Dame celebrates 89th birthday

Published 9:59 pm Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Dame Mary, celebrating her 89th birthday at Bunny’s Restaurant Wednesday, poses for photographs with sailors from the USS Bataan, a multipurpose amphibious assault ship home-ported in Norfolk.

Not many folks ever have a slew of sailors turn out to celebrate their birthday, but a grand old dame was accorded the rare honor at Bunny’s Restaurant Wednesday.

The surprise party was organized by individuals connected to a group of World War II prison camp survivors who, in a possibly half-century-old tradition, meet regularly at the Wilroy Road eatery for breakfast.

Turning 89, the birthday girl was Dame Mary Sigillo Barraco, a lady perhaps better known as simply Dame Mary.

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Herself a prison camp survivor and staunch supporter of America’s freedoms, she holds a special place in the hearts of all those who attend the Bunny’s breakfasts.

“I did not know anything about it,” Dame Mary confessed. “This is the biggest surprise of my life.

“These people here have done so much, and to think that I’m being honored at 89 years of age, I just thank God for my blessings.”

Dame Mary, now of Virginia Beach, moved to Belgium with her family from Lawrence, Mass., in 1931 at age 7, driven abroad by the Great Depression, she said.

She was 17 when World War II broke out and she promptly joined the resistance.

“I had to transmit information to and from all the different organizations in the underground,” Dame Mary said.

She was eventually captured in France with her fiancé. He was executed; she was sentenced to 16 months in a prison camp.

Released from the camp at the end of 1943, Dame Mary rejoined the resistance in January 1944, this time as a liaison officer delivering messages to and from the battlefront.

When the terrible war was finally over, she received what she described as Belgium’s version of the Medal of Honor, before returning to the United States in 1946.

The king of Belgium knighted her in 2004.

“That’s just a very short version,” Dame Mary said after telling her history at Bunny’s Wednesday.

She married in 1949 and was widowed in 1978. She now devotes herself to public speaking on issues of patriotism and the price of freedom.

“I feel like there is an apathy in the United States, and people just don’t appreciate what they have,” she said.

“For that reason, I have to speak to our young people and let them know the true stories of what happened.”

Sailors from the USS Bataan, a multipurpose amphibious assault ship home-ported in Norfolk, attend the Bunny’s meetings to learn from the veterans, Commander Master Chief Kevin Goodrich said.

“CPOs (chief petty officers) are charged with keeping the traditions and history alive and passing it on to our sailors,” he said.

“To be out here with this group once a month is a fantastic transfusion of history,” and to learn from Dame Mary’s sacrifices is an “extra special treat for us.”