Among the men of HQ Company of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division during World War II was a group of hard-living and hard-fighting brawlers nicknamed the Filthy Thirteen. Selected and trained to destroy targets behind enemy lines, they were known for both their courage in battle and their general disregard for rules of any kind.

Their nickname arose during training in Britain, where they would bathe and shave only once a week, and never washed their uniforms. While this real-life “Dirty Dozen” was not comprised of convicts, the men were not afraid to get into a fight or spend some time in the stockade.

The Filthy Thirteen were led by a half-breed Indian from Oklahoma, Jake McNiece, who despite making four combat jumps and displaying tremendous battlefield courage during the war, was consistently bumped back to the rank of private. On D-Day, they were assigned to take a bridge over the Douve River in France, a mission that would cost most of the men their lives.

Already famous (some might say infamous) during the war, their legend grew in the years since, and with the release of the film The Dirty Dozen, this real-life band of misfits became one of the best-known units of the war. At the American Veterans Center’s 11th Annual Conference, the four surviving men of the Filthy Thirteen – Jake McNiece, Jack Agnew, Robert Cone, and Jack Womer – gathered for the first time since D-Day to share their memories in serving with the toughest bunch of sons of guns of the war. Moderating the panel was Greg Henesy.

Jake McNiece: I had been working as a firefighter for the War Department here in the States after the war broke out, so I was exempt from the draft. By 1942, however, I felt like I needed to get into the service. I happened to be back home in Ponca City, Oklahoma for a few days visiting my mom and dad, when I decided to hit the town one night. I was doing the town up in good fashion, drunker than nine hundred dollars, and looking for trouble. There was a guy I had always had problems with, and ended up getting into a fight with him; I whupped him up real good, and frankly, almost killed him. The local cops were after me pretty heavy, so I decided that I would get on down to Oklahoma City and enlist where they couldn’t touch me. So it wasn’t all total patriotism that got me into the Army; there was a lot of self-preservation that spurred my enlisting.

So I went down to the city and tried to volunteer. At that time paratrooping was a new thing. They were just experimenting with it, and it was all volunteer – just begging for people to be stupid enough to jump out of a perfectly good airplane. So I figured I would try to enlist. This recruiting sergeant wasn’t very encouraging. I was 23-years-old at the time. I had lost a lot of hair, and my face was all scarred up from this fight. He said, “You know they have an age limit of 28. If they catch you lying, they will put you out into the infantry or wherever they desire. Only about one out of every hundred men that volunteer end up qualifying.”

I told him that it was ok. I’d make it.

He said, “Well, now you know this 28-year deal. You may just be 23. I don’t know, but your face and your head looks like its been used as practice for hand grenade tossing and wore out three bodies already.” But he signed me up anyway, and I ended up in the Army in 1942 at the prime wage of twenty-one dollars a month.

Greg Henesy: Now Jake, you really enjoyed Army life, especially the morning reveille and evening retreat, didn’t you?

Jake McNiece: They had a thing there they called retreat. It was observed by all military men everywhere. But I didn’t go to it. They reported me absent and unaccounted for, and told the sergeant to talk to me and get me straightened out, but I told him, “Well, I am a conscientious objector to standing retreat.”

He said, “What do you mean?”