|Sunday, November 11, 2012
The number of World War II veterans is
quickly dwindling. On this Veterans Day, we
bring you the story of one of those heroes
whose war service is the stuff of legends.
Books and movies are not nearly enough to
tell the stories of James "Jake" McNiece,
the leader of the airborne squad known as
the Filthy Thirteen. Now 93 years old,
McNiece, and his wife Martha live in his
hometown of Ponca City, Oklahoma.
"Veterans Day means a lot to most of us boys
that are left, which isn't very many," he
McNiece was among 20 paratroppers of the
famed 101st Airborne who jumped behind enemy
lines on D-Day near Normandy on June 6,
1944. It was a desperate suicide mission to
wreak havoc and blow up bridges to keep the
Germans from resupplying their troops on the
"In three hours I was down to three men,"
McNiece said. "We got our two bridges blown
and placed explosives on the third bridge."
His squadron became known as the Filthy
Thirteen. McNiece says that title came from
the filthy conditions they lived in while
training in England.
"They were the finest soldiers," he said.
The squadron was known for mohawk haircuts
and putting on war paint before battle.
McNiece was personally known for his
off-the-battlefield antics, including
overstaying his leaves of absence. McNiece
laughs about it now, but acknowledges he got
busted in rank numerous times, back to buck
private, when he should have been climbing
"They were troublemakers... I was a
troublemaker. I was the head troublemaker,"
he said. "I kept getting busted every time."
Yet, this so-called troublemaker has been
decorated with nearly 50 medals from the
U.S. government for his heroic work behind
enemy lines. He was awarded the Bronze Star
five times, including the four times he
jumped behind enemy lines. France, Belgium
and Holland have also given him high honors.
The most recent came in September when
McNiece was given the French Legion of Honor
medal at the Oklahoma State Capitol
Despite his antics, the Army recognized
McNiece as a leader and put him in charge of
training soldiers for top secret missions.
His group became known as the Pathfinders.
He and 20 soldiers jumped near Bastogne when
the Americans were cut off by Germans and
faced certain death without supplies. Using
radio beacons, they were able to guide C-47s
with supplies to the drop sites, despite
overcast skies - hence their Pathfinder
name. For decades, the public story was that
the skies had cleared. They hadn't.
"It was 23 degrees below zero," McNiece
That was Dec. 23, 1944. The soldiers had
orders to blow themselves up with their
equipment rather than fall into enemy hands.
Their work enabled American soldiers to hold
Bastogne until General George Patton's Army
could break through.
Many will remember the 1967 movie "The Dirty
Dozen" which was based on the Filthy
Thirteen's stories. McNiece was the
inspiration for the character played by
actor Lee Marvin. During production, McNiece
refused to work with the producers as a
consultant, believing they wouldn't be true
to the story.
Now, McNiece is working with Hollywood. He
has already been visited by script writers
for a yet-to-be-named project on the Filthy
Thirteen that's currently in development.
The average lifetime of a World War II
paratrooper was 1 1/2 jumps. Only two of
them jumped four times and survived their
battles. McNiece is the last one remaining.
"I'm not a hero. I'm just a survivor. The
heroes are still over there pushing up
daisies," he said.