Valor Friday

| April 10, 2020


1st Lieutenant James ‘Maggie’ Megellas

For today’s Valor Friday, Mason relates the incredible valor of Lieutenant Colonel James ‘Maggie’ Megellas, USA, and the swath he cut through WWII Europe. Why he was never awarded the nation’s highest award for valor in the face of the enemy remains a mystery.

Mason.

We lost another of the Greatest Generation this week with the passing of James ‘Maggie’ Megellas. He’d just celebrated his 103rd birthday though, so he had a good long run. This was more than 75 years after he’d raised holy hell on the battlefields of Europe and dared scores of Germans to kill him.

Born in 1917 in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, Megellas was halfway through his senior year at Ripon College when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Already participating in Army ROTC at the school, on his graduation in May 1942 he was commissioned into the Army as a second lieutenant.

Assigned to the Signal Corps, Lieutenant Megellas volunteered for the paratroops as he was itching to see combat and tired of the additional schooling required of the Signal Corps. The jump pay probably didn’t hurt either. In 1942 a second lieutenant’s base pay was $150/mo. Jump pay for officers was $100/mo. Paratroopers in subsequent decades would receive comparatively far less for the privilege.

Megellas was assigned to the newly redesignated 82nd Airborne Division, the first Army airborne division. He’d be assigned as a platoon leader in Company H, 3rd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR). He’d remain with this company for the rest of the war.

I can only find reference to Megellas having done one combat drop, in Operation Market Garden, which we’ll discuss later. I thus think that he was a replacement as there are numerous mentions of his first combat experiences in Italy in late summer 1943.

The 504th PIR had parachuted into Italy during Operation Husky in July 1943, with the 3rd Battalion leading the way. This was the first large-scale American parachute deployment. There had been three earlier combat drops of the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion during Operation Torch in North Africa in 1942. Those drops had consisted of 556, less than 350, and 32 men. By contrast, the Operation Husky drop on 9 July consisted of more than 3,400 men and another 2,300 on 10 July.

Fighting their way across Sicily they then participated in Operation Avalanche, the Allied invasion of Salerno, Italy. On 13 September, 1943 the 504th PIR was once again combat jumping in the early morning hours from the doors of C-47 Skytrains. Leading the way into the battle was Company H with some Army Rangers. It was here that Maggie would join the men he would lead for the rest of the war.

Megellas would first see combat near Venafro, Italy. Venafro is a small village about 45 miles north of Naples and 12 miles due east of Monte Cassino. During his first exposure to combat, Megellas was wounded severely enough to be sent to the hospital.

The 82nd Airborne Division, sans the 504th PIR, had done enough in Italy, so was sent back to Africa to regroup, refit, and replenish in anticipation for the landings at Normandy into France. The 504th, to include Lt Megellas, was held back in Italy for Operation Shingle, the invasion of Anzio.

The 504th PIR was assigned with the 3rd Infantry Division as part of “X-Ray” Force and made an amphibious landing on X-Ray Beach, Anzio on 22 January, 1944.

Already understrength, the battle weary regiment landed under minimal resistance. Unfortunately Axis forces wouldn’t cooperate for long. By January 30th, the Allied forces on the beach numbered 69,000 men and the Germans had massed 71,000 well dug in troops surrounding them.

The Allied forces finally tried to break out, but the battle hardened Germans were well prepared. All up the spine of Italy they had built a series of lines across the peninsula, forcing American, British, and Free French forces to repeatedly break down a line only to move 50 miles north and hit another line of German defenders.

For weeks there was vicious fighting as the Allies tried to break away from the beachhead and the Germans attacked trying to pry them off their toehold. It wasn’t until 23 March, 1944 that the 504th was finally removed from the front. They were relieved in part by my Grandpa’s unit, the 34th Infantry Division arrived in Anzio on 25 March (they’d come up from Salerno). During the fighting at Anzio, Maggie was again wounded.

The 504th was pulled back to replenish their ranks. Being only two months from the Invasion of Normandy in June 1944 the regiment was held back. Lacking sufficient replacements, the 504th remained in England while the rest of the 82nd dropped into France in the wee hours of June 6, 1944. About 50 men from the 504th had come forward to answer the call for volunteers to serve on D-Day as pathfinders.

For the length of the summer 1944 the 504th went through exercises and was called up for missions into France, Belgium, and The Netherlands. All missions were cancelled at the last moment, so when on 15 September 1944 the regiment was slated to jump 57 miles behind enemy lines into Grave, Netherlands and seize the longest bridge over the Maas River the men didn’t think it would happen. They were even more suspicious they’d be cancelled when planners told them the area was being secured by 4,000 men of the Nazi SS, compared to the nominal strength of the 504th’s 1,600 men.

The order to cancel never came though, and on 17 September, just after noon, the pathfinders were dropped into Grave with the rest of the regiment falling 30 minutes later. This was Operation Market Garden, the largest combat airborne operation ever. By 1800 that afternoon the regiment had seized their objectives.

Two days later, H and I Companies of the 504th PIR led an assault at mid-day across the Maas River in canvass boats to link up with British airborne troops fighting behind enemy lines. Fifteen men fit in each boat, but there were only four oars, the rest of the men using the butts of their rifles to row.

Immediately after leaving the far shore the Americans came under heavy indirect and direct fire from German forces on the other side. Twenty-six boats started the assault. Only 13 made it across, with only 11 of those fit to return and bring more troops forward. The second crossing returned only eight boats. Five boats returned from the third crossing. This left A Company to “procure” local fishing boats to make their crossing.

Despite the setbacks, the attack was successful. The British Second Army commanding general, Lieutenant General Miles Dempsey watched the assault. Shaking his head, all he had to say was “Unbelievable.” Once the Americans and British linked up, Dempsey shook the hand of the American commanding general of the 82nd, Brigadier General James Gavin. Dempsey told him, “I am proud to meet the commander of the greatest division in the world today.”

On the 30th of September, now-First Lieutenant Megellas, still a platoon leader in H company, 504th PIR, was leading a patrol on reconnaissance in the Netherlands. In addition to the recon mission, they were looking to capture some of the enemy.

Finding the German observation post, Maggie crawled forward alone and dispatched two guards within the OP and then single-handedly took out the crew of a machine gun nest. He brought up the rest of his platoon and led them in an attack on the main German force there. During this battle, Megellas personally secured three prisoners and killed another two of the enemy. Next they attacked two blockhouses, destroying the enemy presence within.

Their mission thoroughly complete, Megellas led his men back to friendly lines. Along the way, the well alerted Germans continued to pursue them with small arms and mortar fire. During the withdrawal, Megellas grabbed one of his wounded men and carried him back, firing his Thompson sub-machine gun one handed.

Having inflicted disproportionate casualties on the enemy, breaking their morale with such a devastating assault, and securing valuable intelligence, the Germans broke off plans to counterattack the Allies. For his bravery Megellas was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the country’s second highest award for combat bravery.

The 504th PIR remained at the front for a few more weeks before being pulled back to France to train on the new C-46 Commando (the first cargo plane to two have two doors for dropping troops). On the 17th of November the regiment’s colonel was summoned to divisional command.

The Colonel was told that the Germans had launched a massive armored offensive into Belgium and Luxembourg in what became known as the Battle of the Bulge. The 504th deployed in support of the Allied positions the next morning, by truck not plane. The last eight miles was done on foot, at night.

On the 20th of December 1st Lieutenant Megellas’ patrol came upon the crest of a barren hill. Crossing over the hill they came under attack by German forces. Without pausing, Maggie ran headlong into the enemy, alone, calling for his men to follow him.

Coming to a small patch of woods, Megellas saw a force of enemy armor and infantry. Wasting no time, he opened fire on the Germans, killing eight. The fallen men’s comrades opened fire on the woods, raining intense fire down on Megellas and his men. Maggie grabbed one of his wounded men, and while carrying him, led his men to cover. Reforming the troops, he led them on to capture their objective.

Megellas received the Silver Star for his heroism that day.

The brutal winter saw continued bitter fighting for the troops in the “Bulge.” As January was moving into February, the 504th PIR was on foot trudging through deep snow moving toward Herresbach, Belgium.

Having met only light resistance along their route march, on 28 January, 1945, with Lieutenant Megellas in the lead, the platoon was surprised by a battalion-sized force of Germans numbering 200 or more. Fortunately for the Americans the Germans were equally surprised to come face to face with the enemy.

The battle experienced paratroops wasted no time and took the initiative, pressing a bold attack, led by Maggie. The lead American tank opened up on the Germans while Megellas led his men headlong into the Germans. The attack was so impromptu that many of the American soldiers fired from the hip as they rushed into the melee.

Within ten minutes the enemy was completely broken. Those not killed or captured were in full retreat into a nearby village.

Megellas, taking the two tanks they had for support, organized his men for an attack on the village. While they were grouping and preparing the attack a German Panther tank took the Americans under fire. Megellas ran towards the tank, tossing a hand grenade onto it, disabling it. He climbed on top and threw another grenade into the tank, silencing it permanently.

Megellas then personally led his men into Herresbach and cleared the Germans from the village house-by-house. Maggie was credited with killing eight and capturing five men. Ultimately, an estimated 100 Germans were left dead on the field of battle that day while 180 more were captured.

Most amazingly, this brash, hasty assault resulted in zero American casualties. Let that sink in a moment. Not a single man was wounded or killed. None.

Megellas was, rightfully in my opinion, recommended for the Medal of Honor for his actions that day. Unfortunately, the detailed report of his heroics was not included in the battle reports and so the award was downgraded to another Silver Star.

Long after the war, several Congressional bills were presented to upgrade this award. Unfortunately, none made it out of committee.

After the Battle of the Bulge, the 504th continued to march forward to Berlin with other Allied units. They saw heavy fighting at the Rhine River. By the time they reached the Elbe on 1 May, 1945 the end was all too apparent for the Germans. The massive, and very, very angry, Soviet Red Army was already in Berlin and had attacked from the south and east, with another force on the Germans’ north. This left the west side of the city the only route available to surrender to the Western Allies.

Though outnumbered 100-to-1 by enemy troops clogging the roads, the Germans were surrendering en masse. Soldiers of the 504th PIR stood at 100 yard intervals and collected souvenirs and trophies from the defeated German soldiers.

On 2 May, 1945 the 8th Infantry Division and the 82nd Airborne came across the Wöbbelin concentration camp near Ludwigslust. This camp had been constructed by the SS to house prisoners they did not want liberated from other camps.

The conditions in Wöbbelin were some of the worst imaginable. There was no food and little water. The situation was so dire that some of the prisoners had resorted to cannibalism. When Americans arrived they found about 1,000 of the 4,000 inmates dead. The Army ordered the townspeople to visit the camp and bury the dead.

The 82nd Airborne held funeral services for 200 prisoners on 7 May in the village. An 82nd Airborne Division chaplain had this to say:

“The crimes here committed in the name of the German people, and by their acquiescence, were minor compared to those to be found in concentration camps elsewhere in Germany. Here there were no gas chambers, no crematoria; these men of Holland, Russia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and France were simply allowed to starve to death. Within four miles of your comfortable homes 4,000 men were forced to live like animals, deprived even of the food you would give to your dogs. In three weeks 1,000 of these men were starved to death; 800 of them were buried in pits in the nearby woods. These 200 who lie before us in these graves were found piled four and five feet high in one building and lying with the sick and dying in other buildings.”

In accordance with General of the Army Eisenhower’s directive, victims of the atrocity were to be accorded a grave in a public place with crosses for Christians and Stars of David for the Jewish.

In one of Maggie’s 500 speeches he’d give later in life he said, “I always conclude by telling the story of a concentration camp we liberated during the war. When we talked with the survivors, we realized the greater cause we were fighting for. We were fighting for all the things we believed in.”

The War in Europe officially ended 8 May, 1945. The 82nd Airborne Division was moved to France until they were tapped for occupation duty in Berlin a short time later.

The 82nd Airborne Division was honored by the Dutch government with a unit-level award of the Military Order of William, the oldest and highest honor of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. They are the only foreign unit to have ever been so honored.

When awarded as a unit award it is called the Orange Lanyard and is a braid worn over the right shoulder in the same manner as the French or Belgian Fourragère for the Croix de guerre.

The division’s commanding general James Gavin had to select from among his men to receive the honor personally on behalf of the division. General Gavin selected who he saw as the most outstanding officer in the division, Maggie Megellas. He received the lanyard from the Dutch Minister of War in a ceremony in Berlin in 1945.

After returning to the US, in January 1946 now-Captain Megellas led Company H, which he now commanded, down Fifth Avenue in New York City’s Victory Parade. The 82nd All-American Division was selected to represent the US Army during the parade and all 13,000 men of the division marched. The 82nd had also been selected to represent the American infantry at the Berlin Victory Parade in September 1945.

Maggie mustered out of active service in 1946. He stayed on with the US Army Reserve for another 16 years, retiring as a Lieutenant Colonel. He worked for the US Agency for International Development (USAID) for 32 years. His service with USAID took him to places such as Yemen, Columbia, Panama, and South Vietnam.

Aside from his DSC and two Silver Stars, Megellas was awarded two Bronze Stars during WWII along with two Purple Hearts. I can’t find exactly how he qualified for it, but Maggie was also awarded the Vietnam medal trifecta of the National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, and Vietnam Campaign Medal. He did spend nearly two years in Vietnam, leading 4,000 soldiers and civilians in civil-military relations. If he did some of that time while assigned as an activated reservist, he’d easily qualify for those awards.

After retiring, Maggie took to giving lectures and wrote a book, 2003’s All the way to Berlin. At 89, in 2006 he visited his old regiment, the 504th PIR, in Afghanistan. This was his third and final visit to troops in Afghanistan. On his way back to the US from Afghanistan he stopped and gave a lecture in Holland. In 2018 he was part of the inaugural group inducted into the 82nd Airborne Division’s Hall of Fame.

Megellas was active in many civic organizations and received awards from some like the Daughters of the American Revolution and the American Hellenic Educational Assistance Program.

Unfortunately all tales must come to an end. This past week the most decorated officer of the 82nd Airborne passed on to his eternal reward after 103 years. Few men live that long, but Maggie certainly deserved every day and then some for his bravery during the Second World War. His long life allowed him to live to see his hometown VFW, post office, and a city park receive his name. He also got to see at least some of his wartime exploits played out on the silver screen. In the now-classic war movie A Bridge Too Far (1977), Megellas was portrayed by John Ratzenberger.

Hand Salute. Ready, Two!
Thanks again, Mason.

Category: Army, Guest Post, Valor

Comments (15)

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  1. Green Thumb says:

    Hardcore.

    Rest well, LTC.

    You earned it.

    • OldSoldier54 says:

      Amen.

    • 2banana says:

      I don’t see the NDSM…just saying.

      “Aside from his DSC and two Silver Stars, Megellas was awarded two Bronze Stars during WWII along with two Purple Hearts.”

      • Mason says:

        “Maggie was also awarded the Vietnam medal trifecta of the National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, and Vietnam Campaign Medal”

        He’s part of the brotherhood. Wouldn’t have gotten one for Korea unless he was activated. He had not other Korea awards, so I don’t think he was.

        • 2banana says:

          Ha! I thought that was something different the way I read it as a single award…

          “Vietnam medal trifecta of the National Defense Service Medal”

  2. 5th/77th FA says:

    A Hero’s Hero. Godspeed to Valhalla LTC James “Maggie” Megellas. Had not heard of his passing. Rest easy Good Sir. Bet the troops are lining up to buy you drinks. He was spoken very highly of when I was at Bragg with the FIRST MI Troops. Heard some rumblings that politics (Military) had something to do with his Awards being downgraded. I got a copy of his book when it FIRST came out. Highly recommend you reading. He is also featured in Nordyke’s “All American, All The Way” the history of the 82nd in WWII. Supposedly WEB Griffin used him/his exploits in blending his book characters for the “Brotherhood of War” series.

    Gun Salute…Fire by the Battery…By the piece, from right to left…PREPARE….COMMENCE FIRING!

    Thanks Mason.

  3. Sparks says:

    Rest In Peace LTC Megellas.

  4. Comm Center Rat says:

    Imagine being portrayed in film by John Ratzenberger. Five years after A Bridge Too Far, John would gain fame as Clifford C. Clavin, Jr. – our favorite US Postal Service letter carrier and Cheers bar know-it-all.

    ALL-AMERICANS, ALL THE WAY!

  5. Toxic Deplorable Racist SAH B Woodman says:

    You could hear the “CLANK CLANK” as he walked the halls……..

  6. 2banana says:

    Damn.

    Jump pay TODAY is $150 per month.

    Talk about not keeping up with inflation.

    “a second lieutenant’s base pay was $150/mo. Jump pay for officers was $100/mo…”

    • Mason says:

      Jump pay for EM was $50/mo. Privates made $50/mo and PFC $54/mo. You can see why these guys volunteered to be a target swinging under a canopy.

      • rgr769 says:

        Jump pay was still only $55 for enlisted and $110 for officers as late as 1975 (the last year I received it).

  7. 19D3OR4 - Smitty says:

    “The 82nd Airborne Division was honored by the Dutch government with a unit-level award of the Military Order of William, the oldest and highest honor of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. They are the only foreign unit to have ever been so honored.”

    Just to be pedantic. The Military Order of William was also awarded to the 1st Independent Polish Airborne Brigade, also for their actions during Market Garden. So the 82nd is not the only foreign unit to receive the award.

    • Mason says:

      Right you are. Don’t know how that one slipped by me. Must have been going cross-eyed from all the research.

      • AW1Ed says:

        I hereby award Mason the coveted “Leather Hide and Sense of Humor” award for his gallant participation as a TAH/VG poster, a hallmark of excellence recognized throughout the milblog community. His research, writing skills, and humility reflect great honor upon himself, and are in the highest traditions of the TAH/VG blog. Congratulations, Mason. Hard earned and well deserved.
        Welcome to my world.
        *grin*