Filthy Thirteen member Pvt. Clarence C. Ware, 438 W. 15th St., San Pedro, Calif., gives a last second touch to Pvt. Charles R. Plaudo, 210 N. James, Minneapolis, Minn., make-up patterned after the American Indians. Somewhere in England, 31 December 1943.
The Filthy Thirteen was the name given to the 1st Demolition Section of the Regimental Headquarters Company of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, of the United States Army, which fought in the European campaign in World War II. The Demolition Section was assigned and trained to demolish enemy targets behind the lines. They were ordered to secure or destroy the bridges over the Douve River during the Normandy Invasion of Europe in June 1944. Half were either killed, wounded or captured, but they accomplished their mission. They also participated in the capture of Carentan. The group was airdropped for the mission by aircraft of the 440th Troop Carrier Group of the United States Army Air Forces. This unit was best known for the famous photo which appeared in Stars and Stripes, showing two members wearing Indian-style “mohawks” and applying war paint to one another. The inspiration for this came from unit sergeant Jake McNiece, who was part Choctaw.
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. 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 from AWOL to Paris after the Netherlands, McNiece joined the Pathfinders. These were paratroopers sent in ahead of the main force to guide them in or guide in resupply drops. Half 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. Expecting casualties as high as 80–90%, the pathfinders were dropped into the encircled town of Bastogne at the height of the Battle of the Bulge, losing 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 considered that any activities not directly concerned with his mission were irrelevant, an attitude that got him in constant trouble with the military authorities. Nevertheless, McNiece finished the war as the acting first sergeant and with four combat jumps, a very rare feat for an American paratrooper. His jumps were made in Normandy, the Netherlands as part of Operation Market Garden, the pathfinder jump in to Bastogne, Belgium, during the Battle of the Bulge, then his last jump as an observer with the 17th Airborne Division during Operation Varsity.
Of the activities of the Filthy Thirteen, Jack Agnew once said, “We weren’t murderers or anything, we just didn’t do everything we were supposed to do in some ways and did a whole lot more than they wanted us to do in other ways. We were always in trouble.”
The name “Filthy 13” referred to the fact that, while training in England, they washed and shaved once a week and never cleaned their uniforms because they used their water ration to cook illegally poached deer, rabbits and fish. The number 13 referred to the 13 enlisted men of a demolitions section, two six-man squads and the section sergeant.