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.