We are deeply saddened to report that World War II hero, and 101st Airborne Division legend, Jake McNiece passed away yesterday morning, January 21, at the age of 93.
Jake, born in Maysville and raised in Ponca City, Oklahoma, was a true product of the “Dust Bowl,” at first seeing few prospects in life beyond high school football, with a number of hardscrabble jobs to follow. Along with other Americans during the Great Depression, however, he retained his sense of humor, his sense of community, and above all, his love of country.
When the United States entered World War II, Jake immediately volunteered for the most elite unit he could find—the newly invented corps of paratroopers—and he was accepted into the 101st Airborne – the “Screaming Eagles.” Thereupon he turned out to be one of the most troublesome recruits in the annals of the division, spending as much time in the stockade as in training. When the 101st was shipped overseas to prepare for the U.S. invasion of Europe, Jake comprised a menace not only to his own officers, but to the English countryside as well. By then he was the leader of a demolition squad attached to RHQ Co, 506th PIR, which for entirely good reasons was known as “The Filthy Thirteen.”
It was on June 6, 1944, that the Germans learned what they were in for. The Filthy Thirteen had shaved their hair into Mohawks before the invasion and put war paint on their faces. When they jumped behind enemy lines on that dark first night of the invasion, combat broke out on all sides and Jake and his Filthies turned out to be masters. Although members of the squad were killed, wounded, or went missing, Jake held the squad together, fighting through the campaign.
Two months later the Filthy Thirteen jumped again into Holland during Operation Market Garden, and once again fought on all sides against surrounding German infantry and tanks. During the Battle of the Bulge, Jake jumped in as a Pathfinder, paving the way for the relief of Bastogne. He jumped behind enemy lines once again, over the Rhine, before the war against Nazi Germany was finally won – an unprecedented total of four combat jumps.
Through it all, and through his life, despite being awarded four Bronze Stars, two Arrowhead Bronzes, and the French Legion of Honor, Jake continued to hold one particular point of pride: throughout his wartime career he never achieved the rank of “private first class.”
Instead, Jake was the de facto “buck sergeant” of the Filthy Thirteen, which later became Hollywood’s inspiration for the movie, The Dirty Dozen. It was in 2003, with the help of historian Richard Killblane, that Jake’s story finally became known to the public in the book The Filthy Thirteen, which we were honored to publish. A uniquely frank account for its time—with Jake’s sense of humor, even in the midst of horrific situations, interfacing with Richard Killblane’s precise research—this work was a main selection of the Military Book Club and by now has gone through too many printings to count.
Jake himself went back to Ponca City, Oklahoma after the war to reside with his wife Martha, and where he worked for the postal service. He also accepted public speaking engagements, and did his best to impart to younger generations his ethos that no hardship is insurmountable, and that a pure spirit of achievement can always hold sway. In the last chapter of The Filthy Thirteen, Jake McNiece’s co-author, and friend, probably said it best:
“Jake provides the example of the kind of man others gravitate to in combat. The qualities that he looked for in others were those that would get the job done in spite of any odds or difficulty.”
We at Casemate much regret Jake’s passing, while remaining in awe of a life that was both well-lived and extraordinarily meaningful, with a true impact upon the generations that followed. An American original was Jake McNiece, and also one of our best.