Copyright ©2013 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Sixteen million American men and women served in uniform during World War II; 1.2 million are still alive. But now, hundreds of those vets are dying every day. On this Memorial Day and through the rest of this week, we're going to remember some of the veterans who died this year, starting with a man named Jack McNiece. McNiece led a group of paratroopers, who earned the nickname "The Filthy Thirteen." Their exploits inspired a popular movie.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE DIRTY DOZEN")

LEE MARVIN: (as Maj. Reisman) You've all volunteered for a mission which gives you just three ways to go. You can either foul up in training, and be shipped back here for immediate execution of sentence; or you can foul up in combat, in which case I will personally blow your brains out; or you can do as you're told, in which case you might just get by.

SIEGEL: That's Lee Marvin, in "The Dirty Dozen." The film took liberties with The Filthy Thirteen in addition to having one fewer cast member. The real Jake McNiece, though, was no less colorful than the character Lee Marvin played. As McNiece recalled in an interview a few years ago, he led a group of troublemakers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

JACK MCNIECE: I was the head troublemaker. (Laughing)

SIEGEL: Jake McNiece lived till the age of 93. On the eve of the Normandy invasion in 1944, his men jumped behind German lines. Some called it a suicide mission. For the D-Day jump, McNiece shaved his head and painted his face. The look caught on with his men.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

JACK MCNIECE: So I started cutting their hair, and I put markings all over their face for camouflage. And it looked like a bunch of war paint, with Indians.

MARTHA MCNIECE: It was a morale booster, and it not only scared the Germans; it scared the Frenchmen when they landed in France.

SIEGEL: Martha McNiece is Jake's widow, and Hugh McNiece is his son. Hugh says it wasn't just the unorthodox haircuts that earned The Filthy Thirteen their name.

HUGH MCNIECE: They didn't take a lot of baths, and they didn't keep their barracks very clean. And that went along with just a lot of disregard for general military discipline.

SIEGEL: Jake McNiece said The Filthy Thirteen got away with a lot of stunts.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

JACK MCNIECE: We went AWOL every weekend that we wanted to, and we stayed as long as we wanted to. We stole jeeps; we stole cranes. We blew up barracks; we blew down trees; and we stole the colonel's whiskey.

SIEGEL: That sort of petty misbehavior was a long way from the "The Dirty Dozen" portrayal of a team composed of murderers and psychopaths. But the Hollywood spin stuck.

MARTHA MCNIECE: The Filthy Thirteen had to live down the fact that they weren't criminals, for the rest of their lives.

SIEGEL: So Jake McNiece never was a fan of "The Dirty Dozen," but the movie captured an element of truth about The Filthy Thirteen.

(SOUNDBITE FROM THE FILM, "THE DIRTY DOZEN")

MARVIN: (As Maj. Reisman) As of this moment, I'd stack them up against any men in the Army ... look, they might not be pretty, but any one of mine is worth 10 of yours .. .my contention is that my men are more than able to handle any job given them ... now, you gentlemen set this thing up. You promised them a chance, and the least you can do is give them the opportunity to show you what they're capable of.

SIEGEL: That's Lee Marvin, portraying a character loosely based on Jake McNiece, who died this year at age 93. After D-Day, McNiece helped resupply troops in the Battle of the Bulge, and took on other tough assignments. He received four Bronze Stars, two Arrowhead Bronzes; and he was appointed a Knight Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News.

Copyright © 2013 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: