The Buzz

90-year-old Columbia man parachutes to relive history

NIJMEGEN, HOLLAND - Columbia's T. Moffatt Burriss - four days away from his 90th birthday - swooped down Friday onto a fallow field outside a small Dutch village much as he had 65 years ago during World War II.

Jumping tandem with a female former Dutch paratrooper, Burriss touched down firmly, fell back onto the soft earth and beamed.

"I've been waiting a long time to do that again," he said.

In September, 1944, Burriss - a company commander in the 82nd Airborne Division - had been one of more than 25,000 airborne troops, U.S., British and Polish, who landed in southeastern Holland, in Operation Market-Garden. The bold attempt to open a corridor into Germany's industrial heartland and win the war was the largest parachute drop in history.

Less than four months after D-Day, the paratroopers were to take bridges over three rivers in Holland and guard a 65-mile-long route for British armor to punch through weakened German resistance. Ultimately, the operation failed because the tanks couldn't reach the northernmost bridge at Arnhem - made infamous in the book "A Bridge too Far" and movie of the same name.

On Friday, Burriss said he flashed back to that day as he was drifting to earth.

"It brought back memories," he said after disengaging himself from well-wishers, dignitaries, a few hundred Dutch citizens, and about two dozen family and friends there to celebrate the anniversary. "But it was a little different back then. People were shooting at me."

In 1944, Burriss' 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment was to take - and hold - the middle bridge at Nijmegen. His 1944 landing was successful, and Burriss would go on to play a significant role in the amphibious crossing of the Waal River that liberated a large part of southern Holland and endeared American troops to the Dutch.

"I'm impressed," said Nijmegen mayor Thom de Graaf, who greeted Burriss after his landing. "They are still pretty tough guys. Jumping out of an airplane at 90 is pretty serious business. But what he and his colleagues did was one of the most courageous actions of World War II."

In the face of German machine gun fire and artillery, Burriss, then a captain, led one of three companies across the 1,000-yard-wide river in small canvas boats in broad daylight.

By the time they crossed a half-mile of flat land and took a dike lined with Germans, Burriss had only 17 men left. The other 128 men in his company lay dead or wounded behind him.

They then proceeded to take the north end of the bridge, opening it for British tanks.

The assault to secure the bridge was led by the late Julian Cook, then a major, who would move to Columbia in 1968. In the movie "A Bridge Too Far," Robert Redford played Cook, who would go on to receive the Distinguished Service Cross for his efforts.

Redford's character in the 1977 movie was a composite. In one scene, Redford's character held a gun to a British tank commander's head to try to get him to roll his column forward and relieve the beleaguered paratroopers in Arnhem. Burriss was the soldier who held the gun.

For his efforts, Burriss received a Purple Heart and the Silver Star.

The battalion was awarded the Dutch Lanyard - the only foreign unit ever to receive that honor.

On Sunday, Burriss will be decorated by Beatrix, the queen of Holland, in a ceremony attended by Prince Phillip of Britain and top U.S. military brass, including Gen. David Petraeus.

But many ordinary Dutch citizens turned out for this and other commemorative parachute drops across Gelderland, the province in which the operation took place. They were there to meet the hundreds of old soldiers - American, British and Polish - who came here to see the battlefield one more time.

"I was 4 years old, and I saw the first planes come in," said 69-year-old Rokus Verdoorn of Nijmegen. "Then, the sky was filled with paratroopers. I was so excited. I ran into the house and shouted, 'Momma, momma, look at all the puppets!'"

But the day was most poignant for Burriss' family and friends who will be celebrating his birthday here.

"I'm still shaking," his daughter Louisa Burriss said seconds after the jump. "But I guess I should thank heavens no one is shooting at him this time."

Burriss' tandem jump partner. Maryn van der Beek, said Burriss handled the jump like a pro.

"He wasn't nervous at all," she said. "He was really enjoying himself. And I was honored to jump with him."

As for Burriss, he is already contemplating his next jump.

"I'm 90, so maybe at 100 if I'm still around. We'll see."