as open.”

She might have danced with Brits and Aussies, but she fell in love with a Texas G.I., Capt. Augustine Kroesen.

When they married at San Severo, Harting wore a silk wedding gown made from a parachute by her friends.

“Everybody put a stitch or two in it,” she said.

Harting’s war soon ended because she became pregnant and returned to Elizabethtown.

Kroesen died in 1958, but Harting’s wedding gown is still lovingly folded up in a box in her West Donegal Township home.

Looking back, Harting said that what she liked most about those times was the people she met, however fleetingly.

“I enjoyed meeting all the people in the service, and I got to be friends with them,” she said. “But then we had to move out, or they had to move, and that was that.”