COLLEYVILLE, TX — Through a hail of German bullets and exploding shells, the soldiers of Company H, 504th Parachute Infantry frantically paddled their way across the Waal River in The Netherlands on Sept. 20, 1944.
Lt. James Megellas, known at “Maggie” to his men, and half of his platoon occupied one craft in the initial assault across the river. Their objective: Capture and hold the northern ends of two bridges at Nijmegen. Those bridges were to be part of the lifeline for the air and ground campaign known as Market Garden.
The other half of Megellas’ platoon was in the boat next to him, until it was hit by a shell, spilling the men into the river. Many of the other boats were also ripped and punctured by bullets and shells, forcing troopers laden with gear to swim across the swift river.
It was the combat engineers’ responsibility to get the British-supplied boats across the river and back to ferry more soldiers. But, like many of the others, Megellas, lacking a paddle, used what was handy to get to the other side as soon as possible.
He used the butt of his Thompson submachine gun.
“Fear gave way to hysteria,” Megellas, now of Colleyville, wrote years later in his book All the Way to Berlin. “The fear of making it never entered my mind. I was one of about 250 fanatical men driven by rage to do what had been asked of us.”
What was asked of these men — boys really, ages 17 to their early 20s — was to cross the river, run more than 200 yards in the open to an embankment, clear out the German soldiers, fight their way to the bridges and secure those bridges before they were blown up. All of it in the face of an enemy determined to use any means to stop them.
That the men of the 504th, which was part of the 82nd Airborne Division, succeeded was due to their determination, their “rage,” as Megellas put it.
Back to The Netherlands
Now, almost 67 years later, Megellas is on a trip back to the Waal River, Nijmegen and those bridges. He is going with two of his former sergeants, Bernard Cheney of Bangor, Maine, and Bill Hennigan of St. Paul, Minn.
A film crew is documenting Megellas’ return to some of the European battlefields that he crossed in more trying times. The documentary, to be called James Megellas: All the Way, is being made by Tim Gray, a Rhode Island-based film maker as part of a series. The former soldiers are expected back home this week.
“This will be a documentary on leadership in combat in World War II,” Gray said before departing for the trip. “It is not a history of the war, but a history of Maggie’s war. What he did. How he led as a platoon leader.”
Megellas, now 94 years old, says in his book that “wars are not fought on maps by moving pins designated as armies and corps. They are fought on the ground by squads and platoons of young soldiers.” And those soldiers are led by junior officers and non-commissioned officers — the sergeants and the corporals — who are the same age or slightly older.
But “being an officer and a platoon leader did not automatically command the respect of the men,” he says in another part of his narrative. “It had to be earned, and that could be done only by leading.”
Gray agreed that out of World War II came great leaders, not just the generals like Dwight D. Eisenhower and George Patton, “but also the men who actually fought.”
He said Megellas is “a fascinating guy,” who remembers everything about his war experiences. “It seems like men in war are born to lead,” Gray said. “You talk to men in his platoon, and they say he made all the right calls, he led from the front and he earned the respect of his men.”
Filming nearly finished
Gray said the trip to Europe will bring the filming for the documentary almost to a close. He has followed Megellas to World War II reunions and even to a Green Bay Packers-Dallas Cowboys football game, where the former soldier was a featured guest. He hopes the project will be ready to air on television later this year.
Megellas ended the war as a captain and the most-decorated officer in the history of the 82nd Airborne Division with 25 medals and decorations. Those decorations include the Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star, Bronze Star, Purple Heart and Presidential Unit Citation. He also was selected in 1945 by his commanding general, James Gavin, to receive the Military Order of Willhelm Orange Lanyard from the Dutch Minister of War. More recently, Megellas has been nominated twice by congressional resolution to receive the Medal of Honor based on his actions during the Battle of the Bulge.
By Steve Norder [email protected]: