In 1967, one man single-handedly established the narrative of U.S. Army airborne forces fighting in the European theater of World War II with the publication of a single book. Twenty-five years before Band of Brothers was first printed and 35 years before it was turned into an HBO mini-series, Donald R. Burgett’s Currahee!: A Screaming Eagle at Normandy (1967) described the experience of fighting the battle of Normandy as an American paratrooper—and it did so with a clarity and frankness that quickly made it a bestseller. The gritty, no-nonsense writing style of Currahee! brought the Battle of Normandy alive in a way that official histories never have—and it did this from the worm’s-eye view of a 19-year-old rifleman.
Mass-market paperback distribution of the book guaranteed that an entire generation of young Americans would idolize and romanticize the mighty 101st Airborne Division and its rendezvous with destiny in northern France during the summer of 1944. While other authors have taken on the subject of the airborne, they have done so either from the perspective of the commanding heights of officer leadership or else they approached the subject broadly without managing to capture the intensity of individual combat. In contrast, Currahee! brought the battle of Normandy to life in a profoundly personal and evocative way.
Just as he had with his experiences in Normandy, Burgett documented his combat in the Netherlands during Operation MARKET GARDEN in a book that was published in 1999—The Road to Arnhem: A Screaming Eagle in Holland. In this book, Burgett once again captured the rawness and ferocity of front-line infantry combat in the European theater using a memoir format that swiftly achieved popularity rivaling Currahee! As if he had not been through enough already, some of the heaviest fighting Burgett experienced during the war followed soon after his company—A Company/506th Parachute Infantry—departed Holland.
In mid-December 1944, the 101st Airborne was sent to protect a strategically important crossroads town at the start of the Battle of the Bulge. The town was Bastogne in southern Belgium and it was destined to become one of the most legendary battles in U.S. history. During the course of a weeklong siege, four reinforced German fighting divisions—numbering more than 100,000 men—encircled a force of just over 10,000 Americans (from various units) and began tightening the noose. Despite the enemy’s overwhelming numerical superiority, despite bitter cold temperatures and limited supplies, the men inside Bastogne’s defensive perimeter held their ground. Don Burgett was there and his book Seven Roads to Hell: A Screaming Eagle at Bastogne (also published in 1999) recounted what he went through during the Battle of the Bulge.
His fourth book, Beyond the Rhine: A Screaming Eagle in Germany (2001), detailed the closing months of his service during World War II. Burgett’s personal journey through the war in Europe had taken him from Normandy all the way to the heart of the Nazi empire at Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest. He fought his way through four major campaigns, he was wounded multiple times and yet he had survived it all. He had joined the U.S. Army on his 18th birthday in April 1943 and when he received his honorable discharge on Dec. 31, 1945, the combat veteran was still not old enough to buy a beer. He returned home to Detroit in January 1946.
In 2011, Burgett attended the 140th NRA Annual Meetings and Exhibits in Pittsburgh to participate in two Special Sessions. During the appearance, he shared stories from his four books, posed for photos with admirers and signed autographs. For those who were there, it was a memorable experience. Don Burgett said goodbye to this world on Thursday, March 23, 2017. He was 92 years old. Since he was a friend of American Rifleman, it only seemed right to say goodbye to him here and take a moment to remember his service to the nation. Although his family now must struggle with his loss, we only hope that their grief is consoled by the knowledge that Don Burgett leaves behind a legacy. He gave us someone to look up to and someone to be proud of. We are glad to have known him.