Farewell to US 82nd AB James ‘Maggie’ Megellas

“It is with the heaviest of hearts that we bid farewell to an All American icon” the 82nd Airborn Division posted on Facebook Friday.
“It is with the heaviest of hearts that we bid farewell to an All American icon” the 82nd Airborn Division posted on Facebook Friday.

James ‘Maggie’ Megellas, one of the US Army’s most decorated officers, who served in the 82nd Airborne Division, died peacefully at home a few weeks after celebrating his 103rd birthday.

James ‘Maggie’ Megellas’ passing was announced by the Army who said that, “paratroopers never die, they just slip away.”

Megellas was a senior at college when the Japanese Imperial forces attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and just six months later he arrived in Italy in 1942, a commissioned officer.

He saw action at Anzio during the invasion and was twice seriously wounded in the Italian mountains.

82nd Airborne Division
82nd Airborne Division

In September 1944 he parachuted into the Netherlands where the 82nd Airborne were a key part of Operation Market Garden that unlocked the river crossing immortalised in the 1977 movie “A Bridge Too Far”.

Megellas and his fellow paratroopers crossed the Waal in rowboats while under close fire but still succeeded in forcing back the much larger German forces.

Megellas’ role in the Hollywood recreation was taken by actor John Ratzenberger.

After the crossings at Nijmegen were secured First Lieutenant Megellas took his platoon out on combat patrols. During one such action on September 30th, he advanced on an enemy outpost alone, killing two guards and the crew of a machine gun position.

The patrol then advanced together and successfully destroyed a key German defense post.

The platoon withdrew under heavy mortar fire while the Lieutenant carried a wounded man on his back. At the same time, he fired off his Thompson machine gun with his free hand.

“We never expected to get out alive,” Megellas explained his actions in a 1977 interview, “My best friend and I promised each other that if one of us lived, we’d visit the other’s mother at the end of the war.”

The following January, while the 82nd were advancing through Belgium in what was to become known as the Battle of the Bulge, during a fire fight Megellas single-handedly took out a German Mark V tank with two grenades.

He threw the first one directly at the tank then leapt atop the vehicle and dropped another into the crew compartment, on a day that saw no casualties in his platoon, but a hundred losses on the German side.

As the war in Europe closed in on Berlin Megellas and the 82nd Airborne liberated the Waffen SS concentration camp at Wöbbelin, which had been built for prisoners evacuated from other camps.

When the Allies arrived, they found many dead bodies, piled high in buildings amid the sick and the dying. “When we talked with the survivors, we realized the greater cause we were fighting for,” Megellas told an interviewer in 2019.

In August 1945 the 82nd Airborne Division took on occupation duty in the city and were the honour guard for General Patton.

For his heroic exploits during the war Megellas was awarded two Bronze Stars, two Silver Stars, two Purple Hearts and the Distinguished Service Cross.

Credit: 82nd Airborne Division
Credit: 82nd Airborne Division

He was put forward for a Medal of Honor following the tank attack in Belgium, but this never came through despite support from a number of sides due to details omitted from the initial recommendation.

However, in 1945 Megellas became the first American to be awarded the Military Order of Wilhelm Orange Lanyard from the Dutch Minister of War in Berlin and was further honoured by the Dutch government in 2010.

His hometown of Fond du Lac in Wisconsin recognized the heroics of its son by renaming a public park, post office and veterans’ building after the old soldier who last visited in 2019 to celebrate his 102nd birthday.

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His war stories were set down in his autobiography, “All the Way to Berlin: A Paratrooper at War in Europe,’ and turned into a PBS movie, ‘Maggie’s War: A True Story of Courage, Leadership and Valor in World War II.”

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE