After their arrival in Great Britain on September 15th, 1943, the 506th P.I.R began setting up billets in various parts of Southern England. Jake McNiece and his unit set up amongst the Regimental Headquarters and Service companies on the vast acreage of Sir Ernest Wills’ manor place. Wills was the cigarette magnate of Britain, and provided the many Quonset huts for these Americans, unaware of a certain squad that would unleash trouble over the coming months.
The 506th began training at once. Everything was as physical as could be made. Men ran exercises and courses so much they could count every thump of boot in their sleep. Just as wasted, and turning in each day with McNiece, were the rest of his squad, twelve men, many of whom would be transferred in and out all the way up to the departure for Normandy. There were valid reasons for most of these, but over the weeks, McNiece learned another method was in play.
Discipline was paramount in the Regiment, and the overwhelming majority of the men adhered to that standard. However, there was the odd man who thought he knew more than anyone else, and clashed with authority. Besides the stockade, if there was room, and it seemed there always was, they would find their new home in the Quonset hut of Jake McNiece’s section.
Discipline might as well have been a foreign word to them. Hell, they didn’t even salute officers. The new arrivals found out it was only their continued prowess in training that kept the whole lot from being busted and hauled before a court martial. And if it did happen, they would likely appear as they always did, unshaven and filthy from the black dust that followed them out their quarters each time.
Their hut had stone floors, and bunk mattresses stuffed with dried corn shucks over wire frames. They found that, if they slapped a mattress, it would spume a black dust cloud. If they didn’t get the dust out of the mattress, the men who slept in their underwear were covered in the stuff. So the most effective thing for them was to sleep in their uniforms seven days a week. They felt cleaner this way, not that it mattered, as they never cleaned their barracks anyhow.
Anytime an inspection occurred they simply told the officers to help themselves. The stuff the inspectors found, and its associated stench, would gag a maggot. Fish skins, heads and guts lay strewn over the floor, as well as unwashed uniforms, which offered a variety of smells. McNiece explained they were rationed to one bath a week, a cold one, and they had to wait up to three hours in line for it. And what good would it do to wash clothes when the dust would be back on them before morning? Besides, they figured they only really needed showers when they went on leave into town to get drunk, or to find the one thing that would set McNiece off to scrounging… Good food.
McNiece and the others hated the stuff the army had shoveled into the plates back at Toccoa, so he went foraging for tasty alternatives. One day, he threw his gaze over the fence and into Sir Wills’ estate. There, he saw deer and rabbits and the squad’s future food supply. He and a comrade began going over day after day to poach game and bring the festival full circle by having fresh meat for dinner, as well as kegs of beer and fresh fish, courtesy of McNiece sidetracking to a local hatchery and stuffing his pockets with as much fish as he could.
One can surmise the reaction if the rest of the regiment had discovered that some misfits were eating like kings every day, while they had to stand in line to receive their paltry portions. But day in and day out, that is the way it was, better than home, at least until Sir Wills inspected his grounds and noticed discarded deer heads, rabbit fur and various other once-living oddities strewn about.
A hated captain confronted McNiece, who denied everything. He questioned the other members of McNiece’s squad, who admitted they ate meat but didn’t know what kind. In the end, no one confessed to anything.
“That barracks of yours smells like a damn hamburger joint twenty four hours a day. I can smell you! That shit is going to quit!” The captain snorted, knowing how guilty they all were.
McNiece replied innocently, “I certainly hope it does. I hope the whole outfit doesn’t get penalized because of some man’s hunger and greed.”
The captain left, knowing they were guilty, but since no one admitted anything he could do nothing.
Regardless, the regiment ended up paying Wills several thousand dollars for the missing animals.
The hijinks continued away from the camp, as well.
London was close by, and instead of the shower wait, they got passes for the weekend, and wore their filthy clothes to one of the Red Cross buildings in town. There they bathed, shaved and changed into spare sets of washed clothes, met women and hit the pubs before the rest of the 506th got to town. From that point on, it was an orgy of wine, women, and fighting with anybody who dared cross them, until it was time to report back in on Monday… if they decided to report back at all. There, they would most often find the others who had disappeared at some point, passing time in the stockade, which, just like the one at Toccoa, often included their leader McNiece, itching for his next adventure.
AWOLs, arrests and getting chewed out continued as part of daily life for the group who was now being called publicly the “Filthy Thirteen.” No one knows who coined the name, which was something they took no offense to, but instead wore as a badge of honor. They insisted to detractors that, despite their insubordination, they would be second to none when it came to killing Germans and completing their mission. They always pointed to their performances during training and war games, which seemed to calm the accusers down and convince them that there was more to this motley group than visible evidence suggested.
As June rolled around invasion nerves began, and every American combat unit knew they could get the word any minute to head for departure points and begin their journey toward the French coast. Even more, the 506th happened to be at the tip of a spear that would plunge into the continent, and pave the way for those on the beaches. All of them counted down the days for that message to run across the wires.
When it came, the Filthy Thirteen (with seven extra because Jake requested them for this mission), filed onto trucks to take them to the airfield. There, as they gathered in their respective sticks of men assigned to each aircraft, they sported a new look. Mohawks. This served as more than a symbolic purpose, as McNiece said to the others after conveying that it was a custom back home. “I’m cutting mine off because of the lice we’re going to be in. There’ll be lice under every leaf. No telling when you’ll get a bath again.” The others then agreed to have their heads shaved.
McNiece also began applying Indian warpaint to them. Unbeknownst to him, a cameraman happened to catch the act and filmed it for the record. When they were done, only their uniforms signified they were Americans. Their new look was all their own, and one that would soon hit the newsreels and papers, telling their story. Hearing the signal, they gathered their gear and climbed aboard their C-47, which soon became part of thousands in an airborne armada heading through the calm darkness for Normandy.
Their mission was to blow three bridges, and hold one that was below the Douve river canal. Doing this would cut avenues of enemy reinforcement, and allow an advance over the one intact structure.
Approaching the drop zone, the C-47 was straddled by flak bursts as the men stood and hooked their parachute lines into a cable running the length of the fuselage ceiling. Being jostled about was bad enough, but then the plane took a direct hit, opening a large hole next to McNiece and sucking one of the men out. Somehow, he and the rest of the men managed to push themselves to the door and scatter into the night.
McNiece came down in a German bivouac area, shed his harness and fired at fleeting shadows as he ran away. After awhile, he realized he was lost in enemy territory and alone. He kept moving and found a straggler from his stick, and then a few others, and they set off to find their location. Turns out they were about two miles outside of Sainte Mere Eglise, one of the objectives of the 82nd Airborne.
A new reality was brought home to McNiece. He and one other of the Filthy Thirteen were still around. The others were missing, possibly dead. There were men from his platoon with him, but not his squad. They proceeded on toward their objective, skirmishing with Germans, and even knocking out a command post before they reached their targets at 0300 hours with thirteen people. They blew the two bridges and reached and wired up the bridge they were to hold, just in case. To their advantage, none of the bridges had been guarded. They settled in, listening to fighting far off and waited for it to reach them.
That morning, the Germans tried to cross the bridge. The paratroopers cut them down as their boots set foot on the structure. They held it through the next day as the Germans tried again, with heavy losses. Both times they had fought, outnumbered, and both times they had prevailed.
By the fourth day their relief still had not arrived, and instead, they were subjected to strafing attacks from U.S. fighters who drove them away from the bridge, then bombed it into oblivion. McNiece raged with anger at the sight as his men left the area. If there was any comfort to it, no German tanks would ever cross it now.
They continued on, fighting where needed over many days, inflicting heavier losses than they took. In one patrol, they came upon a badly wounded German whose chest had been torn open by machine gun fire. A chaplain was with McNiece’s group on this one. He looked at the injured man and said, “Give him a shot.” McNiece misinterpreted it, looked over at another man and said, “You’ve got that .45. Blow his head off.” Before the chaplain could intervene, the trigger was pulled. the chaplain screamed at McNiece, who replied. “Do anything you want with your morphine. There’ll be a thousand paratroopers around here who need it. We’re not wasting it on these Krauts.”
What was left of the Filthy Thirteen then went on to assault the vital town of Carentan, while eating as well as possible, butchering animals and eating their daily supply of meat when they could. Rations were not welcome here, as none planned to starve and still have to fight like others, when they had a smorgasbord of animals they could hunt or had already been killed as by-products of battle. That trait of finding the best food never changed, even in a combat zone.
After they pulled off the line in late June, McNiece took stock of what happened to the others of that 20 man unit in the C-47. Eight were alive. The others had died. Only six of the ‘original’ Filthy Thirteen remained.
They returned to England for replenishment and trouble, with McNiece AWOL and behind bars as usual. Between that and training, new faces began filling the squad and learning of their unique place in the regiment.
With a new Filthy Thirteen, the men were back in action by September 17th, as part of Operation Market Garden, the British plan to seize thirty three bridges in Holland, then strike into Germany. The 506th dropped and seized a series of bridges around the city of Eindhoven, with McNiece’s unit fighting hard for five days and losing two killed.
They fought at places like ‘The Island,’ where another unit, the famed Easy Company ‘Band Of Brothers,’ also fought. Later, they deployed in the rescue of some of the Red Devils – British 1st Airborne paratroopers trapped near the city of Arnhem, and pulled off the line thereafter, going AWOL on liberty. As it was, Market Garden was ultimately a failure, but the paratroopers of both nations fought bravely. They just happened to drop in the midst of the 9th and 10th SS Panzer divisions, who were re-equipping at the time. The Airborne units had little in the way of weapons to cope with tanks.
Three months afterward, the Filthy Thirteen’s third jump occurred outside Bastogne, during December’s opening phases of the Battle of the Bulge to help the surrounded 101st. The men landed on the front lines, and endured daily fights in the snowy terrain and nightly visits by the German Air Force and artillery. McNiece did his usual scrounging for meat, getting some chickens and bunking with the unit in blasted houses. Meager as supplies were, as always, they managed to have meat most days, as one could smell the scent of fried chicken wafting among the frigid air. They made it through the encirclement’s duration, and pulled to a rearward area shortly before Allied forces pushed into Germany.
On February 13th, 1945, the unit commenced its final combat jump as part of Operation Varsity, the largest airborne assault in history. This time, the group came down on German soil and fought days on end, linking up with the rest of the regiment as they rendezvoused with the 90th infantry division, who provided them with food and shelter. This offensive never really ended, and started the 101st’s drive toward the famed Eagle’s Nest, Hitler’s private residence in Berchtesgaden, where they liberated tens of thousands of bottles of wine.
Of course, McNiece made damn sure the Thirteen had several week’s worth.
They lived it up beyond Germany’s surrender on May 7th, before moving to the picturesque resort town of Zell-am-See, in Austria. Here, the points system took hold and those with the most numbers rotated stateside. When not drinking, McNiece often fished in the lake by blowing C-4 underwater and letting the concussion float the fish to the surface. His turn to leave finally came in December, but not before visiting Paris a final time, getting into a drunken, bloody fight and having his eardrum punctured.
Once back in the States, he had some surgery because of the fight, and hitchhiked home. He fulfilled a promise to his dad by driving him all across the country seeing the sights. He worked odd jobs in different states, often getting fired for being drunk, getting into fights or both.
He married, only to see his wife die of cancer a handful of years later. Marrying again, he changed his ways. He became a father, stopped drinking and became a Christian. He worked a postal route until retiring in the late 70’s. Between that time, McNiece started attending 101st reunions, and found his buddies trying to reach him again. They carried on like 20 year olds when they met, and as the years passed their story found its way to the ears of Hollywood executives.
These Hollywood executives wanted to make a movie about the unit in the 1960’s, but McNiece turned them down. The memories of the war was still too fresh for him, so the resulting story hitting the theaters was only loosely based on the Thirteen. It was called “The Dirty Dozen”, starring Lee Marvin, leading a group of killers and robbers against the Nazis. In later interviews, McNiece and his comrades always had to emphasize that they were nothing like what the public saw in a movie. They got in trouble, they said, but never robbed or murdered.
In his final years, McNiece watched the survivors of his unit slowly pass into history while ironically he, the last one, the greatest hellraiser of them all, was the only one left. On January 21st, 2013, at the age of 93, Jake McNiece died at his son’s home in Chatham, Illinois.
It is fitting to close this story with a bit of insight into Jake McNiece’s character. He never bragged about anything except this: In the entire time he led the Filthy Thirteen, he never once was promoted to Private First Class.
Rare is it that one ever led a life so full.
The Original “Filthy Thirteen”
(Featured Image Courtesy: Brevort, with Ed “Doc” Pepping – Jake McNiece – Reed Pelfrey, Toccoa Military Weekend – Toccoa, Georgia 10-2-10)