Roy Exum: ‘Moxie’ For July 4th

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

By late April of 1945, the Allies were days away from liberating the Netherlands (Holland) and the 82nd Airborne was stalled at the Rhine. The American troops were eager to advance into Germany, end the stinking war, and return home. Moffatt Burriss, he of old Southern lineage from South Carolina, was an Army captain and ordered his troops to hold.

General Eisenhower wanted to let the Russians move ahead but Capt. Burriss and the 82nd were on a roll. The scent of victory was thick in the air and while direct orders came down the line that no Americans were to cross the river, Capt. Burriss in a slow southern drawl allowed something akin to, “ … dammed if that’s so….”

Understand, the 82nd was antsy … they had fought in Sicily and Italy, won “The Battle of the Bulge” and just liberated what we know of today as a commonly used synonym, Holland. So Burriss whistled up a lieutenant and a sergeant and went for a little sight-see. (For the record, there are 12 provinces in The Netherlands, just two are North Holland and South Holland. Since this is where Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague, thus “Holland” morphed.)

OK, back in the spring of ’45 our three southern soldiers light out across the river (Capt. Burriss was just 24 at the time), and were flying as fast as the old Willys scratch when – Holy Mother of God!! They ran right smack into what looked to be the entire German army coming from the opposite direction. Seriously, it was Germany’s entire Panzer Corps, lethal and elite. On one side of the road were 15,000 battle-seasoned German soldiers and an estimated 100 Tiger tanks.

On the other side were three American in a dirty Jeep – the sergeant at the wheel, the captain in the front seat and a lieutenant who was suddenly trying to looked decided small in the back.
And now comes your July 4th lesson in Yankee Doodle Dandy ‘moxie.’

I have no idea what then enfolded but this comes close:  Capt. Burriss, waved as the Jeep approached and with his Thompson submachine gun strapped casually over his shoulder, walked up to the lead car of the column. “Afternoon, men … I was sent out to pick up the surrender.” As the Germans looked on incredulous, one German captain who happened to speak English exclaimed, “What! Three guys in Jeep?!? What madness is this?”

Then the conversation went sort of’ like this: Burriss shook his head and shrugged, “Look, I am just following orders like ya’ll are. You know as well as I do this war is over. To tell you the truth, I don’t care if you surrender right now but it’s gonna’ happen. Half the Russian army is right behind you and, unless ordered are pulled, the sky will be full of U.S. Paratroopers tonight.

“Now here’s how I see it … you can either surrender to the United States,” Burriss paused just so, “or to those Russians, but I got to tell you this, the Russian army is out of everything. I don’t know how they are gonna’ get back home. But we have hot food and behave a far sight better.

“Now go get your General – I forget who I am supposed to ask for -- and get him up here so we can take him across the river to do the paperwork. If you ain’t ready, get ready to get in one heckuva fight tonight. What’s it gonna’ be? I’ll take any message back you want… I just want to follow my orders and go back home …

Please, picture this. It is late April. The grass is green, flowers are blooming and suddenly there appeared about 10 high-ranking Germans. They talk a long ten minutes and then whatever they call a three-star general in German walked right up to T. Moffatt Burriss of Columbia., S.C., and pointed his Luger pistol directly into the American captain’s face. “I had a little flutter in my body right about then,” Burriss would remember for the next 70-odd years.

But then the German flicked his wrist, holding the Luger by the barrel, and extended the open handle to the American with the moxie. “You people,” Burriss shouted to the other Germans as the crest-fallen General climbed in the Jeep’s backseat, “you abandon all of your weapons and begin walking towards the river.

I gotta’ tell you this – if I was writing the screen play here’s where I would have Burriss turn to the lieutenant and say, “Joe Ray, you wanna’ get in the lead car and show the Germans the way, or go back with us to make sure can feed this folks?’ Trust, Joe Ray’s disbelief, combined with his terror, would have left him speechless. Lordy, I’ll bet every time he tried to spit for the next month he blew feathers!

When the Jeep got to the American outpost Burriss told the German to stay in the Jeep while he went to alert the American officers. They were equally shocked. One of the command staff was quick to point: “You were directly and distinctly forbidden to enter German soil,” Burris’s commander growled.

And here comes the greatest moxie of all: “Sir, you want me to take him back?”

The United States Army then dismantled what was feared as the German Panzer Corps.

* * *

There is another story about T. Moffatt Burriss in Germany. As the 82nd Airborne approached the Wobbelin Concentration Camp to liberate it, you could smell the stench for miles before the troops arrived. Burriss shot the locks of the gate. “The Holocaust was the most horrible exhibit I saw in the war,” he told a gathering some years ago.

Burriss, who was discharged as a Major, headed a huge construction firm in South Carolina, and enjoyed a dozen of his retirement years as a state legislator, said there was Jew in his outfit when they freed the Wobbelin camp.

“He had escaped through Austria, got to the United States were he enlisted with the 82nd, and was trying to put his like back together by fighting the Germans. At the camp, he went from one group of survivors after another, asking if any knew his family.

“All of them would shake their heads, saying nothing. Finally he asked a Catholic priest, who looked at him with eyes that had long ago lost their mourn, and said, quietly, “Son, I don’t know how to tell you but just a few days’ ago …. “And Burriss was unable to finish the story.

Regaining his composure somewhat, the old warrior said, “If you have ever seen the horror on the face of a young man, it was on his as he sank to the ground and started to cry, saying, If only I could have gotten here a few days earlier …”

“I sank to the ground and cried with him … We must never forget … I will never forget.”

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