There is a defining moment in the ETV documentary on World War II veteran T. Moffatt Burriss when the almost 90-year-old Burriss comes face to face with his old British antagonist, Capt. Lord Peter Carrington.
The two had met more than six decades earlier in September 1944 on the bridge at Nijmegen in the Netherlands. Burriss and his comrades in the 82nd Airborne Division had made a harrowing crossing of the Waal River, enduring hellacious gunfire from German soldiers and losing many men.
The Allies had planned to take all the bridges in the Netherlands under a plan called Operation Market Garden. It was supposed to open a way to rescue British paratroopers pinned down at Arnhem and breaking through to Germany to end the war. But the bridge at Arnhem proved, in the words of one British lieutenant-general, “a bridge too far.”
When they met again so many years after the war, Carrington, who went on to serve as secretary-general of NATO between 1984 and 1988, greeted Burriss with these words, “Oh, you’re the chap that called me a yellow-livered coward,” adding, “You didn’t really expect me to obey an order from a foreign commander.”
“He remembered me,” Burriss said with a knowing laugh. “I guess we kind of forgave each other a little bit.”
But Burriss, a retired Columbia businessman and former state legislator, gives no ground on his opinion of what should have taken place on Holland’s “hell’s highway.”
“Arnhem wasn’t a bridge too far as depicted in the book and movie,” Burriss said. “There was a general who was not willing to go far enough.” Because the mission failed, the Allies were not able to end the war by Christmas, as they had hoped.
That quintessential American spirit is conveyed repeatedly in “Man and Moment: T. Moffatt Burriss and the Crossing” which airs Monday as part of the South Carolinians in World War II project, a partnership of The State newspaper, ETV and the ETV Endowment. The AT&T Foundation funded the project.
It traces Burriss’ life from his days as an Orangeburg schoolteacher and reservist, portraying him as he listened with his friends on a Sunday morning to the radio news that a place called Pearl Harbor had been bombed.
“All of us looked at each other and said, ‘Pearl Harbor? Where is Pearl Harbor?’” he recalled. One friend thought it was in the Philippines, which immediately upset Burriss’ date and future wife Louisa Hay. Her brother had just arrived in the Philippines.
“We tried to console her and tell her everything is going to be all right. But we knew it wasn’t. We knew it wasn’t going to be all right,” he recalled. “Then it dawned on me that I have a reserve commission. I will probably be in the service. Then the next day, of course, Roosevelt’s announcement that we were at war.”
As an officer, Burriss pushed his men to be in top shape. That training paid off, as they endured savage fighting in North Africa, in Sicily and on the beaches of Anzio in Italy.
But it is the airborne assault in the Netherlands — and what might have been — that have captured Burriss’ imagination and soul all these years. After thousands of American, British and Polish troops parachuted into Holland and fanned out to capture the bridges, Burriss explains in gruesome detail how 250 men crossed the Waal River in flimsy, canvas-sided boats with limited oars on what would become a virtual suicide mission.
“Men were crumbling in the boats and falling overboard,” Burriss recalled.
Some men used the butts of their rifles to maneuver, all the while watching as men were picked off by the German artillery and the river flowed red with blood.
“I watched their boats being shot out of the water, some of them being overturned, people being shot out of their boats,” recounted North Carolina veteran Roy Hanna, who joined Burriss for the screening of the film several weeks ago.
“Thirty-six boats go across and only 11 come back,” John Aarsen, director of the 82nd Airborne Museum, said.
After that desperate river crossing, Burriss told of his confrontation with Carrington over the British reluctance to move the 11 miles toward Arnhem and aid the British paratroopers.
“I put my Tommy gun to his head and said get this blankety-blank tank moving or I’ll blow your head off,” Burriss recalled. But to Burriss’ everlasting frustration, Carrington waited on orders from his British commanders and closed the hatch to his tank.
Burriss went on to fight in the Battle of the Bulge, help free prisoners in a Nazi concentration camp and arrive in Berlin to herald the Allied victory. In 2009, just shy of his 90th birthday, Burriss returned to jump again as part of the 65th anniversary of Operation Market Garden. The film shows that moment when, surrounded by his family, Burriss displayed some of that chutzpah that defined members of the Greatest Generation.
A 1977 movie, “A Bridge Too Far,” tells the Hollywood version of the story with actor Robert Redford’s character, Major Cook, based in part on Burriss and on another World War II hero who made his home in Columbia, Julian Cook.