PONCA CITY — The lure of 50 extra dollars in his monthly paycheck changed Jake McNiece's life.
Like thousands of young men, McNiece joined the military when the United States entered World War II in 1941.
McNiece soon learned he could receive extra pay if he volunteered to be a paratrooper in the Army's airborne units. The additional income was all the incentive he needed.
McNiece was 23 and recruiters expressed concern about his age, telling him he might be too old. He explained the Army prefers candidates for jump school to be 18 or 19 because “they're not old enough to be scared yet.”
Eventually, he became a member of the 101st Airborne Division.
Now 93, McNiece sat in his living room in Ponca City recently and talked about his work in a demolition saboteur team during the D-Day invasion of Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944.
He was among the many paratroopers who parachuted onto the fields of Normandy in support of the invasion. It was his first combat jump and his only night combat jump.
McNiece and his team landed behind enemy lines with orders to destroy two bridges on the Douve River and to secure a third bridge that could be used later by Allied invading forces. Destroying the bridges would prevent the German army from resupplying their troops who were in fortified positions along Utah Beach.
The assignment, McNiece said, was a “suicide mission.” More than 60 percent of the men who began the mission were killed, captured or listed as missing, he said.
He remembers the troops being told by commanders before boarding their planes to “shake the hand of the soldier next to you.” Then they were given this somber prediction, “There's a good chance one of you won't be coming back.”
McNiece's team had a well-deserved reputation — but not a good one. His men were known for their lack of respect for officers and their unwillingness to adhere to military rules and procedures. McNiece said his team was composed of “some of the finest soldiers in Europe, but they were misfits.” He admits he was the lead misfit.
Men in his unit were recognized by their Mohawk-style haircuts and for the war paint they put on each other's faces before a jump. These were inspired by McNiece, who is Cherokee.
Inspired ‘Dirty Dozen'
Other paratroopers nicknamed his group the “Filthy 13.” The unit is credited with inspiring the movie “The Dirty Dozen.”
The moniker was given them because they didn't keep their uniforms clean or pressed, and didn't keep their shoes and boots shined. He remembered sleeping often in his uniform because it allowed him “to sleep five minutes longer.” He acknowledged that his group's reputation became famous among the troops because “we didn't use any military courtesy.
“We didn't follow all the rules.”
McNiece is certain superiors sometimes overlooked the nonconformist attitudes of the Filthy 13. The brass “knew we were real good soldiers in combat situations,” he said.
Nearly 70 years after the historic invasion, McNiece speaks with pride about the successful efforts of his team on D-Day and the role it played in pushing the Germans back and ultimately winning the war in Europe. He explains he joined the Army with one goal: “I went in to fight a war and get it over with! I didn't join to satisfy the ego of some stupid officer.”
McNiece's unorthodox methods earned him the nickname “Filthy McNasty” among his men. He often found himself in defiance of commanding officers, but he justified his actions, claiming that “men were killed because they listened to a stupid lieutenant. I saw it happen.”
He agrees a soldier needs to be obedient to an officer, “unless you find a fault with their orders that could cost a man's life.”
“I disobeyed orders but it ended up saving men's lives,” he said. He admits being court-martialed “five or six times,” but quickly adds he was never imprisoned. “I did spend a few days in the brig, though.”
Looking back on his rogue ways, McNiece says he has no regrets.
“I fought a war fearlessly, but never sacrificed my men. My men respected me and were behind me 100 percent. Anywhere they went, I went.”
McNiece said he never had any problems with any of them. “We became best friends, like brothers.” Years later, Jack Agnew, a longtime friend and member of the “13,” spoke at a gathering and told the group, “When it came to combat, I wanted to be there beside Jake.” McNiece said he felt the same about Agnew.
Only two of the original “Filthy 13” are still living. McNiece said of the men who accompanied him on the D-Day mission, only four completed it. He said three were captured and the others were killed in battle.
McNiece made three other jumps after the D-Day mission. One of them was during the Battle of the Bulge. He remained in Europe until Germany surrendered.
He didn't return to Normandy until 2004, when France was celebrating the 50th anniversary of the invasion. He said he was treated with honor and respect by everyone. The reception by the French people overwhelmed him. But it was a message he received on another trip to Europe just a few years ago that he remembers most fondly.
German thanks him
After addressing a group in Bastogne in Belgium, a German soldier in a military uniform walked up to McNiece. The German told McNiece he was a paratrooper, too. After hearing McNiece's talk and learning how he had played a major role in defeating Hitler and the German war machine, the soldier stretched out his hand and told McNiece, “I want to shake your hand, and I want to thank you for liberating Germany from the evil government and power that we were under.”
McNiece is humble about his role at Normandy and in ending the war. He insists he was a soldier doing his job. It makes him feel uneasy to be treated as a hero. He says he is not a hero. He's a survivor.
He knows who the heroes are. “The heroes are still over there, pushing up daisies,” he said with a tinge of sadness in his eyes. “I lost a lot of friends over there.”
Maybe it was fate or the extra pay that led McNiece to be a paratrooper. And maybe it's only a coincidence that McNiece and his wife, Martha, have lived in the same house they built in Ponca City in 1953. From their driveway, you can read the name of a nearby intersecting street. The street is named Liberty.