In a ceremony Friday, Sept. 2, Lt. Col. James “Maggie” Megellas — the most decorated officer in the history of the 82nd Airborne Division — will be laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery.
His interment comes two years after his death and will include full military honors. High-profile guests will attend the ceremony, including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley.
Megellas served for 20 years in the US Army and is most remembered for bravely leading a platoon of paratroopers through combat in Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany during World War II. Among the medals he was awarded over the course of his career were two Silver Stars, two Bronze Stars with Valor, two Purple Hearts, and the Distinguished Service Cross. He also holds the distinction of being the first American to receive an award from the Netherlands after being awarded the Military Order of William Orange Lanyard: the oldest and highest honor given by the Kingdom of the Netherlands for bravery, leadership, and loyalty.
“Megellas distinguished himself with countless acts of uncommon bravery — setting a high standard for today’s paratroopers, as well as the entire Joint Force,” Milley told Coffee or Die Magazine.
In 1943, while serving with H Company, 3rd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division, Megellas found himself in heavy combat in the mountains outside Naples, Italy. He was hit by fragments from a German hand grenade and evacuated for further treatment, but he quickly returned to his unit in time for Operation Shingle.
On Jan. 22, 1944, Megellas and the rest of the 504th traded their parachutes for landing craft to participate in the amphibious landings at Anzio. During the fighting, Megellas was wounded a second time, this time getting shot through the arm at point-blank range. On June 5, 1944, the Battle of Anzio ended with Allied forces successfully wresting control of Rome from the Nazis. Victory came at the steep cost of nearly 30,000 Allied casualties. Losses within the 504th were so heavy that the regiment did not join the rest of the 82nd during the invasion of Normandy. But Megellas and the rest of the 504th left Italy in time to take part in the ill-fated invasion of the Netherlands, known as Operation Market Garden.
Already the recipient of two Purple Hearts by the time he parachuted into the Netherlands, Megellas participated in the legendary crossing of the Waal River, during which paratroopers were forced to cross the river using small, uncovered boats in daylight under withering German machine gun fire. Miraculously, Megellas avoided being wounded a third time.
Two weeks after crossing the Waal, Megellas single-handedly took out a German observation post and machine gun nest. For his bravery, Megellas was awarded the Army’s second-highest award for valor. Several months later, while fighting in Belgium, he was awarded the first of his two Silver Stars for rescuing a wounded comrade under fire.
Megellas then participated in the Battle of the Bulge — the last major German offensive on the Western Front — during which his platoon was engaged in heavy combat while enduring deep snow and freezing temperatures. On Jan. 28, 1945, Megellas was engaged with the enemy near the Belgian town of Herresbach. While facing a larger enemy force of more than 200 soldiers, Megellas came under fire from a German Mark V Panther tank. With no regard for his own safety, Megellas charged the tank alone, disabling it with a hand grenade. He then climbed on top of the enemy armor and tossed a second grenade inside, killing its crew. Megellas and his platoon seized control of the town without suffering a single casualty.
For his actions that day, Megellas was recommended for the Medal of Honor, but his destruction of the enemy tank was left out of the citation, resulting in the award being downgraded to a Silver Star — his second. In 2021, Sen. Ron Johnson and Rep. Glenn Grothman proposed a bill renewing efforts to upgrade the award to the Medal of Honor, though the upgrade has still not been approved.
Following the Battle of the Bulge, Megellas and his platoon advanced into Germany, where they helped liberate the Wöbbelin concentration camp outside the town of Ludwigslust. There, they witnessed the full extent of the Holocaust. “There were bodies everywhere, waiting to get buried,” Megellas said of the camp in a 2014 interview with the American Veterans Center. “There were tons of them all over. The few who were alive were barely alive. There wasn’t anyone there alive who weighed over 65 pounds.”
Coming face to face with Nazi atrocities caused Megellas to recognize what he later described as “the greater picture” for why he was fighting in Europe.
“It was there that I realized the real cause we had been fighting for [...] to destroy the monstrosity that the Nazis had created before it engulfed freedom-loving people everywhere.” After the war, Megellas continued to serve in the Army reserves and spent two tours in Vietnam with the United States Agency for International Development. He left the service in 1978 and wrote a memoir about his time in World War II. He died on April 2, 2020, at the age of 103.
“He’s still the most decorated officer from the 82nd Airborne,” Ralph Alvarez, a veteran of the 82nd Airborne Division and a current technician at the 82nd Airborne Division Museum, told Coffee or Die. “Which is pretty remarkable, considering how many soldiers have served in the unit.”
As a paratrooper, Megellas was used to being surrounded by the enemy, but now the most decorated “devil in baggy pants” will finally be laid to rest among the rolling hills of Arlington National Cemetery, surrounded instead by more than 400,000 of our nation’s heroes.