‘Maggie’s War’ premieres in hometown of Megellas
“Good Night Serenade,” swing music from the 1940’s, the war years, wafted from the stage as the decorated World War II hero cast his charm about the room.
No one could miss James “Maggie” Megellas with his shock of gray hair, his stature despite his 95 years and the military medals he wears that tell his story.
Veterans of World War II, various government officials, local businessmen and family members of Megellas gathered Friday night at the Windhover Center for the Arts for the world premiere of the documentary “Maggie’s War: A True Story of Courage, Leadership and Valor in World War II.”
The life of Megellas, the most decorated officer in the history of the US Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, was presented by Timothy Gray, a two-time Emmy Award-winning producer and director. Gray is America’s preeminent World War II military videographer and chairman of the WWII Foundation, a group that works to preserve the memories of World War II veterans.
Gray said there is nothing more important to him that telling the stories of veterans. Some 270,000 World War II vets died in 2011, an average of 740 a day, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Another 248,000 are projected to die this year.
“I hope we got this right,” Gray said to Megellas. “I hope it’s a tribute to you and how you lead from the front.”
Steve Megellas traveled with his family from Branson, Mo., to watch the documentary about his father.
“We’ve been waiting for this and of course, Dad divulged nothing to us. As we were driving down Main Street in Fond du Lac he did tell us we’d see this street in the movie,” he said.
Arriving in Fond du Lac from Dallas, Texas, another son, Jim Megellas, said the film is his father’s tribute to the friends and comrades in arms that served by his side. It wasn’t so long ago — just five years ago — that 20 members of the 82nd AirbourneH/504 PIR platoon were still alive. On Friday night only two of Maggie’s combat buddies sat in the audience at the premiere: Sgt. Bill Hannigan and Lt. Col. George Heib.
“He wanted this to be about all of them. It’s been a long time coming and I’m happy for my Dad,” Jim Megellas said.
Cited numerous times for gallantry in action and extraordinary heroism, Megellas said he never forgot where he was from. He was born in Fond du Lac and grew up within the Greek community. He served as Fond du Lac’s first City Council president.
“It’s very humbling to be here in a room full of friends,” James Megellas said. “I’m the same guy who always lived here, who grew up here.”
When deciding where the documentary should premiere, Gray suggested Dallas since Megellas resides in Texas.
“I told him ‘hell no, we’re going to Fond du Lac,’” Megellas said.
Gray said while filming the documentary the most moving experience was accompanying the war hero to Europe and seeing the reaction of people there, who treated Megellas as a “liberator.” In the Netherlands they visited a school “De Oversteek” named after the famous crossing of the Waal River by allied forces (Operation Market Garden) that led to the liberation of Nijmegen.
“To see Jim interact with the kids was a very powerful thing,” Gray said.
Heib, 85, from North Carolina, has known “Maggie” since 1944. The former jump school instructor served 51 years in uniform.
“We never had to look for Maggie, he was always up front of us,” Heib said. “I saw someone rushing a tank with a Thompson and a couple of grenades and wondered who the hell is that crazy SOB. Maggie saved us all.”
Hannigan, 90, of St. Paul, Minn., said he’s happy to be “anywhere” at this age. He met Megellas in 1942 in Anzio, Italy.
“Now the three of us are talking about who will be the last man standing. I wish him (Megellas) luck on this one,” Hannigan said.
Paratrooper Col. John Scocos, secretary of Wisconsin Veterans Affairs, presented Megellas with a proclamation from Gov. Scott Walker dedicating Sept. 7, 2012 as “James Megellas Day” in Wisconsin. He also announced that a 200-bed facility at Wisconsin Veteran’s Home at King will be named after Megellas in honor of the 504 Parachute Infantry Regiment, in which Megellas commanded a platoon.
“My father, who grew up next to Jim, had been a prisoner of war. When I was a young boy he told me about one legend that he never forgot and that was Jim Megellas,” Scocos said.