Collecting memories of service

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SHERIDAN — When she was a little girl, she would sit on her daddy’s lap and he would tell her about the war to end all wars.

“He said there would be no more wars after that. Of course, you can’t count them now…”

Her voice fades to a whisper. Her gaze drops, but it is obvious she is not looking down so much as back. Way back. Ninety-three years back over a life in which her father, her mother, her brother, her husband and herself served in America’s wars.

Sheridan resident Mary Burgess has black-and-white photographs to help her remember. They show a 22-year-old woman eager to serve like so many of her loved ones had served.

She has letters received from servicemen she met while serving coffee and donuts with the American Red Cross — sometimes just behind the front line — in Europe during World War II. Some came to her after men were killed, words left to live on paper long after spoken words, last words, died with the soldier.

She has her husband’s trunk, engraved with a fading “Henry A. Burgess.” She received it last year and treasures the relics within, relics from a family of veterans of war.

• World War I Navy uniform

Her father, Joseph Ralston Hayden, joined the navy during World War I because that’s what men did then, Burgess said. He was a gunner on a Navy ship in France. His uniform has permanent dirt stains — and gold buttons.

“Mother and daddy were together when he wore that suit, and she said she had impressions from those buttons all the way down her front,” Burgess said.

Going to war means embraces are a little tighter and a little longer.

• Sailor hat

Her father went to the Philippines during World War II. He was on Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s staff because he and his wife and children had lived in the Philippines for four years after World War I and he knew the culture.

Her dad returned safely from his station in the Philippines after World War II.

He died two weeks later of a cerebral hemorrhage when Burgess was 25 years old.

“I can only compensate it by saying he told me everything about life that I should really know,” Burgess said. “Laugh at yourself. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Whatever you take or do or anything, stay in control of it. Don’t ever let it control you. Good things.”

• American Red Cross uniform

From 1942 to 1945, Burgess wore her own uniform as a volunteer for the American Red Cross — first in England, then all over the European continent. She worked in a “clubmobile,” a specially equipped truck in which Red Cross girls made donuts and coffee and serve soldiers a few moments of comfort through a smile, a warm conversation, a dance.

About six weeks after D-Day, Burgess and the other American Red Cross girls landed on Omaha Beach in France. They camouflaged their clubmobile and stayed in tents with foxholes dug feet from the door, moving nine times in five weeks to stay just behind the front line.

• Khaki spats

When Burgess looks at her spats — khaki leggings that snapped over her brown leather boots, slick-soled and creased with years of wear — she smiles a smile full of the remembrance of adventure.

“When we were on the continent, we hardly ever got out of our trousers and into a skirt,” Burgess said.

The spats protected her trousers and boots, but when she and the other girls really had to wash their clothes while on the move, they filled a bucket with kerosene and dipped their clothes in to make them “clean.”

• Nurse’s uniform

“Daddy, brother Ralston and I were in the service, so mother joined the volunteer Health Aides at Walter Reed in D.C.,” Burgess said.

She wore her white shirt and pale denim jumper while taking temperatures and changing bedpans.

“She was so proud to be in uniform like her husband, son and daughter,” Burgess said.

• Pieces of parachutes

Mary Burgess and Henry Burgess were dating before World War II began. She went to Europe with the American Red Cross, and he went to the Pacific front. They didn’t see each other for more than three years while the war raged on. They were married shortly after their return.

Henry Burgess was a paratrooper. He was stationed in Okinawa, ready to invade Japan, when the atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

“I think that bomb is the only reason he stayed alive because he didn’t have to attack Japan,” Burgess said.

The trunk contains several pieces of parachute, some camouflage, some white. Burgess said she often contemplated making a dress out of all those silky pieces of cloth – but she never did.

• An American flag

Folded 13 times into the shape of a tri-cornered hat, the wool flag was always flown by the Hayden family — and later the Burgess family — on the proper days.

It would fly today.

• A white uniform with pins on the pocket

There is a lieutenant pin, a France flag pin and a pin in the shape of a red cross fastened to the pocket of a white uniform jacket in the trunk.

The pins belong to her family, Burgess said. The jacket does not. It is too big, and she doesn’t know to whom it does belong — or did belong.

But, that jacket is part of her trunk of relics, and Burgess treasures it, too. Sometimes war means carrying a fellow soldier off the battlefield, and it always means carrying them back home in the heart.

By |November 11th, 2013|

About the Author:

Hannah Sheely is the digital content editor at The Sheridan Press. She has lived in Colorado and Montana but loves her sunny home state of Wyoming best. She joined The Press staff in February 2013.