FORT JACKSON, S.C. -- T. Moffatt Burriss tells incredible war stories. He can tell you what it was like to shoot the lock off a door to liberate prisoners confined in a concentration camp, and how he convinced a three-star German general to surrender his entire corps to two guys in a jeep. He can also give you a first-person account of what it was like to be among one of the first Americans to enter Berlin following the surrender of Germany.
For nearly an hour, Burriss, a 92-year-old World War II veteran, held commanders, sergeants major and staff with the Army Training Center spellbound as he recounted his combat experiences as a company commander in the 82nd Airborne Division He was the guest speaker for the quarterly Profession of Arms luncheon, hosted by Maj. Gen. James Milano Feb. 14, at the Officers' Club.
"Our mission was threefold," he said. "Defeat the enemy, preserve the peace and freedom of our nation and get back home to our loved ones. No one shirked his duty and no one backed down. Many gave their lives. Our casualty rate was tremendous and the hardships we faced were unending. We did our part in winning the war and preserving the peace and freedom throughout the world."
Burris, who hails from Chapin, described extraordinary tales of heroism in many pivotal battles like Anzio Beach, Sicily, Battle of the Bulge and Nijmegen while serving overseas with the 3rd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment from May 1943 to September 1945. He shared details of battles fought against overwhelming odds. Even while sustaining a tremendous number of casualties, his assault troops maintained their fighting spirit.
"We were told as paratroopers that we were the best, trained to be the best, and we felt that we were the best," Burris said. "There was nothing we couldn't do."
The 504th became such an unstoppable force that the unit earned the nickname "Devils in Baggy Pants" by the Germans encountering them in battle.
It was at Nijmegen, during Operation Market-Garden, Burris' unit again fought against tremendous odds in a heroic attempt to secure the bridge over the Waal River. This battle was depicted in a 1974 book and a few years later became a movie, both entitled, "A Bridge Too Far." The loss of American lives there was tremendous.
Lt. Col. Mike McTigue, 120th AG Reception commander, said he walked away with a better appreciation of what our WW II veterans endured and was impressed by Burriss' lead-by example attitude.
"What resonated most with me as a commander was the simple message that good leaders need to lead from the front and should never expect anything from their Soldiers that they would not do themselves," he said. "As a result of his exceptional leadership, his men and others who served near him were able to overcome the insurmountable odds they faced and accomplish the missions they were given -- even under the difficult conditions they experienced throughout the war," McTigue said.
In 2000, Burriss published his memoirs, entitled "Strike and Hold."
In the prologue he describes his need to "come to terms with war by talking about it and reliving it with men who've shared similar experiences."
After years of participating in reunions and corresponding with former Army buddies he made the journey back to the battle sites that stirred so many memories. While visiting Nijmegen, Holland, in 1993, Burriss was invited by local leaders to return the following year for the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Holland for a reenactment of the crossing of the Waal River.
On Sept. 19, 1994, Burriss again made the airborne jump into Holland just shy of his 75th birthday. He returned 15 years later to make the jump at 90. The fact that the people of Holland had not forgotten the Americans who liberated their country made a huge impression. He discovered that fresh flowers adorn the numerous monuments dedicated to the American Soldiers who died there.
Lt. Col. Anthony Gianopulos, commander, 1st Battalion, 61st Infantry Regiment, said he appreciates Burris and every one of our vets who made America a better place in this world. He found Burriss' message a simple one, "continue providing our Army with disciplined Soldiers who are competent and confident in the Warrior Tasks and Battle Drills, mentally and emotionally tough, and live the Warrior Ethos," he said. "I think we do a great job here at Fort Jackson and we need to continue our efforts."