WWII 82nd Airborne hero lands in Afghanistan
FORWARD OPERATING BASE SALERNO, Afghanistan (Army News Service, March 1, 2006)
It had been 61 years since retired Lt. Col. James “Maggie” Megellas had set foot on a battlefield with fellow 82nd Airborne Division “Devils in Baggy Pants.”
That all changed Feb. 23 when he arrived in Afghanistan to visit paratroopers from the regiment that he called home during World War II, the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment.
Megellas has been awarded the title of distinguished member of the regiment and has frequently visited with paratroopers from the 504th throughout the past six decades. Although it is not uncommon for veterans of America’s first airborne units to visit their present-day comrades, this was the first time anyone could remember a World War II combat-jump veteran visiting paratroopers in present-day combat.
“It was totally awesome, it was the last thing I expected,” said Sgt. Maj. Colin Rich, of Headquarters Combined Task Force Devil, who first met Megellas when his best-selling book “All The Way to Berlin” was published in 2003. “He is an inspiration; he is my hero.”
Rich and other paratroopers from CTF Devil headquarters took Megellas on a tour of Khost to give him a view of the operating environment the Devils face in Afghanistan. He was impressed with what he saw of the paratroopers and their work.
“The technology is better now, the guys are better equipped, but the individual paratrooper is still the same – highly dedicated with high standards,” Megellas said.
Throughout his stay at FOB Salerno, Megellas could be seen huddled with small groups of paratroopers sharing first-hand accounts of major historical points of World War II, including 100 days of combat after jumping into Italy and the daring crossing of the Waal River under heavy Nazi machine-gun fire during Operation Market Garden.
“I like to say we had them surrounded from the inside,” remarked Megellas, describing what it felt like to have his platoon surrounded by two German rifle companies.
“It is one thing reading (history books), but hearing it while looking into his eyes as he is describing things that happened, it is amazing,” said Spc. Ulysses Deleon, Company A, 307th Engineer Battalion. “I have an indescribable amount of respect for him.”
Megellas listened to the paratroopers’ stories of their past year of deployment in Afghanistan, reminding them to share their experiences as paratroopers in this new chapter of history just as he did in “All The Way to Berlin.” Megellas also contributed to the book “A Bridge Too Far” which was later adapted into one of the largest war epic movies ever filmed.
“It is important to add another chapter of setting the standard for the future of American paratroopers,” Megellas said.
Megellas at times seemed just as excited to spend time with this generation of paratroopers as they were to see him.
“People may ask why I came all the way out here at 89 years old,” said Megellas.
“It is just to see the guys from my old outfit. There is an inseparable bond between paratroopers and the chance to come out and visit means so much to me.”
After serving four years with the 82d Abn. Div. during World War II, which included combat jumps into Italy and Holland, Megellas left the active Army and served for 16 years in the Army Reserve. He retired after 20 years of service as a Lieutenant Colonel.
His awards and decorations include the Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Star Medals, two Bronze Star Medals, two Purple Hearts, and he is credited with being the 82nd Abn. Division’s most decorated officer. During World War II, Gen. James Gavin, selected one 82nd officer, then 2nd Lt. James Megellas to receive the Military Order of Willhelm Orange Lanyard from the Dutch Minister of War.