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WWII Hero, Airborne Icon Dies

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82nd Airborne Division
Monday, April 06, 2020

Legendary World War II paratrooper Lt. Col. James “Maggie” Megellas, one of the 82nd Airborne Division’s original “Devils in Baggy Pants,” died April 2 at his home in Colleyville, Texas.

Megellas died three weeks after celebrating his 103rd birthday. His death was announced by the 82nd Airborne Division in a Facebook post on April 3 that said, in part, “This loss will be felt by us all. Remember, Paratroopers never die, they just slip away.”

Widely written about, portrayed in motion pictures and retold by Megellas himself over his lifetime, his wartime heroics occurred when he was a platoon leader in Company H, 3rd Battalion504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, during World War II. In several combat engagements, he earned the Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Stars, two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts, making him the most decorated officer in the history of the 82nd Airborne Division, according to his biography.

He was first wounded in action in Italy in the mountains above Naples. He also jumped into the Netherlands during Operation Market Garden, made the crossing of the Waal River near Nijmegen and served in the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium.

Megellas, a native of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, was born on March 11, 1917, and was a college senior when Pearl Harbor was attacked. About six months later, he was in Italy.

In one of his most legendary exploits, Megellas led his platoon during the Battle of the Bulge through heavy snow toward Herresback, Belgium, and caught 200 German troops off guard. The U.S. paratroopers killed or captured a large number of Germans, and as the Americans began to assault the town, a German tank took aim at them.

Megellas ran toward the tank, disabled it with a grenade, then climbed atop the tank and dropped a grenade into the hatch. He and his men took no casualties and seized the town.

He often shared the story of his unit and their crossing of the Waal River in rowboats, a scene that is portrayed in the 1977 film A Bridge Too Far.

An effort at the time to award Megellas with the Medal of Honor for his actions in that engagement stalled, but the push has continued for decades. There is currently legislation in Congress to confer the nation’s highest award for valor on the battlefield to Megellas.

Megellas’ wartime heroics are also documented in the PBS movie Maggie's War: A True Story of Courage, Leadership and Valor in World War II, and in his autobiography, All the Way to Berlin: A Paratrooper at War in Europe.

Discharged from the Army as a captain, Megellas continued serving in the Army Reserve and retired as a lieutenant colonel, according to his biography.