Born in 1919 in Anderson, South Carolina, and still going strong today, Thomas Moffatt Burriss has lived what you might call a full life. During his time on Earth Burris has been a school teacher, raised four children, founded a successful building company and spent almost 15 years as a member of the South Carolina House of Representatives.
That list of accomplishments might be more than enough for any one lifetime. But, in fact, Burriss will almost certainly be remembered by posterity for something else entirely: his service with the 82nd Airborne Division during World War II. It was a service packed with incident, to say the least.
Burris was in the Third Battalion of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne from 1942 until 1945, rising to the rank of captain. His unit saw its fair share of action and more. Later, talking to the The Times and Democrat, Burriss was to describe his time in the army as “two and a half of the roughest years of my life.”
Burris’ first shot at action came in 1943, when his unit were in Morocco to prepare for the invasion of Sicily. Tragically, while Burris was in North Africa, his wife Louisa had a baby who died within minutes. Of the impending combat, Burris said, “I was determined to do what I could to defeat Hitler and return to my grieving wife.”
But the jump into Sicily in July 1943 did not go to plan. Burriss’ plane was met by intense anti-aircraft flak and consequently missed the intended drop spot. As a result, Burriss ended up some 55 miles away from his target area with just two comrades. In the event, the three of them found and teamed up with a British unit.
In October, Burriss and his comrades were able to march into Naples without opposition. They took a welcome seven-day break from operations, but the fighting didn’t end there. Burriss’ unit was then sent to fight the enemy in the mountains, a grueling task in the winter months. Next up came an amphibious landing at Anzio.
This landing was expected to be a walkover, but U.S. intelligence had somehow failed to spot large numbers of enemy troops in the area. Consequently, Burriss’ unit suffered heavy losses with the initial force of 127 men reduced to 17. Credited with saving the landing beachhead, the battalion was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation.
Burriss’ war then continued with one of the most audacious missions of World War II. Operation Market Garden was an attempt to seize strategic territory in Holland thereby threatening Germany itself. Furthermore, this campaign in 1944 was immortalized in the 1977 movie A Bridge Too Far.
In September 1944, the by-now Captain Burriss had the initial task of securing the Grave Bridge across the Meuse river, said to be the longest bridge in Europe. Along with the men of his battalion, I Company, Burriss took the north end of the bridge.
Next up were two more bridges, at Arnhem and Nijmegen. Burriss’ company was tasked with taking the latter. The Germans occupied the southern end of the bridge, so Burriss and his men took to the water to cross the 300 yards of the Waal river. However, their flimsy boats proved to be inadequate against some sustained enemy fire. As a result of the bombardment, half of the men were killed. But they pressed on and captured the northern side of the bridge.
Despite the best efforts of I Company, the Market Garden mission was a failure overall in that it did not provide a springboard for the invasion of Germany. Nazi resistance had been strong and the allies suffered some 17,000 casualties. Burriss must have wondered if his war would ever end.
After Sicily, Italy and the Netherlands, Burriss was now to see combat at the ferocious Battle of the Bulge, Hitler’s final fling to try and halt the Allied advance across Europe. The Germans launched a surprise offensive in the thick forests of the Ardennes on the borders of Belgium, France and Luxembourg.
Recalling the Battle of the Bulge in a 2011 interview with the The Times and Democrat, Burriss said that the battle was “the most deadly, destructive and damnable military encounter” of his war. “They [the Germans] had massed all their forces – some 500,000 men at that particular point.”
The situation for Burriss’ unit and the rest of the Allied armies was perilous to say the least. Thick fog meant that during the first week of the battle, the Allies could not use their air superiority to repel the Germans. Fortunately, a respite came on Christmas Eve 1944.
“At dawn on Christmas Eve, we awoke to the thrilling sound of motors high above. Our fighter-bombers had come. In minutes, we saw and heard violent explosions along the German line.” Burriss told the The Times and Democrat. “Before long, we received a radio message that the Krauts had converged on a section in the middle of our line. Suddenly, they were stranded and vulnerable.”
Burriss and his men continued to fight their way west towards Germany. “We began inching our way toward a town called Yerresburg, often through waist-deep snow. Even without opposition, our progress totaled 100 yards an hour. Men on the point, breaking a trail, had to be relieved every 30 minutes,” Burriss recalled.
In April 1945, Burriss and his men were to experience the depths of Nazi depravity when they came across the Wobbelin concentration camp. The prisoners there had recently been transferred from Auschwitz. “I had never seen human beings look so tortured and grotesque… one building was stacked three deep with unburied bodies, and other bodies were found in a ten foot wide trench,” Burriss later recalled.
After ordering the local townsfolk to bury the dead, Burriss continued his advance. Little did he know that the most extraordinary episode of his unbelievably eventful war was just around the corner. American troops had been ordered to halt some 90 miles from Berlin, but that was a little too tame for Burriss.
As a result, Burriss and two of his soldiers decided cross the Elbe river and make their way by jeep towards Berlin. And that was when the three bumped into a 15,000-strong German tank corps. Marching up to the senior Nazi officer, Burriss told him he was there to accept the German unit’s surrender.
“He went back and had a conference with his senior staff, walked back, pulled his pistol out and pointed it right at my heart. I will admit that I had a flutter inside my body at that moment, but he turned it around and had the pistol pointed toward himself,” Burriss told Fox News. Incredibly, Burriss and his two men had taken 15,000 Germans prisoner.