World War II paratrooper units were light on their feet -- they carried everything on their backs and didn't travel in armored vehicles.
So when James "Maggie" Megellas saw the German Mark V Panther tank bearing down on his platoon in Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge, he stuck his hands into his pockets and pulled out two grenades. Then he ran toward the deadly machine whose 75mm guns could pierce any Allied tank.
He singlehandedly took out the tank and saved his platoon, earning a Silver Star. But many thought he should have received the nation's highest military honor. His commanding officer filed the Medal of Honor paperwork but mistakenly omitted the fact that the Fond du Lac native had destroyed the Nazi tank. Military brass determined Megellas deserved the Silver Star.
Now, U.S. Rep. Tom Petri (R-Fond du Lac) has submitted a bill asking that the Medal of Honor be bestowed on Megellas, who turned 96 in March.
Megellas, who now lives in Texas, is grateful for the effort.
"It's a good thing if it happens. If it doesn't, that's all right," Megellas said in a phone interview from Fort Bragg, where he was introducing the documentary "Maggie's War" to paratroopers in his old unit, the 82nd Airborne.
Others think it's long overdue.
Jim Neumann lives in Fond du Lac and met Megellas a few years ago. He was entranced by the veteran's story and began working to right what he thinks is a wrong. Neumann said his research shows that five American soldiers were credited with stopping enemy tanks by themselves in World War II and four were awarded the Medal of Honor. Megellas is the exception.
"I want to make it clear Jim Megellas is not the guy who is after this award. He found out in 1979 his Medal of Honor paperwork was downgraded two levels to a Silver Star," said Neumann, who is organizing a website -- www.medalformaggie.com -- that will become active online starting next week.
On a road on the outskirts of Herresbach, Belgium, Megellas was leading his platoon on a 10-mile march on the bitterly cold evening of Jan. 28, 1945, when the soldiers found themselves surrounded by German troops and opened fire.
Though German Panther tanks were extremely effective at long range, they were vulnerable in close quarters.
"All of a sudden here's this tank firing at us, it's going to cause us all kinds of problems. I was able to get up to it. It was a wooded area in Belgium, and I hit it with a concussion grenade," recalled Megellas, who was 27 at the time. "Then I got close enough to drop a hand grenade down in the turret. That finished that tank."
Megellas was a senior in ROTC at Ripon College when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and was commissioned a second lieutenant the following May. He became the highest decorated officer of the 82nd Airborne during World War II, earning two Silver Stars, two Bronze Stars, the Distinguished Service Cross and two Purple Hearts. But no Medal of Honor.
Though it's rare, it's not unprecedented to award a Medal of Honor years and even decades after an act of heroism. Previous congressional attempts on Megellas' behalf were stymied in committees. The lengthy process involves Congress asking the president to request the Department of Defense to award the medal.
Meanwhile, Megellas is busy promoting his book "All the Way to Berlin," as well as the documentary filmed a few years ago about him and visiting troops.