Jake McNiece, Who Led Incorrigible D-Day Unit, Is Dead at 93
Courtesy of Stars and Stripes
Published: February 13, 2013
D-Day started early for Sgt. Jake McNiece and his fellow paratroopers. Not long after midnight on June 6, 1944, they parachuted behind German lines just ahead of the invasion of Normandy. Their goal was to destroy Nazi supply lines and escape routes. Some called it a suicide mission. The paratroopers called themselves the Filthy 13.
Jim Beckel/The Oklahoman
They were a skilled group, trained as the Demolition Section of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. But they were not the most disciplined of soldiers. They disobeyed orders, bathed infrequently and often disappeared from their barracks for long, liquid and sometimes violent weekends. If they received promotions, odds were good they would eventually be demoted again.
“He spent a lot of time in a stockade,” Hugh McNiece said of his father, “and he was O.K. with that.”
Jake McNiece died on Jan. 21 at his son’s home in Chatham, Ill. He was 93 and had lived most of his life in Ponca City, Okla.
Of the 19 men who jumped with him on June 6, 1944 — the Filthy 13 kept its name but not its number as the war wore on — many were killed or captured. Mr. McNiece was one of the last surviving members of the group and one of its unofficial historians.
Even with the casualties, the soldiers fulfilled their orders: they destroyed two bridges and secured a third. They became heroes — and myths.
More than 20 years after the war, a movie, “The Dirty Dozen,” based on a novel by E. M. Nathanson, bore similar plotlines to the mission of the Filthy 13. But while the Filthy 13 were troublemakers, they were not the convicted murderers and felons portrayed in the film by Charles Bronson, Jim Brown, Donald Sutherland and others. (Unlike the Dirty, the Filthy made no vow not to bathe. They just preferred not to.) The film centered on D-Day, and its characters also did not expect to survive. But the mission in the movie — to kill German officers — was very different. There was also no face paint.
Shortly before the D-Day invasion, the Filthy 13 soldiers shaved their heads into Mohawks and decorated their faces with war paint. It was Sergeant McNiece’s idea. Baldness would be more hygienic on a battlefield strewn with dead bodies, he reasoned, and face paint would add to their camouflage. His mother was part Choctaw.
“I think he was trying to build upon the idea that ‘if they’re scared of us as crazy paratroopers, well, this just makes us look crazier,’ ” Hugh McNiece said.
Sergeant McNiece spent more than 30 days behind enemy lines after D-Day. He later joined the Pathfinders, an exclusive paratrooper unit that jumped behind enemy lines to provide logistical help to Allied missions, including in the Battle of Bulge.
Last fall, Mr. McNiece was awarded the Legion of Honor by the French government.
James Elbert McNiece was born on May 24, 1919, in Maysville, Okla., the ninth of 10 children. His family moved to Ponca City when he was 12. Mr. McNiece dropped out of high school during the Depression to help his father support the family. The Ponca High School football coach, impressed with his ability, lured him back to school by helping him get a job as a firefighter.
Mr. McNiece eventually became captain of the football team and president of his senior class. At the Fire Department, he began developing expertise in explosives, which the department used to level damaged buildings. He also found work in a nearby arsenal. He volunteered for service as an Army paratrooper in September 1942.
In addition to his son, Hugh, his survivors include his wife, Martha; a stepson, Alan Wonders; a daughter, Rebecca Sue Brewer; a stepdaughter, Gerri Vitale; and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
More than 60 years after he enlisted, Mr. McNiece, with the military historian Richard Killblane, wrote a memoir about his war experiences, “The Filthy Thirteen: From the Dustbowl to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest — The True Story of the 101st Airborne’s Most Legendary Squad of Combat Paratroopers.” In the book, Mr. McNiece noted the fluidity of his military rank. He was often reduced to private, he said, except when his unit was preparing for a mission. In those times he served as one of its leaders.
“Every time a guy came into the outfit that another sergeant could not handle, they would put him over in my group and isolate him,” he recalled. “They knew there was no discipline at all in my section.”