“Paratroopers never truly die-they just slip away.” – Spoken by Chaplain Micheal Krog of the 82nd Airborne’s 1st Brigade at Megellas’ graveside service at Arlington National Cemetery.
Lt. Col. James Megellas, who passed away in his sleep on April 2, 2020, at the age of 103, was interred with full military funeral honors at Arlington National Cemetery on September 2, 2022. He was one of the most decorated officers to come out of the 82nd Airborne Division, earning the Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Stars, two Bronze Stars, and two Purple Hearts, according to a Military Officer’s Association of America (MOAA) tribute.
According to The Washington Post, multiple high-ranking officers were there to pay their last respects. Among these was Maj. Gen. Christopher C. LaNeve, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division. Gen. James C. McConville, Army Chief of Staff, and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Megellas was a son of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, born on March 11, 1917, just weeks before the United States declared war on Germany during World War I. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, he was a senior at Ripon College, recalls the Fond du Lac Reporter. Megellas, who went by the nickname of “Maggie,” was part of the school’s Reserve Officer’s Training Corps (ROTC) program and, upon graduation in May of ’42, received his commission as a second lieutenant in the US Army Signal Corps.
Quickly tiring of that and wanting to be a paratrooper, he put in for a branch transfer and was soon assigned to H Company, 3rd Batallion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division. Following his training, he found himself in Italy, where he was wounded in action. His first combat jump came during Operation Market Garden in the Netherlands. In those days, according to WaPo, the “Devils in Baggy Pants,” as the 504th was known to their enemies, often jumped at heights of only 500 feet while carrying at least 80 pounds of kit and under fire.
It was in Holland that Megellas, on his own, attacked a German machine gun nest earning him the Distinguished Service Cross. Maggie also fought during the Battle of the Bulge on January 28, as explained by 82nd Infantry Division spokesman Capt. Darren Cinatl led his platoon to Herresbach, Belgium, where he faced a German Panther tank aiming at him. With no regard for his safety, Megellas ran, under fire, toward the tank, during which time he lobbed a grenade at it, halting it in its tracks. Once stopped, he climbed aboard and lobbed another grenade inside, killing the crew.
The story of how Maggie was recommended for the Medal of Honor. Video courtesy of YouTube and American Veterans Center
As if that wasn’t enough mayhem for one day, he later led an assault on the German forces occupying the town. According to Twin Cities Pioneer Press, paperwork was submitted recommending Megellas for the Medal of Honor for his actions that day. Unfortunately, the paperwork failed to mention details about how he singlehandedly took out the tank, and he was awarded the Silver Star instead of our nation’s highest military honor. In 2006 a Congressman from his home state of Wisconsin introduced the Lt. Col. James Megellas Medal of Honor Bill in the House of Representatives, but Maggie was once again passed over.
In 2003, Lt. Col. Megellas authored the book, All the Way to Berlin. It’s his account of the war years. HistoryNet asked him why he wanted to start writing a book at the age of 80. In his typical straight-talking fashion, he replied,
“I wanted to emphasize three things. First, war is the most brutal form of human endeavor, and those who glamorize it dishonor the memories of those who died fighting. War is not something you embellish. Second, most histories emphasize higher-level leadership, but I wanted to get down to the battlefield’s cutting edge, the people who actually led the fighting. Third, my story was unique. I joined a rifle company—H Company, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment—as a platoon leader in the mountains of Italy, and when the war ended, I was still a platoon leader in H Company 504. They offered to promote me a few times because they thought I’d used up my lucky numbers. But people like me were like the Marines: volunteers who wanted to come to grips with the enemy. We were less than 10 percent of the army. But I wanted to kill Germans.”
I was about to do the stereotypical military writer thing and go on about how this brave man was a member of the greatest generation when I came across the colonel’s opinion about that term. He hated it and shared a little wisdom when explaining why. He said, regarding the term,
“It’s insulting to everyone, including the men who fought and died in World War II. My generation was not the Greatest Generation. The Greatest Generation has not yet been born. That will be the generation that learns how to solve problems without war. Maybe that’s idealistic. But it’s what I believe.”
They don’t make men like James Megellas anymore. He’ll be sadly missed and fondly remembered.
May he rest in peace.