Thursday, December 13, 2007

War hero offers words of encouragement

Decorated WWII vet shares his story with troops bound for Iraq

The old soldier, so tall and straight that even his shock of white hair seemed to stand at attention, greeted each war-weary veteran and every apprehensive recruit with a firm handshake and his heartfelt thanks for their service and sacrifice.

James Megellas, a Medal of Honor nominee, gave copies of his wartime memoirs to troops Wednesday at D/FW Airport.

Set up Wednesday at a small table outside the USO office at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, 91-year-old James Megellas handed out copies of his wartime memoirs, All the Way to Berlin, to departing soldiers, jotting a personal note to each one.

Today, the Colleyville resident will depart for the war zone himself, stopping at U.S. bases across Europe before joining the troops for Christmas dinner in Afghanistan.

"To me, this has great meaning – to meet the soldiers and talk with them," said Mr. Megellas, an honest-to-goodness war hero who has been recommended for a Medal of Honor.

"There are certain things that bind us and transcend the generations," said the most decorated officer in the history of the 82nd Airborne.

Even the freshest soldiers could feel it.

Pvt. Andrew Ramos, a native of Wichita Falls headed for Iraq, walked away in awe from his brief chat with Mr. Megellas.

"When you see a lieutenant who did what he did, you just about bow down to him," he said.

Like Pvt. Ramos, many who passed Mr. Megellas' way were heading to their first overseas assignment, and he asked how they were doing and quietly reassured them. With those on their second or third tour, he listened to their stories and shared a bit of his own.

What a story it is.

He took his diploma from Ripon College, near his Wisconsin hometown, in May 1942, then accepted his commission as a second lieutenant in the Army.

With the attack on Pearl Harbor still a fresh wound, Lt. Megellas was itching to see action. But the Army had other plans.

"The war had started and here I was messing around in signal school, so I volunteered for the paratroopers because they said they'd put me into combat," he said.

A year later, he was scrambling through the mountains of Italy with the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne, fighting in the invasion at Anzio and completing 100 days of combat without a break.

Soon he was parachuting into Holland, part of the largest airborne invasion in history.

His unit battled to Nijmegen, an ancient town with two long bridges crossing the Waal River that had to be captured intact. German troops repelled the initial attacks, and finally, the 504th launched an assault that no one expected to succeed, Mr. Megellas said.

"We made a daylight crossing of the river in canvas boats," he said. "None of us honestly thought we would make it across alive. But it was our job and no one questioned it."

That day, Lt. Megellas crawled alone to a German observation post, killing two guards and the crew of a machine gun nest. His unit joined the attack, and Lt. Megellas captured three Germans and killed two more.

For his heroic action, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

By December 1944, the Allies were squeezing German forces from the east and west, when Adolf Hitler launched a last-ditch counteroffensive.

The Allies would call it the Battle of the Bulge. The 504th joined that fight in the final, desperate days and took positions outside the Belgian town of Herresbach.

Lt. Megellas and a buddy were ordered to take two platoons into the town.

"While we were attacking, a tank came out and began firing and the men took cover," he said. "Instinctively, I charged the tank and managed to get close enough to it and hit it with a concussion grenade that immobilized it. Then I dropped a hand grenade in on the crew."

Lt. Megellas was awarded the Silver Star for his valor in that battle.

Over the years, various people had recommended Lt. Megellas for the Medal of Honor. Finally, last year, a Wisconsin congressman introduced a bill to award him the medal.

To the current generation of soldiers who read just a bit of his story Wednesday at D/FW Airport, Mr. Megellas served as an inspiration.

"I'm really looking forward to reading his book," said Sgt. Kevin Anderson of Oklahoma City, on his way back to Iraq. "He reminds me of my grandfather, a great man."

And Lt. Col. Blake Settle, a member of the Kentucky National Guard who has served two years in Afghanistan and is now in the midst of his first year in Iraq, called Mr. Megellas "a great American."

For his part, the old soldier did his best to cheer these soldiers on their way back to the war.

"I have to tell you you're doing a hell of a job for us," he told one young man headed for his second tour in Iraq.

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