James "Jake" McNiece, the leader of World War II's "Dirty Dozen," humbly accepted France's most prestigious decoration Wednesday, nearly 70 years after he led a squad of paratroopers behind enemy lines in that country to support the D-Day invasion.
McNiece, a retired Ponca City postal worker, commanded a group of rough men nicknamed "The Filthy 13," who served as the inspiration for the movie "The Dirty Dozen." Hours before the June 6, 1944, invasion, McNiece led 18 paratroopers 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.
"I want to extend my thanks and my appreciation to the French ally we had and the great service they were in World War II," said McNiece, 93. "It was an honor to serve with them."
He thanked the French government for giving him the medal of the Legion of Honor, which made him a knight in the French Order of the Legion of Honor.
"There were hundreds of other soldiers who were more deserving than I," McNiece said.
Frederic Bontems, the Houston-based consul general of France, presented McNiece with the medal of the Legion of Honor. France decided a few years ago to award the medal to American veterans of World War II.
"I have the honor to recognize the courage you displayed so many years ago on a land that was so foreign to you and yet for which you were prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice," Bontems said. "In the name of the French people, I thank you for your personal contribution toward the liberation of my country."
Bontems presented the medal to McNiece, who was accompanied by his wife of 59 years, Martha; several family members were among the more than 100 people who packed the governor's ceremonial Blue Room for the ceremony.
"War is hell," said McNiece, who was inducted 10 years ago in the Oklahoma Military Hall of Fame. "It is a great honor and pleasure to serve this nation and the things that they stand for. We hope that we will never see another great war like the one that we fought. We consider it an honor and a pleasure to serve this nation.
"We do not brag about winning the war and we do not apologize," he said. "It was a thing that needed to be done and we did it and we're glad."
McNiece was portrayed in the 1967 film, "The Dirty Dozen," by Lee Marvin; he was disappointed the movie had several discrepancies, especially the plot in which the soldiers in the raid were all convicts. 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."
"He didn't care too much about the discipline and the hoopla and all that other stuff," said his son, Hugh McNiece, 53, of Springfield, Ill., after the ceremony. "He had a job to do; he did it and he loved the friends he made along the way."
The D-Day jump was the first of four jumps he 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, James 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.
Bontems on Wednesday declared McNiece a chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur, or a knight of the Legion of Honor.
"Being a knight refers to a very basic concept, a concept that has remained untouched for centuries," Bontems said. "Receiving the title of knight means that you have demonstrated virtue, bravery and strong commitment to a noble cause.
"James McNiece, during World War II and the libration of France you displayed these three concepts in a most commendable way. Your life during and since the war prove that knight is a rank to which you are entitled."