By Rita Hoefnagels, USAG Benelux Public AffairsSeptember 8, 2017
SCHINNEN, The Netherlands -- William Burd Jr. never really knew his father. However, a special trip to Margraten, the Netherlands, led him to discovering more about his father's sacrifice in World War II.
In 1944, one of the largest airborne operations from WWII started. Operation Market Garden, which occurred from September 17 to 25, was an Allied military operation in the Netherlands. Its aim was to establish the northern end of a pincer ready to advance deeper into Germany.
Allied forces would advance north from Belgium, 60 miles (or 97 kilometers) through the Netherlands, across the Rhine and consolidate with the airborne troops north of Arnhem on the Dutch-German border ready to close the pincer. Although the operation opened with a lot of success, the end was different.
Taking part in the operation were forces from the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Poland and Dutch resistance, comprising of 41,628 airborne troops, one armored division, two infantry divisions and one armored brigade.
The operation started Sunday. Among the airborne troops from the 101st Airborne Division, known as the Screaming Eagles, which comprised of about 650 American Soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, who jumped and landed around the Castle Heeswijk near Veghel, the Netherlands. Their objective was to secure bridges in the area to allow a rapid advance by the armored ground units.
Some of the parachutists landed in the trees causing one fatality and 12 wounded. They quickly regrouped but found out that they landed at the wrong castle and therefore had to hurry to the actual drop zone. Not able to take the wounded, it was decided to leave them at the Castle Heeswijk in the company of a small group Soldiers commanded by Army Capt. William G. Burd.
Born in Pennsylvania, Capt. Burd went to Officer Candidate School in 1941. Upon graduation, he joined the faculty and taught transportation and company administration. Like all paratroopers, he could not sit behind a desk when war was declared. His request for transfer to the paratroopers was twice denied. On the third time, he went directly to the Adjutant General in Washington, D.C., and was accepted.
His first combat jump during the landings in Normandy, France, ended with a sprained ankle, when he tried not to land on a cow. Collecting a few more men, he tried to get to an aid station but was captured by the Germans. Capt. Burd wrote in tongue-in-cheek later that all the German he knew was "Hande hoch," but that didn't help him much then.
Luckily, he was liberated by the Americans. His last letter to his wife was on September 1, telling her he had trench mouth and ulcers. However, this did not keep him from jumping on September 17 with the 1st Battalion near the castle at Heeswijk.
Capt. Burd stayed behind at the castle with the wounded and to collect all the bundles with supplies while the rest of the battalion would start with their mission of capturing two bridges across the canal near Veghel.
After the battalion left, the Germans approached the castle and Capt. Burd was shot and killed in the skirmish with the overwhelming German force. A year later, his helmet, with a bullet hole in the back, was found. The helmet ended up in the museum at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. His last resting place was the American War Cemetery in Margraten, the Netherlands.
Capt. Burd had a son which he saw for the last time when William Burd Jr. was 18 months old. Burd Jr. graduated from Annapolis and served as a fighter pilot in the Vietnam War. He did not have to go to war as the only surviving son of a deceased veteran, but his father left him with a sense of duty of the highest order.
Burd Jr. visited the grave of his father in 1971 for the first time. In 2017, he returned to the site with his wife and daughter to see the grave and visit the Castle Heeswijk for the first time. It was his daughter's idea to come to the Netherlands and see the castle where his father was killed. It was very emotional for the 74-year-old Burd Jr., who only knew part of what happened to his father.
Burd also met Carli Nelissen and his family who adopted his father's grave. Every grave in the cemetery has been adopted by a Dutch family who stay in touch with the family of the deceased and bring flowers to the grave on special occasions such as the deceased's birthday or on special holidays like Memorial Day.
For Nelissen, it was special to meet the family from the man whose grave he has adopted. Together with Burd, Jr., he laid flowers at the cemetery. Nelissen has a Bed & Breakfast at Angoville-au-Plain, France, which is located in the middle of the Airborne Landings in Normandy. This is where the 501st PIR jumped on D-Day in 1944. Since Capt. Burd was also part of that regiment, it was very possible the place he landed there too.
Burd Jr. reflected on the trip. "By being here and now knowing the whole story, my history is complete," he said.