Looking him over once more, the sergeant was sure Jake McNiece was lying. “You know, if they discover you’re over 28 they’ll take you out of the airborne and put you in the infantry, or wherever else they decide.”
“I’m only 23, so I’m not worried about that,” he replied. “I can make it. Just get me in and give me a shot at paratroop service.”
The sergeant chuckled a little and said. “You may be 23, I don’t know. But, your head, neck and shoulders looks like they’ve been used for live grenade practice.”
McNiece reaffirmed his age once again, and the sergeant, still with reluctance, gave in and signed his orders. Soon enough, the recruit was on his way through basic and advanced training, then preparing himself for the final hurdle… Airborne School. And here, much to his surprise, he waited seven more days for the Army to find seven volunteers to join him for the trip to Camp Toccoa, Georgia.
He fell out into formation and began learning the art of being a paratrooper, plus engaging in antics only he could deliver, things the Army frowned on. Little did Jake McNiece know that despite this, he would become the leader of a unit of fearless warriors, a unit that would inspire a novel and classic war movie.
Of partial Choctaw Indian descent, James Elbert “Jake” McNiece was born on May 24th, 1919, in Maysville, Oklahoma as the ninth of ten siblings. In 1931, the family moved to Ponca City, Oklahoma, where Jake ended up playing high school football and graduating in 1939.
He held a number of jobs over the next two years, including a job at the Pine Bluff Arsenal where he learned to use explosives. His final job when America went to war in 1941 was that of a fireman, where he continued using his demolitions knowledge to fell condemned buildings.
As a fireman he could be excluded from the draft, but with almost every able bodied male heading off to the services, Jake wanted to make a contribution. And yet, there was another reason he wanted to get out of Ponca City.
He was certain the police were looking for him, as the result of a fight he had gotten into the prior month. For now, the Army was the safest bet, and he could contribute something to the war effort as well, all of which brought him before the eye of that skeptical sergeant in September 1942.
Back at Toccoa, Jake McNiece handled the physical and mental aspects of training well from the start. He always tackled any task before him without complaint. But, beyond that, his personality got him in trouble.
During the first week there, after witnessing a plate of butter being eaten before it reached his section’s table, he got up and complained to the mess sergeant. After some fighting words were exchanged, he lunged at the man just as friends grabbed him and pulled him toward the door. Just two days later he went looking and found the Sergeant alone, and proceeded to beat the hell out of him. This episode familiarized him with his soon-to-be second home at camp. The stockade.
There was more to come.
For example, after training each day, the men were to shower and muster outside as the bugler blew retreat for the evening. On day, McNiece went absent. Asking around, no one knew where he was. An angry sergeant hunted him down, finding him returning from someplace. The exchange went something like this:
“Why weren’t you at retreat?” the Sergeant asked.
“I was over at the PX.”
“What were you doing there?”
“Drinking beer and eating peanuts.”
“You’re in bad trouble. I reported you absent and unaccounted for.”
“Well, you can report back in and tell them you’ve accounted for me. I’m a conscientious objector to retreat.”
The Sergeant’s face tightened into a scowl. “What?”
“I’m a nature worshipper. My mother is Choctaw Indian, she worships nature. My father is Irish Catholic, but I adopted her religion. We only pay tribute to natural things, the sun, moon, stars, things like that. It would destroy me spiritually to go out there and listen to man-made music and salute a man-made flag.”
The Sergeant seemed bewildered as McNiece continued lecturing him about religious freedoms before leaving to report him up the chain of command
For the next week, McNiece still didn’t show up for retreat. Though no one believed his story, they seemed unable to do anything about it. It came to a head when he found himself in front of the company commander, a captain.
“You know, we have 8 million men serving in the Army. Not another man has ever confessed to having this kind of religious servitude.”
“I’m not surprised, Sir. We’re a very small group.”
“I’m going to give you a direct order. You will stand retreat.”
“You’re giving me a direct order knowing it will destroy me spiritually?”
“Well, that’s all I’ve been waiting for.”
He saluted, walked from the office of the confused captain, and never missed retreat again.
Off base, though, the antics continued, as McNiece and his buddies got drunk and fought with anyone who would take them. On one occasion, two MPs confronted them and tried to bring their nightsticks down on a buddy. McNiece grabbed one of the sticks, beat both men into submission, and stole their .45 service pistols to shoot at streetlights. When it was over, it was back to the stockade, with no hope of ever being promoted to Private First Class.
When one looks at stunts like these, one would be hard-pressed to find reason to keep him in the Airborne. But Jake McNiece, faults and all, was the kind of man the Army needed. So he persevered and stood at attention as paratrooper wings were pinned to his chest, and he became one of them, a member of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division.
His assignment was to one of three demolition squads in a pathfinder unit. Setting sail for England in 1943, McNiece looked forward to testing himself against Hitler’s army and seeing how he measured up. However, he still had work to do in the British Isles, where there was just enough time for him to unleash his squad against the unsuspecting populace, give a new meaning to hellraising, and earn their notorious nickname from the Army establishment.
Next week, in Part Two, Jake McNiece and the ‘Filthy Thirteen’ face combat for the first time.