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'Dirty Dozen' hero from Oklahoma has died

Jake McNiece, left, enjoys the story being told by fellow "Filthy Thirteen" paratrooper Jack Agnew during the American Veterans Center's 2008 annual conference in Washington, D.C.

OKLAHOMA CITY — James “Jake” McNiece, the leader of a World War II group that came to be known as the “Dirty Dozen,” died Monday, family members said. He was 93.

Funeral arrangements are pending and are under the direction of Trout Funeral Home in Ponca City. Survivors include his wife, Martha, whom he married 59 years ago.

McNiece, a retired Ponca City postal worker, commanded a group of rough men nicknamed “The Filthy 13,” who served as the inspiration for the 1967 movie “The Dirty Dozen.” Hours before the June 6, 1944, D-Day invasion, McNiece led 18 paratroopers behind enemy lines to destroy two bridges and control a third to prevent German reinforcements from moving into Normandy and to cut off retreating German troops. Sixteen of his men were killed during the 36-day mission, in which they also cut enemy communications and supply lines.

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In September, he was presented France's most prestigious decoration, the Legion of Honor, during a ceremony at the state Capitol. In 2002, he was inducted into the Oklahoma Military Hall of Fame.

“War is hell,” McNiece said in September after receiving the French medal. “We do not brag about winning the war, and we do not apologize. It was a thing that needed to be done, and we did it and we're glad.”

McNiece had lived most of his life after World War II in Ponca City, but recently moved to the Springfield, Ill., area to be closer to a son.

“He's had a very full life,” Hugh McNiece, the son, said Monday, “and had been enjoying the last many years sharing the stories of what he saw and what he did related to helping make the world being a free place and what that cost he and some of his buddies along the way.”

McNiece was portrayed in “The Dirty Dozen” by Lee Marvin. In interviews, he said he was disappointed the movie had several discrepancies, especially the plot in which the soldiers in the raid were all convicts. He said his soldiers were in military stockades, but were there for violating regulations. None had committed heinous crimes as the film suggested.

McNiece never achieved a rank higher than first sergeant because he had trouble with regulations and extending his leaves without permission. He was a sergeant in combat but usually was demoted to private for his behavior between missions.

The paratroopers in his squadron often showed a reluctance to follow military regulations and procedures, and his outfit became known as the “Filthy 13.”

The D-Day jump was the first of four jumps McNiece made behind enemy lines. Before the mission, he shaved most of his head, leaving a scalp lock that ran down the middle of his head. He joked to his squadron it was an American Indian custom to do that before battle, but he really shaved his head for sanitary reasons to avoid lice, realizing he could spend days without bathing. Most of the rest of the squadron shaved their heads also.

By dawn on June 6, McNiece and his squad had destroyed their two assigned bridges and had a third wired for detonation. Their orders were to hold the bridge over the Louvre River and save it if possible so that advancing Allied troops and tanks could use it. His men held the bridge for three days until American warplanes swooped down and bombed the structure.

In September 1944, McNiece led paratroopers who were dropped near Eindhoven, Holland, to hold key bridges in the liberation of the town the Germans had occupied for five years.

After fighting 78 days in Holland, he eventually volunteered for the Pathfinders, a top-secret group that lost 80 percent of its men during missions. He led paratroopers at Bastogne, Belgium, during the Battle of the Bulge. His last jump was Feb. 13, 1945, near Prume, Germany, to resupply Gen. George Patton's 3rd Army.

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