FORT JACKSON, S.C. -- The 160 chaplains and chaplain candidates in the Chaplain Basic Officer Leadership Course sat in awe when 91-year-old Moffatt Burris spoke to them recently at the Army Chaplain Center and School.
“I invited Mr. Burris as a motivational speaker, since (by luck of the draw) my platoon was matched with the 82nd Airborne Division for training purposes,” said Chaplain (Maj.) Henry Soussan, an instructor for the officer basic course.
“It was my intent to instill pride in the heritage of the 82nd in my platoon members . ... He was the guest speaker at the Days of Remembrance and I knew that his story would move the students,”
Burris was a 24-year-old Army captain in 1945 when his unit, the 82nd Division, had a very close call outside Berlin near the end of World War II.
“Mr. Burris told of the hard campaigns in Italy, France, Holland and Germany and quietly spoke of his shock and disbelief when liberating a German concentration camp. One of his most astonishing stories occurred when (he) neared Berlin in April 1945. He was given orders to stay put. But the young captain decided to jump in a jeep with two other men to see just what lay ahead of his division. He stumbled into the German army,” Soussan said.
“We drove about 40 miles, about half way to Berlin, and ran head-to-head into a German armored corps " just hundreds of tanks, half tracks and trucks " and probably 15,000 or so troops. I needed a plan, and quick,” Burris told the officers. “I got out and went to the lead vehicle which had a German captain in it. He spoke English and I said, ‘I’m here to accept your surrender.’ He looks back and says, ‘Are you crazy? Three men and a jeep?’ I said, ‘I have a whole army of paratroopers and tanks right behind me and the Russians right behind you. Do you want to surrender to us or to them?’ He said, ‘Wait a minute.’ He called a conference of about three or four other German officers. He came back and walked up to me and pulled his pistol out. I thought, ‘Oh no, not here in the last few days of the war.’ Then he turned it around and handed it to me.”
Burris and his two-man army had somehow managed to secure the surrender of an entire German Panzer corps.
Capt. Lance Sellon, a chaplain candidate and class executive officer, said while he is familiar with war heroes portrayed in movies, he had never actually met one before Burris.
“It was very inspiring,” he said. “I’ve never met a person with such experiences. You hear about people like that, see movies, but to actually meet them is inspiring. These guys from World War II, some of them served three years without a break. It draws a correlation with our troops today. They (the WWII veterans) were called to do difficult things and it serves to remind me that I, too, may be called on to do difficult things.”
“I have a deep respect for people who fight for our country,” said Chaplain (1st Lt.) Karyn Berger, a rabbi. “That’s why I serve. It was awesome. If (Burris) hadn’t done what he did, I probably wouldn’t be here. It’s personal.”
Burris also shared with the class the effect his battalion chaplain had on him and his fellow troops.
Burris said his former chaplain volunteered to jump into combat with his troops and accompanied the paratroopers during the famous Waal River crossing in Holland during Operation Market Garden. Burris’ role in that crossing was made famous by Robert Redford in the movie “A Bridge Too Far.”
“Our chaplain was amazing,” Burris said. “He was everywhere. He was fearless.”