The oldest known written story is “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” a poem written on clay tablets about the adventures of the king of Uruk in what is now Iraq more than 4,000 years ago. The poem tells of Gilgamesh’s adventures and his personal growth. It tells of Gilgamesh’s bravery and his development as a leader but, most importantly, the poem details his relentless efforts to complete his duties both sacred and ordinary.
The poem was written to provide an outline or guideline for future leaders on the necessity to honor one’s duties. It is not a small matter that the first written human communication’s purpose was to reinforce the fundamental need of persons of character and consequence to fulfill their duties.
Duty as a concept is important to the fire service. It is fundamental in our principles. Many confuse duty with service; they are different in meaning and practice. Firefighters intuitively understand what is meant when someone says the call to duty.
During World War II, thousands upon thousands of patriots fought and died to defend their countries and liberate others. They knew it to be their duty.
On March 11, 2017, America celebrates the 100th birthday of Lt. Col. James “Maggie” Megellas, the most decorated officer in the history of the 82nd Airborne Division. Maggie had just graduated from college when the war erupted; he heard the call, and he enlisted. Maggie’s first combat post was with Company H, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne. He would be involved in brutal fighting in the cold mountains outside of Naples and Salerno, Italy, where he was wounded and where he spent a day and a night in the cold in danger to recover a fellow soldier’s body. He would leave no one behind.
Maggie would partake in the Allied invasion of Anzio and be wounded for a second time. He parachuted into Holland during operation Market Garden. Maggie and his men found themselves across the Waal River assigned to secure a railway bridge and highway bridge in Nijmegen. Maggie and the men of H and I companies manned 26 canvas-lined rowboats and rowed across the Waal River in broad daylight while intense gunfire from seasoned German troops rained down on them.
As the boats were being ripped to shreds and men were being picked off one after another, the determined soldiers continued to row. Men of faith began praying out loud as artillery shells and 20-mm rounds were crashing all around them, boats were capsizing, and men were drowning; they rowed on to the cadence of Hail Mary and thy will be done. Getting to the shore, Maggie singlehandedly took out a German machine gun nest. He then carried a fellow wounded soldier out of the field of fire, all the while firing his rifle with one hand while shrapnel and bullets rained down around them.
On January 28, 1945, during the Battle of the Bulge, he and his exhausted men – 30 in all – were ordered to take the town of Herresbach. After 12 hours of trudging through miles of knee-deep snow, they unexpectedly found themselves face to face with 300 German infantry.
Maggie decided to use the element of surprise and led an attack despite the 10-to-1 odds against them. They killed more than 100 enemy soldiers and captured another 180.
As they continued their efforts to secure the town, a German Mark 5 tank spotted Maggie and his men and began opening fire on them. Alone, Maggie ran toward the enemy tank despite its machine-gun fire being trained directly on him.
Reaching the tank, he took a grenade from his belt and threw it between the tank’s tracks. He then climbed onto the tank and dropped another grenade into the turret hatch, destroying the tank, killing its crew, and saving the lives of his men. He then reorganized his platoon and followed the enemy into the town. Maggie led his men building by building, dodging sniper fire, tossing grenades, engaging in close-quarter fighting, routing the Germans, and capturing hundreds. Amazingly, not a single American soldier was lost that day.
For his incredible bravery that day, Maggie was awarded the Silver Star. But recognition was not his motivation; that was not what drove him that day. It was his devotion to duty, it was his love of his fellow soldier, it was the memories of the hundreds who had fallen before that day.
Maggie ended his active-duty career as a captain but continued in the Reserves and retired a light bird. His DD214 included the Distinguished Service Cross, two silver stars, two bronze stars, two purple hearts, and numerous other awards.
Maggie was nominated for the Medal of Honor for his conspicuous action during the Battle of the Bulge, but he was awarded the Silver Star because of a lack of detail of the singlehanded activity he conducted. Others might have felt slighted, but not Maggie. Maggie continued to live a life that exemplified his commitment to his duty as an American.
Maggie tried his hand at politics but then decided to work for the next 32 years with USAID in Yemen, Panama, South Vietnam, and Columbia. Maggie answered his nation’s call as the Army Airborne says, “All the way.”
Maggie couldn’t stop answering the call to duty once his fighting days were over; that was just the beginning. He attended to his sacred duties in bringing lifesaving water to villages, his ordinary duties in building roads, in restoring villages after natural disasters, and in bringing ordinary work opportunity to folks who had nothing.
Duties sacred and ordinary, Lt. Col. Megellas attended both with exceptional dignity, devotion, and honor.
Happy Birthday, Sir, and thank you for everything!
– Your American Firefighters
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