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 said.
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 beaches.
"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 in rank.
"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 building.
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 said.
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.