Around July 4, a veteran remembers fighting for freedom

Barbara Hootman

T. Moffatt Burriss, a World War II veteran and gifted storyteller, heard the command "strike and hold" so many times in the Army that when it came time to write down his wartime experiences, it was a natural title for his book.

Even now, the 95-year-old South Carolinian, author and frequent visitor to Montreat, tells incredible stories about his service in the 504th Parachute Infantry, 82nd Airborne Division. He'll share some of them as guest speaker for the Montreat Adult Summer Club at 2:30 p.m. July 8 in Gaither Fellowship Hall in Montreat. To be screened will be the documentary "Man and Moment: T. Moffatt Burriss and the Crossing." Everyone is invited.

Burriss can easily transport his listeners to Wöbbelin concentration camp as he shoots the lock off a door to free skeleton-like prisoners. He easily conjures up the time he convinced a three-star German general to surrender his entire corps — some 15,000 men, tanks, trucks and supplies — to him and two other guys in a Jeep.

"The concentration camp in Germany was the worst thing I saw during the entire war," Burriss said recently. "We released thousands of prisoners, and they were just about starved to death. Many were almost human skeletons and too weak to walk and had to have immediate medical care.

"My children asked me to tell them some of the stories about what happened during World War II, and then they asked me to write the stories for their children. So I decided to write 'Strike and Hold,'" he said.

It was easy for Burriss to get into World War II.

"I had a reserve commission in the Army, and I volunteered for duty in the paratroopers," he said. "I was 24 years old and had just started teaching. I never thought I would be killed. Some guys had premonitions of their deaths, but not me."

Burriss had a threefold mission as a soldier — to defeat the enemy, preserve the peace and freedom of the U.S., and get home to his loved ones.

"No one shirked his duty, and no one backed down," he said. "Many brave men gave their lives. I can still see their faces and hear their voices when I visit their graves. Our casualty rate was tremendous, and the hardships we faced were unending."

Burriss is a highly decorated platoon leader and company commander in the legendary 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment. He served in the Italian campaign, as well as in Operation Market Garden and the Battle of the Bulge. He served two and a half years in the European Theater — in the Ruhr Pocket, the Rhine crossing, the advance to Berlin, the liberation of Holland, the assault on Nijimegen and the invasion of Germany.

He is the recipient of the Silver Star, three Bronze Stars, a Purple Heart, three Presidential unit citations with two Oak Leaf Clusters and Combat "V," the French Fourragere, the Belgian Fourragere and the Dutch Lanyard. He retired as a major.

The actor Robert Redford played a composite of Burriss and two others soldiers in the movie, "A Bridge Too Far." The movie was based in part on Burriss' actions during World War II. The 1977 film tells Hollywood's version of the failed attempt to capture several bridges in Operation Market Garden, the largest airborne operations in history.

"When we crossed the Waal River, I was 24 years old. But I was 44 years old when we reached the other side," he said.

The 504th Parachute Infantry became known as an unstoppable force.

"We fought battles against overwhelming odds. We had a job to do, and we did it. Even after sustaining huge casualties," Burriss said. "The unit maintained its fighting spirit. We got the name of 'Devils in Baggy Pants' by the Germans we fought. It was at Nijmegen, during Operation Market Garden that my unit was fighting against the most tremendous odds. We were attempting to secure the bridge over the Waal River. The number of lives lost was staggering. We crossed the river in daylight, paddling boats carrying 17 men per boat with five paddles."

He became a paratrooper because it looked like fun and the pay was $100 extra a month (his high school teaching job paid $85 a month). When crossing the Waal River in Holland, more 50 percent of his men were killed in 15 minutes. Burriss was wounded during the crossing but didn't stop for treatment.

"Two days after being wounded, my arm became infected and I asked a medic to remove the lead from my shoulder and ribs," Burriss said. "I was gone during the night, back to my men. It wasn't unusual for men to go AWOL from hospitals to get back to their buddies. We were a close-knit organization. We were family.

"Our missions were difficult, but it was always clear we were fighting for our freedom. I never want people to forget what caused World War II and to remember the sacrifices made to win the war. Circumstances demanded an all-out effort by the soldiers and the American people, and they gave it."

Burriss says his unit had more combat days than any other parachute unit in World War II, and accomplished every mission ever assigned. "We never backed up," he said.

Recently Burriss and his son, Francis, went to Washington, D.C., to meet the king and queen of the Netherlands. They thanked the veterans for giving them their freedom back.

"There were just three World War II veterans present to meet the royalty," Burriss said. "I plan to return to Holland again this September for the yearly commemoration of Operation Market Garden. I've promised my family that I won't jump again."

In September 1994, Burriss, almost 75 years old, parachuted into Holland during a commemorative jump. He jumped again when he was 90.

"We've fought two great wars," he said. "We fought for our independence from Britain, as we remember every July 4th, and we fought World War II to preserve our freedom. We must never forget what it cost us in lives."

After World War II, Burriss returned to South Carolina and became a building contractor. He served for 15 years in the South Carolina House of Representatives. For nine of those years, he was Republican Minority Leader. Although he continues to live in South Carolina, he is a regular visitor to his four children in Montreat.

Burriss published "Strike and Hold," his memoir, in 2000. It contains not only his memories of World War II but also those of others in the same battles. The book is a portrait of the war through the eyes of American GIs.

T. Moffatt Burriss remembers WWII

Who: T. Moffatt Burriss

When: 2:30 p.m. July 8

Where: Gaither Fellowship Hall, Montreat