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'A Bridge Too Far'

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'A Bridge Too Far'

In 1944, T. Moffatt Burriss of Columbia, then of the 82nd Airborne Division, participated in Operation Market Garden, the largest paratroop drop in World War II. Burriss, 89, is returning to Holland this month to jump out of an airplane once again ­— this

You have seen Columbia's T. Moffatt Burriss before. But he looked like Robert Redford.

On Sept. 17, 1944, Burriss, a battle-hardened 24-year-old in the 82nd Airborne Division, jumped into Holland in the largest airborne invasion in the history of warfare -- World War II's Operation Market-Garden.

So prominent was Burriss' role in the operation, which liberated parts of Holland but ultimately failed to reach Germany, that Redford played him in the movie "A Bridge Too Far."

Burriss will return to Holland this week. On Friday, four days shy of his 90th birthday, he will jump once again to commemorate the operation's 65th anniversary.

Burriss, who also jumped at 75 for the 50th anniversary commemoration, chuckled when asked if he was nervous.

"No. Not at all. If I was nervous, I wouldn't do it," he said. "It'll be fun. A renewed experience for me."

Burriss will be jumping with a group of Dutch World War II re-enactors called Pathfinder Holland. The one disappointment, Burriss said, is the group would only let him jump tandem -- strapped to a female jumper.

"I would rather go solo," he growled.

Friday's jump is part of a three-day commemoration in Nijmegen, Holland. Burriss and a 28-person entourage will attend, including three sons and a daughter and three of their spouses, seven grandchildren, eight friends, an ETV film crew and a newspaper reporter.

During the festivities, he and other veterans of the operation will be honored by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands.

"It's great," Burriss said. "I don't recall getting the royal treatment before."

Burriss is scheduled to speak after the award presentation.

"For the queen to come here (to Nijmegen) to celebrate this is pretty remarkable," said Anton van Ensbergen, one of the Pathfinders and an organizer of the event. "But Moffatt can only talk for 2 1/2 minutes. I worry about that.

"I've heard him talk before."

A real nightmare

Burriss was born in Anderson, went to Clemson and was a high school teacher in Orangeburg when the war broke out.

He joined the airborne because "they were the best, and I wanted to fight with the best."

By the time Burriss reached Holland in 1944, he and his veteran 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment had been scarred in battle.

They had parachuted into Sicily, hit the beaches in three landings in Italy and fought in the mountains around Rome and Naples.

But when the rest of the 82nd Airborne Division jumped into France on D-Day, June 6, 1944, Burriss' 504th Regiment stayed in England.

"We were all beat up and in reserve," he said. "I had mixed emotions (about missing D-Day). That was the big event. But on the other hand, I was sitting safe in England, and there was some consolation in that."

When the Americans, British and other allies made rapid advances after breaking out from the D-Day beachhead in Normandy, British Gen. Bernard Montgomery came up with a bold, risky plan.

He would use the airborne reserve -- nearly 35,000 American, British and Polish troops delivered by parachute and gliders -- to take bridges over several rivers spanning the length of Holland. He called that phase of the operation "Market."

After capturing the bridges, the troops were to clear the road for 65 miles and allow British tanks to roll from Belgium through Holland into Germany, ending the war. He called that phase "Garden."

The U.S. 101st Airborne Division was to take bridges at Eindhoven.

Burriss' 82nd was to land and seize bridges at Grave and Nijmegen.

At first, Burriss' phase of the operation went smoothly. His 504th regiment landed near the village of Overasselt on Sept. 17 and took the bridge at Grave.

"It was a picnic," Burriss said. "We never had a practice mission go that smooth."

But the rest of the division had trouble securing the bridge over the Waal at Nijmegen. And the British and Polish paratroopers to the north in Arnhem were in trouble and would be wiped out if tanks couldn't cross the river.

Cornelius Ryan, author of the books "The Longest Day" and "A Bridge Too Far," wrote that one trooper, when told of the plan, thought, "Somebody has come up with a real nightmare."

"I'll blow your head off"

On Sept. 19, 1944, Burriss stood on the banks of the Waal at Nijmegen and stared at death.

His mission was to lead his men across the river, charge over a half-mile-wide open field through machine gun fire and artillery, and take a dike lined with veteran German SS troops.

"It was obviously a suicide mission," Burriss said.

He and 441 other paratroopers in 26 boats, many paddling with their rifle butts because of a shortage of oars, were in the first wave. Only 11 boats made it.

"It was like being in a hail storm," Burriss said. "The bullets were kicking up spouts in the water all around us."

A shell decapitated the pilot of Burriss' boat, splattering Burriss with brains and blood. Burriss was wounded by shrapnel from the same shell.

When he reached the other bank, Burriss, covered with blood from the pilot and his own wounds, vomited, then yelled, "OK, let's go. Follow me. Head to the dike and don't stop for anything."

That's when the artillery started to rain down.

By the time Burriss reached the dike and cleared it, he had only 17 men left.

Burriss led his men and the survivors of the second assault wave in taking the north end of the bridge.

But when the tanks of the British Irish Guards crossed the bridge, the commander halted because a German artillery installation was up ahead.

"I said, 'Come on. We'll go with you and get that gun,' but he wouldn't move," Burriss said.

Burriss cocked his Thompson machine gun and put it to the British officer's head.

"I said, 'I just sacrificed my company in the face of dozens of guns, and you won't go because of one gun? You (expletive), if you don't get this (expletive) tank moving, I'll blow your head off.

"He ducked into the hatch where I couldn't get to him and sat there for the rest of the night -- brewing tea."

The tanks never advanced.

"A lot of good friends"

Because the British tanks did not roll, 7,000 of the 10,000 British and Polish paratroopers in Arnhem at the "bridge too far" were taken prisoner.

For his efforts, Burriss received a Purple Heart and the Silver Star. Also, Burriss' battalion was awarded the Dutch Lanyard -- the only foreign unit ever to receive that honor.

Shortly after Market-Garden, the Germans counterattacked through the Ardennes in the Battle of the Bulge and the chance to end the war evaporated.

Burriss, who went on to become a member of the S.C. General Assembly for 16 years, has been back to Nijmegen several times through the year. But he always goes backs with mixed emotions.

"I lost a lot of good men," he said.

The Dutch have not forgotten that sacrifice. The members of Pathfinder Holland are honored to have Burriss jump with them.

"How could we say no to a guy like Moffatt Burriss?" van Ensbergen said. "Without those guys, we'd be talking German."

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