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.”