Fond du Lac – Germany’s Mark V Panther tanks were feared.
The tank’s high-velocity 75mm gun could pierce the steel armor of any tank fielded by the Allies during World War II. America’s Sherman tanks were no match against it, and with a top speed of 28 mph and an exceptional suspension and wheel system, the Panther could travel just about anywhere.
Including a road on the outskirts of Herresbach, Belgium, on Jan. 28, 1945.
James “Maggie” Megellas was leading his platoon into the Belgian town on that frigid evening when he saw the Mark V Panther taking aim at them. Megellas had just put his troops through a 10-mile forced march through snow drifts as deep as 2 feet. Armed with only a Thompson submachine gun and grenades, Megellas looked at the tank and knew what he had to do.
With an economy and efficiency that would make an ammunition supply clerk smile, Megellas used only two grenades to single-handedly take out the Panther tank that, though incredibly deadly at long range, was vulnerable to close-quarters combat. He threw one grenade to disable the behemoth and then ran up, jumped on top and threw another grenade into the crew compartment.
The Fond du Lac native then led his men on an assault of German forces holed up in the town. For his heroism that day, he was nominated for a Medal of Honor but instead received the Silver Star because the paperwork did not include the fact he had knocked out a German tank on his own.
Now 93, Megellas visited his hometown this week with a documentary crew.
In a letter to his sister, Megellas wrote, “We were in a battle like you wouldn’t believe and I killed 28 Germans tonight.”
Originally, two U.S. Army battalions of about 450 men were supposed to attack Herresbach at first light, but when officers learned two German columns were seen heading out of the town the evening before, two platoons of 28 men each, including Megellas’ platoon, were rushed forward.
“All of a sudden we found ourselves surrounded. We had them surrounded from the inside,” Megellas joked Monday. “We just opened fire on these guys.”
George Heib, who turned 18 during the Battle of the Bulge, remembers seeing Megellas in action.
“I saw this tank start shooting at us. I saw a figure run up to the tank and heard an explosion and saw a flash of light,” said Heib, now 83 and living in Fayetteville, N.C. “I said, ‘Who the hell is that crazy son of a (expletive)?’ ”
Heib later learned that crazy man was Megellas. He traveled to Fond du Lac this week along with three other platoon buddies of Megellas’ to participate in the documentary.
Highest decorated officer
Megellas was a senior at Ripon College when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. A member of Ripon’s ROTC, he was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Army in May 1942. He volunteered to become a paratrooper and joined the 82nd Airborne Division fighting near Naples, Italy, where he was wounded and later participated in the amphibious assault on Anzio and Operation Market Garden, the airborne invasion of Holland.
He was part of the difficult crossing in flimsy canvas-sided boats of the Waal River in the Netherlands. In fact, in the movie “A Bridge Too Far,” in the scene where Robert Redford leads the crossing, Megellas is portrayed by an actor sporting a handlebar mustache. Shortly after the crossing, he attacked a German observation post and machine gun nest by himself, earning a Silver Star.
Megellas earned two Silver Stars, two Bronze Stars, the Distinguished Service Cross, two Purple Hearts and other commendations, making him the highest decorated officer of the 82nd Airborne during World War II, said Sgt. 1st Class Steven Mrozek, 82nd Airborne Division historian from 1984 until 2005.
Though Wisconsin’s congressional delegation has tried to intervene on Megellas’ behalf, the quest for an overdue Medal of Honor is still pending.
A few years ago, Tim Gray picked up Megellas’ book “All the Way to Berlin” at a Rhode Island bookstore and was captivated by his story. Gray, a former television journalist, founded his documentary company in 2005 and specializes in World War II films. His first film “D-Day: The Price of Freedom” aired on PBS stations across the country and won two Emmys.
Noting that combat veterans all have stories to tell, he chose Megellas because of his heroism and because his men were willing to follow him anywhere. Gray also was intrigued by the efforts of Megellas’ battle buddies to get him the Medal of Honor.
“This isn’t a film about strategy. This is about a man who did extraordinary things and had extraordinary leadership capabilities. He was a hero,” Gray said.
Gray raises all of the funds for his World War II documentaries, produces them and finds a distributor. He’s not sure when the one-hour documentary, which will likely air on PBS, will be completed but plans to take Megellas to Europe next spring to visit old battlefields. The film crew shot footage of Fond du Lac and Ripon College this week. Gray is still raising the $100,000 it will cost to make the documentary.
Megellas, who now lives in Dallas, was surprised when Gray called to ask if he could make a documentary about his life.
Still hale and hearty and sporting a leonine mane of white hair, Megellas has been to Iraq and Afghanistan to visit 82nd Airborne troops. He is looking forward to celebrating his 94th birthday in March.
“People always ask me the question, what do I owe my longevity to? My answer is – I haven’t yet completed my mission.”
Donations to fund the documentary of James “Maggie” Megellas can be made at www.timgraymedia.com with a note saying that donations should go toward the “James Megellas All the Way” film.