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The Filthy Thirteen: A Band of Brothers Like No Other

In World War II, the United States Armed Forces relied on small units of highly trained soldiers to carry out specialized missions behind enemy lines. One such unit was the 1st Demolition Section, better known as the Filthy Thirteen. Composed of 13 soldiers who were trained as demolition saboteurs, this unit earned a reputation for its mission focus and disregard for aspects of military discipline that did not contribute to their objectives.

Filthy Thirteen member Clarence Ware applies war paint to Charles Plauda, June 5, 1944. The idea was McNiece's, to honor his Native American heritage and to energize the men for the danger ahead.

Sergeant Jake McNiece was the inspiration behind the Filthy Thirteen. Part Choctaw, McNiece was a natural leader and a brilliant strategist. He led his unit through some of the toughest battles of the war, including the Normandy Invasion, the Battle of the Bulge, and Operation Varsity. McNiece was known for his disregard for the military authorities, and he was constantly in trouble for his actions.

The Filthy Thirteen earned their nickname by refusing to bathe during the week in order to conserve their water ration for cooking game poached from the neighboring manor. The soldiers lived in Nissen huts in England and were often seen wearing Native American-style "mohawks" and applying war paint to one another. These practices, along with the unit's mission focus, excited the public's interest in the Filthy Thirteen.

During the Normandy Invasion, the Filthy Thirteen was airdropped with the 3rd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment by aircraft of the 440th Troop Carrier Group of the United States Army Air Forces. Their mission was to secure or destroy the bridges over the Douve River. Despite half of the unit being killed, wounded, or captured on the jump, McNiece and the rest of the soldiers accomplished their mission. Most of the 3rd Battalion leadership had been killed on the jump, so without any contact with the battalion, senior officers assumed the mission had failed and ordered the Air Force to bomb the bridges. The Filthy Thirteen also helped capture Carentan. During Operation Market Garden, the Demolition Platoon was assigned to defend the three bridges over the Dommel River in Eindhoven, the Netherlands. German bombing of the city killed or wounded half the demolitions men in the platoon, and McNiece was promoted to platoon sergeant of what was left. Jack Womer took his place as section sergeant. For the rest of the campaign, the demolitions men secured the regimental command post or protected wire-laying details. On one occasion, the survivors of the Demolitions Platoon were assigned as a rifle squad to an understrength company.

After coming back AWOL from Paris after Market Garden, McNiece volunteered for the Pathfinders, thinking he would never make another combat jump. These were paratroopers sent in ahead of the main force to guide them in or guide in resupply drops. Half of the surviving members of the original Filthy Thirteen followed him into the Pathfinders, thinking they would sit out the rest of the war training in England. To their surprise, they parachuted into the encircled town of Bastogne at the height of the Battle of the Bulge. Anticipating casualties as high as 80–90%, the 20 pathfinders lost only one man. Their CRN-4 beacon enabled them to guide in subsequent airdrops of supplies crucial to the continued resistance of the trapped 101st Airborne Division. McNiece's attitude of considering any activities not directly concerned with his mission as irrelevant got him into constant trouble with the military authorities. Nevertheless, McNiece finished the war as the acting first sergeant and with four combat jumps, a rare feat for an American paratrooper.

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