In honor of Veterans Day, we've put together several stories about our local World War II veterans that will be broadcast throughout the day. Here's News Director Leslie Stratmoen with her report on Mary Hayden Burgess of Sheridan.
She had sailed around the world twice by the time she was 15 because her father was a vice governor of the Philippines. So when Mary Hayden heard a woman talking about her exciting life in the Red Cross seven years later, and she was a 22-year-old working in an office in Washington, D.C., she walked down to the Red Cross office and signed up.
They weren't gong to take her at first, she said, because she was too young, then decided she looked mature enough, so let her in. And, yes, it was an adventure, that took her to England, Scotland and Holland, but it came at a cost. Some experiences she endured were too difficult to talk about, even now, as we sat down to visit over a cup of tea.
She's known mostly to people in Sheridan by her married name, Burgess, as an artist who raised six children on a ranch outside of town. She moved to Sheridan after the war because that's where her husband, Henry, was born and raised. They met before the war, and married after. He was a paratrooper in the 11th Airborne, and at one point they went for four years without seeing each other.
Her experience in the Red Cross, started off safe enough, one might say, because she was sent to London to be a greeter at the Rainbow Corner, which was a service club for enlisted men. Her job, she was told, was to keep smiling and talking to the soldiers.
And though it sounds like a fun time, with bands like the Glen Miller Orchestra coming through, she knew some of these men would not live to tell. After three months there, she was put on Clubmobile duty which meant traveling every three months to a different station, serving donuts and coffee to servicemen. They made the dough to be fed into a machine, and didn't use gloves when mixing. So, she shared a little-known beauty tip – her fingernails actually grew long, because of the exposure to the yeast.
She worked as a Clubmobiler for about 15 months, she said, which really gave her the opportunity to see the countryside, traveling by train. Her duty could be dangerous, at times, she said, because London was being bombed and one, she said, dropped about four blocks from where the Red Cross girls were staying and the windows imploded.
She was never hurt in the raids, but the war took its physical and emotional toll on her as she moved closer to the front line fighting. There was a time, she said, when she was stationed with a group bivouacking in Normandy apple orchards, then in Belgian forests and in Holland just a day or two behind the front lines. Memories from that time were too painful to share.
She was just tired and wanted to go home, like the song says. So she shared a moment with me as she remembered how she and a friend would sing the song.
She served for three years, then came home by ship, on the Queen Elizabeth, with about 3,000 soldiers, who were all wounded. It was a war, she said, that left no-one involved unscathed. Even now, 60-plus years later, some memories are just too traumatic to re-live by putting them in words.