Mary Burgess
Mary Burgess, 89, poses at her home in Sheridan. She served in the American Red Cross for three years during World War II and has hundreds of letters from servicemen she met. (Dan Cepeda/Star-Tribune)

Age: 89

Service: American Red Cross volunteer for 28 months, serving all over England and the continent.

Family: Married for 49 years before her husband, Henry Burgess, died in 1995. Has six children, eight grandchildren, two step-grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

Her words: "We were the morale builders."

On the Web: Watch more of Burgess' story and see profiles of more veterans at

Next week's profile: The shrapnel that ripped through Joe Goryl's arm almost cost the Buffalo man the use of his fingers.

She danced through the war, she says, smiling no matter what her partners confided and even when all she wanted to do was cry.

"We were the morale builders," said Mary Burgess, an American Red Cross volunteer from 1942 to 1945. Her job was to be a comfort. To smile, to sing. To help servicemen forget the war, if only for a moment.

She volunteered at 22, though the Red Cross didn't typically take women under 25. They wanted women with life experience, who could stand up to the strains that were coming. But after seven interviews in a couple of days, Mary convinced officials she could do it.

Her first assignment was at the Rainbow Corner near London's Piccadilly Circus, a Red Cross Club open to U.S. servicemen 24 hours a day. They had grand dances every few nights to the music of great bands, including Glenn Miller's. Halfway through the night, they'd shut out the lights, Mary said. "We'd just dance through the dark."

She wrote down the name and an identifying feature of any soldier with whom she visited. If she saw him again, she wanted to greet him by name.

To avoid getting too close to any unit or man, Red Cross volunteers moved every few months. Mary joined the crew of a clubmobile, a specially-equipped truck which drove all over England serving coffee and fresh-made doughnuts. There she met her good friend Francie, who she served with for many months.

Mary wrote letters, dozens of them a week, to the men she'd met along the way. Mail meant so much on the front lines. She got hundreds in return, letters she keeps in a scrapbook at home. Some of the letters arrived after the men who wrote them were already dead.

Sgt. Mario Boni was a round man, but fit. Mary met him in Penzance, England.

"Mario!" she'd call when it was time to fetch the water for the doughnuts. He'd come out singing, a strong tenor with the pomp of an opera star.

During night maneuvers, the men asked the Red Cross girls to serve the doughnuts at 2 a.m. But the hotel where Mary slept locked its doors at 10 p.m. So each night, Mario arranged for men to "collect" her, catching her as she climbed out the lobby window. They hoisted her back up when she was finished serving.

Mario was killed soon after in Saint Lo, France. Even today, Mary describes him as a special friend.

Another man, an airman in a bomber group, told her he always left something undone before going out on a mission. That way, he'd have to come back. On some days, he wouldn't make his bed. On others, he'd note that his favorite food was going to be served in the kitchen. On Thursdays, he told her, I know I have to come back to say hello to you.

Mary next manned a cinemobile, a dodge pickup with an enclosed back and a fold-out stage. She and Francie showed movies starring Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald, and, most popularly, Betty Grable, in barns not blasted in the war. Dinah Shore traveled with them for about a week. It was nice to let her do the entertaining for a while, Mary said.

About six weeks after D-Day, Mary landed on Omaha Beach, still scattered with debris and German pillboxes. The Red Cross girls camped in camouflaged tents and ducked from artillery fire in foxholes big enough for four women. They moved nine times in five weeks, always just a day or two behind the front lines.

Through all of it, she listened whenever a soldier needed to talk.

One day, she and Francie went to show a movie at "Graves Registration," a tent filled with canvas body bags. American soldiers were busy digging graves for their dead, while German prisoners dug graves for theirs.

Mary asked to see the list of the dead GIs. But she recognized so many of the names that they took the list away. She left smiling, even as her heart was breaking.

From November 1994 to April 1945, Mary and Francie served at a Precombat Exhaustion Center in Valkenburg, Holland. It offered a couple days reprieve to men fighting in nearby skirmishes. In January, a fierce battle erupted and Mary watched the tracer bullets and listened to the mortars. Though it hadn't yet been named, it was the start of the Battle of the Bulge.

Men who came off the front lines arrived at the center shaken and jumpy. They bathed, ate three meals a day in a proper dining room and slept in real beds. They had to relinquish their guns, though, and many slept under their cots.

For entertainment, the men got a dance one night and a movie the next. Then, they went back to their units.

Mary talked to the men, heard about their friends lost or wounded. Sometime she just sat with them, in silence, for as long as they needed.

More and more, she stole away to her room to cry alone.

Though Francie and Mary had tried to recruit some Dutch girls to come to the dances, the American girls were the ones the men wanted. Francie danced the jitterbug; Mary danced the waltzes, tangos and fox-trots.

Mary remembers dancing with one lieutenant, tears streaming down his cheeks. I never thought I'd dance with an American girl again, he said when the music finished.

In those months, Mary and Francie wore out the soles of their shoes. They took them to a cobbler who said they should come back for them in one week. When they returned, their shoes were sitting outside the shop, unfixed. A neighbor said the cobbler had been taken away as a Nazi sympathizer.

So Mary and Francie stuffed the holes with cardboard and newspaper and kept dancing, smiles upon their faces.

They served with honor

Some have said that 1,000 World War II veterans die each day in United States. History dies with each one.

"They served with honor" is a special project by the Star-Tribune to collect stories from Wyoming World War II veterans. We will feature one story each week, from Veterans Day to Veterans Day.



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