If you have any interest in World War II, then you’ve surely seen one of the most arresting photographs to come out of that conflict. In it, members of the 101st Airborne Division can be seen sporting mohawks and applying war paint to each other’s faces right before they’re set to parachute into Normandy. The idea for that pre-battle ritual came from Jake McNiece, part Choctaw Indian and the section sergeant of the Army’s notorious “Filthy Thirteen” demolition unit, who had already proved himself a highly unorthodox leader long before the countdown to D-Day.
Today on the show, Richard Killblane shares the story of Jake McNiece and the Filthy Thirteen with us. Richard is the author of two books about the unit — The Filthy Thirteen and War Paint — and is himself a veteran of the Army’s Special Forces who served at every level in the military from private soldier to company commander, and ended his career as the Command Historian for the U.S. Army Transportation Corps. Richard describes how you could already see the kind of hell-raising-but-effective leader McNiece would become during his youth in Oklahoma, and why McNiece chose to become a paratrooper. Richard then talks about all the trouble McNiece got into during boot camp, how he ended up leading a section of fellow renegades, and why his superior officers kept him around despite his pattern of engaging in deliberate disobedience. Richard then explains what was going on with the Filthy Thirteen’s pre-Normandy Invasion mohawks and war paint, and what McNiece and his men did on D-Day and during the rest of the war. Richard explains why it was that McNiece got promoted, despite never changing his rebellious ways, and we end our conversation with his surprising transformation after the war.
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in the Podcast
- Richard Killiblane’s Wikipedia page
- Killiblane’s convoy case studies on Korea and Vietnam and Iraq and Afghanistan
- 506th Infantry Regiment
- Jake McNiece
- The Filthy Thirteen
- Hank Hanna
- Jack Womer
- Robert Sink
- Camp Toccoa
Connect with Richard Killblane
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. If you have any interest in World War II then you’ve surely seen one of the most arresting photographs to have come out of that conflict. In it, members of the 101st Airborne Division can be seen sporting mohawks and applying war paint to each other’s faces right before they’re set to parachute into Normandy. The idea for that pre-battle ritual came from Jake McNiece, part Choctaw Indian and the section sergeant of the Army’s notorious Filthy Thirteen Demolition Unit, who had already proved himself a highly unorthodox leader long before the countdown to D-Day.
Today on the show, Richard Killblane shares the story of Jake McNiece and the Filthy Thirteen with us. Richard is the author of two books about the unit, The Filthy Thirteen and War Paint, and is himself a veteran of the Army Special Forces, who served at every level in the military, from private soldier to company commander and ended his career as the command historian for the US Army Transportation Corps. Richard describes how you can already see the kind of hell-raising but effective leader McNiece would become during his youth in Oklahoma, and why McNiece chose to become a paratrooper.
Richard then talks about all the trouble McNiece got into during boot camp, how he ended up leading this section of fellow renegades, and why his superior officers kept him around despite his pattern of engaging in deliberate disobedience. Richard then explains what was going on with the Filthy Thirteen’s pre-Normandy invasion mohawks and war paint, and what McNiece and his men did on D-Day and during the rest of the war. Richard explains why it was that McNiece got promoted despite never changing his rebellious ways, and we end our conversation with his surprising transformation after the war. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/filthythirteen.
Brett McKay: Richard Killblane, welcome to the show.
Richard Killblane: Okay, thanks for having me on.
Brett McKay: So you’ve written a few books about a World War II, call it a squad, part of the 101, they’re called the Filthy Thirteen, they became to be known as that. For big picture, we’re getting into the detail of the story ’cause it’s really remarkable. Who were the Filthy Thirteen? What was their objective and mission during World War II? And then how did you discover the story of these guys?
Richard Killblane: Well, the Filthy Thirteen was actually a demolition section. There was three demolition sections in the demolition platoon of the Regimental Headquarters Company of the 506 Parachute Infantry Regiment, which the Band of Brothers was Easy Company 506 inside 101st Airborne Division, and Jake McNiece was appointed as the section sergeant, okay, and a section included two six-men squads, and so that’s 13 guys. And their mission, their primary mission is anything that has to do with blowing stuff up, okay, that would be like a bridge mission or whatever. But in the event that they don’t have a demolition mission, they were pretty much security around the regimental headquarters, Colonel Sink’s headquarters.
Okay, and so there were two bridge missions during World War II that the 506 had responsibility for. The first one was at the bridge at Brévands over the Douve Canal, just outside… It cuts off any retreat or attack from Carentan. And the other one was the Market Garden. And how I came to know about these guys… Well, actually, I first heard about the Filthy Thirteen while I was in Special Forces in the Army, and it was a friend that told me about it, and I just plugged it in the back of my mind until I got out of the Army and I moved back home to Ponca City, Oklahoma. And lo and behold, the leader of that unit lived in my hometown, so I got to know him, alright, and he was just a prolific storyteller.
Brett McKay: Alright, so let’s talk about Jake, ’cause he’s the main character of this first book. He became known as McNasty during his time with the Filthy Thirteen. Let’s talk about before he joined up, volunteered as a paratrooper. What was he like as a kid? Did you see glimpses of the man who would become known as McNasty in a teenage Jake McNiece?
Richard Killblane: Yeah, okay. The teenage years is where I would say I started. Before that his parents were sharecroppers and actually successful. We tend to think of sharecroppers as poor. No, his father was doing very well, had bought a house when the Depression hit. And then of course, they lost everything, and the kids had to go to work. So Jake had to grow up fast and young, alright. So all the kids worked until they pretty much graduated from high school. He had two older brothers, I think, went into college. So Jake when he was in… Jake was a superb athlete. When you look at the book War Paint, I’ve got pictures of him stripped down to just his shorts going through the obstacle course, the guy is solid muscle. And when I saw his… I read his discharge, he weighed 175 pounds, and I think he stood 5’7″, he’s solid muscle. There’s no fat on that guy, he’s tough.
But a tremendous athlete, both wrestling and football, and I guess he had played a little bit of football. He’d gotten to the ninth grade and he’s going to drop out of school so he can work full-time to support the family. And Oklahoma back then, and there’s a few places now, high school football is semi-pro and Ponca City and its rival town, Blackwell, both in the same county, they had pretty much professional football team because the coaches went out to these smaller towns and recruited athletes, either offering the athlete a job or offering their parents a job. And see, I say, Blackwell and Ponca City, because Blackwell had a, I think, a steel refinery and steel mill and Ponca City had Continental Oil Company.
And so the coach said, “Look, we’ll get you a job with the fire department,” said, “You’d play full time, and then you’ll work at the fire department.” Well, he pretty much lived there. And when he joined the fire department, it’s like the majority of the fire department were high school football players. So anyway, very responsible and… But tough. He… A fighter, a serious scrapper, but when I got to know people, he was admired, though. I think they elected him as the high school… As senior class president. He went to school wearing what you call coveralls or like the bib coveralls, and so everybody else started wearing them.
Aside from his drinking and fighting, and fooling around with loose women, he was admired, ’cause when they got back from the war and he gives that up, and he becomes a born-again Christian, a lot of people said he changed. And from everything I was hearing I said, “No, there was no change.” I said, “Once you strip those three vices from him, you got down to the real Jake McNiece. He’s really a good guy.” The fights he got in with bullies, with people who were starting fights with him, but he would defend other people.
But the story, the narration… Actually, my narration, which leads into Jake’s story, begins with a football game in which they’re playing for blood. Blackwell had beat ’em the last time, so this is a rivalry game, kinda like Army and Navy, they’re zero score. And Jake is a problem-solver, and I love that story. Everybody from… Who was in high school remembers that one play, and Jake is… Because he’s the team captain, but he’s a lineman, and he’s a… Remember, 5’7″. At that time, he probably wasn’t weighing 175 pounds. But the quarterback was, I think, a sophomore. He didn’t have a lot of experience. So Jake would call the plays and then the quarterback would run ’em.
And so Jake says, “Let’s do a quarterback sneak.” And the quarterback, his question is, “Logic?” because the guy he’s going up against is twice his size. And Jake says, “No, just trust me, just trust me.” And he said, “You just call off the numbers, I’ll hike the ball when I’m ready.” And when he does, he chews tobacco. So he’s saying stuff to get this guy’s attention and then he spit tobacco in his eye, blinding him, drives into his chest, drives him back into the end zone, opens a hole the quarterback runs through. And then of course, the guy is wiping… The defensive player is wiping tobacco juice from his eyes and claiming foul.
Jake had to swallow that tobacco in order to cover up the evidence. Well, everybody knew he chewed, knew it was true, but they had no evidence, and it was someone else who was there. It was actually Truman Smith. He goes, “Yeah, I remember seeing Jake… ” ‘Cause I guess he was a freshman or whatever that year. He goes, “I remember seeing Jake puking his guts out in the shower after the game.” But that’s the kind of guy that the first sergeant and the company commander, the original company commander, Hank Hannah, that’s what they saw. They saw a guy who aside from all this other stuff, he is going to get the job done. So does that answer your question?
Brett McKay: No, yes, yeah, you already see a natural leader, someone who will flit around the edges of the rules to get a job done, to be successful. So that was high school. How did he end up joining the paratroopers? What was going on there? Why did he decide to volunteer?
Richard Killblane: Well, as his version of the story picks up, because he was a fireman, he had total exemption from the army, policeman, fireman, mission-essential. Well, he is a fighter and he just can’t stay out of this fight, so he decides to enlist. And why he went into the Airborne is because what little he knew about the paratroopers is, one, he’s going to be with others like him and he had properly… He understood the problem of combat and that is, when you’re kicking in a door, you’re getting up and moving. Is everybody else gonna be following you? Are you gonna be the only guy running across that open ground? And he wanted to fight with men who he could trust, who were gonna follow him, who were gonna be side by side with him.
And the other thing is, he knew that probably some of the heaviest casualties are actually taken on the frontlines and a lot of it is because of who’s on your left and your right. He said, by jumping in behind enemy lines, he had no problem finding the enemy. They were gonna be all around. He just had to find some of his battle buddies, and that’s a modern term, in order to help kill those Germans. So that’s why he enlisted. He didn’t have to enlist, he volunteered, and he wanted to go into the Airborne because he knew there would be a higher class of fighters, and he liked the idea of just jumping in behind the enemy where everywhere you looked was a target-rich environment.
Brett McKay: And he also said… I love this, this is interesting. He says, “If I was gonna get killed, I wanna be able to look the guy in the eyeball while he’s killing me.” And he said, “I could get that in the paratroopers ’cause I’ll jump right into the enemy.”
Richard Killblane: Yeah, that would make sense.
Brett McKay: Alright, so he signs up with the paratroopers and he gets sent off to boot camp. What was the experience in boot camp like and did you start seeing the formation… Is this where you started seeing the formation of the Filthy Thirteen?
Richard Killblane: Yes. Alright, bootcamp wasn’t like boot camp today where you go through a collective training and you come out, and you get individual assignments. That was actually… That is a descendant of the replacement basic training at the end of World War II. Really, from ’41 to about ’43, you went through boot camp in your unit. So he ends up in the 506. And their boot camp was at Toccoa, Georgia, and Colonel Sink, he knew what these men were gonna have to face in combat, and he created an intense weeding-out process, and the normal attrition rate for any school in the army is about 30%. It doesn’t matter how hard or easy it is, if it’s a really hard school like Ranger School or Special Forces school, well, you’ve got people who are that quality signing up for it. An easy school, people who are that quality sign up for it.
Well, there’s speculation that the 506 had lost twice as many people as had passed through it, high weed-out. I think that Colonel Sink’s weeding-out process, what he was left with were not just physically fit, but mentally tough men.
Brett McKay: Alright, So boot camp is really rigorous, and Jake, he excels at the physical aspect of it, the operational stuff, but he really doesn’t like the traditional military discipline aspect of it, like the saluting and standing in formation, and something we haven’t mentioned yet is that Jake is part Choctaw Indian. And he tries to use that to get out of standing in formation, ’cause he says saluting the flag is against his religion because he’s a nature worshipper, and he also gets up into other kinds of pranks and trouble while he’s in boot camp. Can you tell us some more about that?
Richard Killblane: So the shenanigans, and he’s always… He’s just funny. There was one time they were rigging, they were blowing stumps, that’s what they… They’re clearing these stumps out of the swamp. Well, the swamp was full of cottonmouths and so they rigged them with explosives, they said quick, everybody, ’cause he’s just… It just comes to him like, Let’s do this, and everybody followed, so they go in high, they set up an ambush, so here’s these guys marching down the road with the swamp on both side and they blow it, and I think Agnew told the story best. And he said they were showered with mud and cottonmouth snakes, and these guys were pissed, but they couldn’t find him, okay.
He stole a train. They had taught him, that once you jump behind enemy lines, here’s how to blow track, demolition is when you blow track, I was cross-trained as a demolitions man in my first Special Forces assignment, and he taught me… He says, Yeah, where the joint is, you blow that, ’cause now you’re gonna have to repair two pieces of track, not one. But they also taught him how to disable or operate locomotives, ’cause you’re behind the enemy lines.
So he goes downtown and they take the [0:16:02.1] ____ into town, and he overstays time, misses the truck back, so he’s gonna be written up, and so he’s at this railroad station, he’s looking for a train. He sees a tender, which is a small locomotive, and they just move stuff around, he’s waiting for the operators to go get something to eat. When they do, ’cause the boiler is still running, he goes in there and takes that thing and takes off. Now, he says, in all fairness, to prevent an accident, he puts out these toe pockers or whatever, torpedoes or whatever, out there. So if a train is coming, it will pop off knowing that there’s another locomotive on the track.
Well, of course, he’s stolen a locomotive and there is a big investigation on that, and all the guys cover for him, so they’re in lockdown and they got like a couple of weeks before, I guess they’re shipping out and they all have demolitions, and they start blowing stuff up, okay. I think another story… Let me think. He was just getting… Oh, where they say… The critics were going, yeah, he should have been kicked out. Well, it came close, and that was, if you remember the story about him refusing to stand formation, claiming it was against his religion, which he made up, and finally Hank Hannah, who’s the company commander, becomes a very successful lawyer after the war, basically Hank Hannah tells him, “You need to do, I’m giving you a direct order.”
And Jake’s like, “Okay.” The funny part is, he said, “I only stood one formation, then I got thrown into the… ” He gets in a fight and he’s now in the stockade for another two weeks, and then they go through jump school, so it’s like, yeah, he only stood that one formation. Well, him and Shorty Mihlan, both of them were heavy drinkers, so they go into an off limits area to get drunk, and they come out and Jake, I went to the 506 reunions mainly to find out if Jake was making this up, and what I found is everybody was telling better stories.
Well, I love getting the other stories on this. Well, anyway, most people agreed Jake was the toughest guy, and the only guy that would disagree with Eddie [0:18:11.7] ____ who was I really believe was jealous of Jake, okay. So Jake and Shorty are getting drunk and they come out and they’re in an off-limits area and the MPs go to arrest ’em. And Shorty takes a swing at one of the MPs and he falls over and the MPs pull their billy bats out and decide to go to work on him. And Jake grabs the bat and says, “Look, he’s drunk, he is… No harm.” And Jake can’t stand bullies. So like Leave us alone we’re gonna beat this guy, so Jake takes, disarms, takes their billy bats away from them, beats them into the ground, and he’s drunk, and he goes, “Well, now these guys have 45s are pissed off, I can’t allow them to have loaded 45s.”
So he takes their 45s and empties the round. Well, if you’re drunk, how do you empty your 45, you just start shooting out street lights. Funny story to that is, is I was at that reunion and Jake would always begin… Him and Martha would have breakfast in the same McDonalds and it was this local who came by and they knew it was the 506 reunion, and people would come up and see these old guys and sit down and talk with them. One guy said sitting there, he’s going, “Yeah, you guys were wild and rowdy, I remember one night,” ’cause he was a kid, he said, “One night, this drunken Indian just shot up all these street lights,” And Martha, Jake, sat there quiet, Martha is laughing and pointing to Jake said, “That’s the drunken Indian.”
So anyway, Hank Hannah comes in and he goes, “Look, Jake, Colonel Sink wants to break the 100 mile road march,” that was the record that was set by the Japanese. He said, “We know you could do it.” He said, “I’m afraid if I… ” You know, ’cause he was over the… The company commander goes in and bails your soldiers out, I’ve had to do it as a platoon leader and so he goes, “Yeah, but I’m afraid that you’re just gonna get in more trouble and I need you for that road march, so is it okay if I just leave you at the stockade?” And he goes, “Yeah.” Jake was just so reasonable, he’s going, he goes, “Yeah, that makes sense. Sure, I’ll stay here.” And then I went to the first Regimental Headquarters Company reunion, that was the story everybody was telling about, is they’re running up and down, three miles up, three miles down Mount Cree, and the stockade was at the base of the hill, and every time they’re running by, Jake and Shorty Mihlan are behind the wire waving at them like, and then when they were coming back, ’cause Hannah was a fast runner and they go, hie, hie, hie, which is a term like if you got a horse race and it’s neck and neck, you they go, hie, hie, hie, ’cause they’re trying to get the other guys to beat Hannah.
But that I heard in and when I interviewing the guys that there was one point that they came close to, this was where Colonel Sink said, “We gotta get rid of this guy,” and now the First Sergeant was Top Kick Miller, was not a lie, but he was just a true judge of character, but it turned out it was both Hank Hannah and Miller who went to bat and said, “No, sir, we’re not going to a parade field, we’re going into war, and we’re gonna need this guy.”
Brett McKay: Alright, so Jake is something of a hell-raiser, and he ends up leading a section of guys who were also kind of trouble-makers. How did that happen?
Richard Killblane: So what they did is, anybody who was having trouble in the other section, they would give him to Jake. Before they kicked him out, they’d give him to Jake. Well, there are some guys that, I mean, a lot of your trouble-makers are really, really smart. The biggest problem they have is with stupid leadership. So Jake’s not asking them to do anything that doesn’t make sense, and so a lot of them fit in, and so, what they’re doing is they’re surrounding Jake with guys just like himself, and they’re gonna follow his every lead, and so, what the Filthy Thirteen is Jake McNiece and 12 accomplices.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show. Alright, so after boot camp, Jake and his unit gets shipped off to England, and while they’re there, they’re getting ready for D-Day, this is when they actually get their nickname, the Filthy Thirteen, and there’s lots of legends how they got that nickname, one of them is that they had promised each other that they wouldn’t bathe until they were dropped into France and they killed some Germans. But the real story is different. How do they actually get their nickname, the Filthy Thirteen?
Richard Killblane: They lived in Nissen huts, which is kind of like quonset huts on Littlecote Manor. And it was a section, 13 guys, actually, it was 14 guys, ’cause they put the platoon sergeant in there thinking it would clean these guys up, which it didn’t, alright? And they were refusing to… They got a small water ration and they only got a shower, an actual shower on Saturday, they trained till Saturday afternoon lunchtime, and they got a small water ration, which they were supposed to do a sponge bath, but they didn’t… They were also getting British rations, which were terrible, spam, living off the spam, that’s as bad as living off the MREs, and so they started poaching [chuckle] deer, rabbits, trout, there was a fish hatchery there, so they were poaching… As they, say, they were poaching the king’s deer.
Well, they had to use their water to clean and cook it, so they weren’t bathing, and that’s how these guys got filthy, and that’s where they got the nickname, the Filthy Thirteen. There’s a, you probably saw the photo of these guys with that wooden shingle that they wrote the Filthy Thirteen on it.
Brett McKay: Alright, so the filthy, ’cause they were filthy… Like literally physically filthy.
Richard Killblane: They were physically filthy, yeah, yeah.
Brett McKay: And then the other thing the Filthy Thirteen are famous for or best known for, also happened in England. Right before D-Day, they’re getting ready to get on the plane to drop into Normandy, and Jake gets inspired by his Choctaw heritage and he shaves his hair into a Mohawk, and then he puts some war paint on his face, and then the rest of the Filthy Thirteen do the same thing. What’s the story here? What happened there?
Richard Killblane: They had just painted the black and white invasion stripes on the plane, it was still wet, and Jake went over and wiped the paint off with his fingers and started to paint his face. He just does stuff on the spur of the moment, he shaves his head, he puts on war paint, guys going go, “Jake, why are you doing that?” And everybody knew he was part Indian, they didn’t know he was Choctaw. Well, what he says, well, you know, in the Indian culture, we take each other’s scouts, okay? So that’s why the scout walk. And they’re going like, “Well, why the war paint?” And he said, camouflage, camouflage, okay? Those guys are like, “Yeah, we’ll do it.”
The only one that didn’t that we know of was Jack Womer, because he came out of the Ranger battalion, the 29th Ranger battalion, and so he had a different mentality towards discipline than Jake did. And then we’ve got a picture of Trigger Gann, who was attached to him for the jump, but there were two engineer NCOs, a corporal and a sergeant who were attached to him and all, they jumped in with it too. “Hey, shave my head, paint my face.” And the only image we have of Jake with the war paint on is him painting Sergeant Moreno’s face, who was the engineer sergeant, but yeah, these guys were just like follow him on a whim, like that. And that’s the Filthy Thirteen.
Brett McKay: Alright, so the Filthy Thirteen, they get ready for battle in a way that really fits their renegade attitude, and then they get dropped into Normandy as part of the D-Day invasion. What happens to Jake and the Filthy Thirteen on D-Day?
Richard Killblane: As I mentioned, the Filthy Thirteen was the first demolition section of the demolition platoon. The only battalion that had a demolition mission on D-Day was the third battalion. First demolition section trained with the first battalion, the third section trained with the third battalion. To validate Jake’s usefulness, Colonel Sink came to Jake or had Jake come to him and ask him if he would do, would take on that mission to do the bridges at Brévands, okay? And I wanna point this out in the time we have, is that those guys went out the plane early, and I just got my friend that found those two letters that I shared with you, also sent me the troop carrier after action report, and it identified what planes dropped their loads early or whatever, and for the third battalion mission it mentions two planes, I think it said 17 miles from their drop zone, but they were scattered ’cause they were not… They hadn’t slowed down at jump speed, they were still at regular speed.
And I’ve… In interviewing these guys and they described what town they were near, they were spread out over eight miles, and Jake was eight miles from his objective, and what you find is most of these guys that on D-Day, the Airborne, wherever they landed that night, they stayed there. If they fought, they fought there, they regrouped in the daylight, and you look at the band of brothers, they pretty much fought where they were at, and it’s the next day they got together and they went and attacked the mission. Jake was bound and determined, he’s by himself, that he is going to get to that bridge and accomplish his mission.
Now, he follows the path of the plane, and he manages to pick… Everybody that went out before him was either killed, wounded or captured, except Trigger Gann. But he’s managed to pick up most of the guys behind him that went out behind him, except for Jack Womer and… Plus other guys, and remember, they’ve lost most… Because he’s lost most of the guys, he’s lost most of the demolition, so every time they bump into a paratrooper, everybody had demo, so like, give us your demo. By the time he gets… Got to his bridge, he had 13 guys and more than enough demolition to accomplish the mission.
Now, I mentioned Jack Womer, see, and I brought this up in War Paint, that Jake’s discipline was different from others. Everybody expects someone to obey orders. Jake was… In all the antics he was doing, he was deliberately training his men to disobey orders, but he focused on the mission and he promoted Joe Oleskiewicz, who was 17 years old when he joined the Army. He was one of the youngest guys in the unit, and he made him one of the squad leaders, and I said, “Jake, why did you do that?” He said, “Because I knew if anything happened to me,” which he meant get killed, “That Joe would accomplish the mission.
And it hit me at that time, Jake was mission-focused, which is exactly how special forces is, once you accept the mission, you don’t fail them, you don’t come back, you don’t fail the mission, okay, and I understood that. And Jack Womer came out of the Ranger Battalion, he was trained by the British commandos, and the discipline they had is you obey the order because your mission can change, ’cause for example, you’re going into attack one target, but that target is so heavily fortified that it’s suicidal to do it, you gotta be flexible and pick another mission, so you have to obey the orders of your officers.
Like Jake ends up walking through the 501st area sector and runs into Colonel Johnson, and Johnson says, “Your mission’s changed, you now belong to me, I want you on perimeter security,” and he ignores him and keeps going to his bridge. Jack Womer runs into the 501st, first officer says, “Hey, you’re now part of us,” and he obeys, and Steve Devito, who wrote Jack Womer’s story, he pretty much subscribed with Jack Womer’s idea of discipline and was very critical of Jake. And I said, “Let me put it this way. Had Jake and all those other guys had the same attitude to discipline, obey the orders of the officers above you, none of the demolition men would have reached the bridge, that’s why he was the way he was.”
Brett McKay: Alright, so that was D-Day and so this is, they made that jump with the Mohawks, the war paint, Jake, again, taking the initiative to make sure the job gets done, even disobeyed orders to do that. What happened after D-Day? When did they wrap things up there and where did the army send them next?
Richard Killblane: Well, after they recovered from the bridges, they pretty much were security round… Oh, well, no, they had to take Carrington. So the whole 506 regiment had to take Carrington, he was part of that attack, but they were pretty much security for the Regimental headquarters, so they weren’t like the band of brothers actually attacking in there, they did get engaged, but after that, they pretty much performed security patrols, things like that, until they went back to England, and then they did the Market Garden jump. And as I mentioned, the demolition platoon had three bridge missions, so each one of the sections was assigned a bridge.
Now, an interesting story of that is the bombing of the bridges. If you watch the movie Band of Brothers, and when they’re out there on this flank attack, on this one town, and I think Moose or whatever his name is, gets captured and recovered, the scene ends with them looking, it’s dark and they see this bombing of Eindhoven, well, that’s the bombing of the bridges. And Jake’s lieutenant, when Jake saw these Messerschmidts fly over and drop flares, Jake recognized what was gonna happen, he was illuminating the bridges for a bombing run. And Jake told all his guys to get in the bunkers. The lieutenant’s telling him, no, you gotta stay out here and defend the bridges.
And there was a tank, a German tank off in the distance, Jake said, “No one’s gonna be attacking these bridges, [chuckle] while the Germans are bombing it, trust me.” And he goes, “Any of you guys who don’t wanna get killed,” ’cause he didn’t tell ’em, though, that, it’s like anyone don’t wanna get killed, get in the bunker. Well, they all got in the the bunker. Now, the other two sections, when you get it in, you get the story in War Paint, they did as they were trained, they stayed out, and the counter to strafing or bombing is you fire in the air, so these guys have got M1 Grands, Thompson submachine guns and they’re just throwing bullets up that don’t do anything.
And several of them got… There was so many of them that got killed and wounded by the bombing, both the NCOs were killed. Many of the soldiers were seriously injured, that what was left of that platoon was rolled up on for Jake. Jake had the only section that was left intact, and that is when he goes from being section sergeant to the platoon sergeant. Now he’s up from going from buck sergeant, his discharge, he was a staff sergeant, that was a platoon sergeant’s rank, okay? And then Womer will replace Jake as a section sergeant. Alright, that tells you like, okay, he disobeyed the order of the officer, but that was the right thing to do, he saved his section, and what’s left of the others probably made another squad, and they actually sent the officers away, they distributed the officers throughout the rest of the battalion or regiment, and removed the platoon sergeant, gave him other duties.
Basically they’re going, Jake’s the guy who’s gonna keep everybody alive, and that’s something else, when I met Ragsman Cone, Robert Cone, he was captured in Normandy and spent the war as a POW, and it wasn’t until somebody, a radio show, tracked him down, or his son tracked him down, and anyway, he goes to a reunion and starts telling, and when I talked to him about joining the Filthy Thirteen, he said, Jake’s the only one he remembered, but he goes, “I knew that guy was gonna live.” When you talk to these guys, these World War II vets, there’s always like one guy in the company that you know he’s gonna make it through, and he’s blessed with common sense, which usually gets them busted ’cause they’re smarter than most of their leaders, and they’re tough as hell, and that was Jake. And Bob Cone said, “You know, when I looked at Jake, I’m like, that guy is gonna win the Medal of Honor.” Okay? That’s the kind of person Jake was.
Brett McKay: Okay, so after operation Market Garden, Jake joined a group called the Pathfinders, and these guys, they would jump in ahead of the main airborne body to set up things like beacons to guide the rest of the planes in that were dropping off the main airborne body. Half of the Filthy Thirteen joined him on that, and they get dropped into the Battle of the Bulge, and then Jake ultimately, he ended up with four combat jumps, which is… That’s really rare for a paratrooper. After, and then the war ended, after that what happened to Jake? What happened to Jake after the war?
Richard Killblane: Well, by the time they get to occupation in Zell am See, Switzerland, they get discharged on points and they go home, not discharged, they go home on points, and Top Kick Miller, career soldier stuff, that wounded in Normandy, and he had a lot of points, so they sent him home, and the company commander, who was Gene Brown at that time, picks Jake to be the acting first sergeant, so here’s this guy who they will… Gene Brown, there’s a funny story in the book about when they’re in… When they’re in New York port of embarkation, and Jake is still a private, not even private, first plat, and they tell him, “You gotta promote this guy,” and he says, Jake was already AWOL downtown drinking, and Gene Brown says, “They can send me to Leavenworth,” the prison, “before I ever promote this guy to private.” Gene Brown ended up promoting this guy all the way to first sergeant, okay? Acting first sergeant. His discharge listed him as staff sergeant, which was the rank of a platoon sergeant.
After the war, he travels around, raises hell and stuff like that, till he moves back to Ponca City, falls in love with a good Hispanic woman, and she knows his troubled background, and Jake says, “Look,” he said, “My problem is drinking, and if I’m… ” He said, “I don’t get in fights when I’m not drinking,” and so he says, “I give that up, I give it all up.” Well, so here’s Jake, he’s giving up drinking, a lay preacher. Now, I did World War II Living History and one of the guys in my units had just read the book and he says, “Is it true? This hell-raiser became a lay preacher?” I said, “Yeah, it was.” And so I told Jake that and he says, Jake had a comeback for… His real calling should have been a stand-up comic. He goes, “Yeah,” he said, “Next time you’re asked that question,” he said, “Tell him this. I spent the first 35 years of my life sowing wild oats and the rest of my life praying for a crop failure.”
Brett McKay: That’s classic Jake.
Richard Killblane: Yeah, yeah, it was. That summed up his life right there.
Brett McKay: So what do you hope people walk away with thinking after they finish your books about the Filthy Thirteen and Jake McNiece?
Richard Killblane: Well, several things. First of all, take it as an entertaining story, okay? Now, if you’re caught up in discipline and stuff, read between the lines, why do they not kick this guy out? Why do they keep promoting him? Why is he made the first sergeant of the Pathfinders? Why is he made acting first sergeant of Regimental Headquarters Company? Because he’s a leader. The only thing he had problem was was saluting and standing in formation. In his mind, he’s looking like if this doesn’t contribute to my training for the war, it doesn’t make sense, but he also was gonna push the limit, and he did, and he got away with it because they were trying to rationalize with him, alright. For all those people who said, “I’d have kicked him out,” well, you’d have lost the war too, okay? If I was a company commander, I would have had a hard time.
You know, as much as I liked Jake, I’d have had a hard time protecting that guy. We would have got along and he would have probably obeyed what I told him to do anyway because I’d have been rational with him, like Hank Hannah, but he would have definitely fitted as a team sergeant in Special Forces because it was guys like Jake that I knew, but, so read between the lines and look at the leadership, the mission focus this guy had, and that, I would say that’s the… And of course, at the end… Yeah, the guy, the guy… Look, there were two Jakes. [chuckle]
When I went to his funeral, which was held in the church that he pretty much, if they didn’t have a preacher, he would be preaching in and everybody knew he retired as a… All those guys, when I did the War Paint and I followed up on it, they lived the American dream, post World War II, which is get married, buy a home, and get a job with a big company and retire 30-35 years. And he retired 35 years as a postal worker, okay? And the people who were in his church had no idea about the other Jake McNiece until the book came out. And to sit there and hear the stories told, you know, the shock, like, “We didn’t know about this guy.”
My brother went to high school with Hugh McNiece, his son, and he’s like… When he was reading the book, he said, “I’d have never figured this out because his… ” Hugh was a good church-going guy. He carried a bible around in high school, dressed well. He’s like, “You wouldn’t believe this troublemaker was their father.” Yeah, Jake straightened him out.
Brett McKay: Well, Richard, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Richard Killblane: Well, Amazon. I’ve got a lot of books. You can buy them on Amazon. My next book is coming out, which is… It’s about the Rough Riders, mostly from Oklahoma, and it is now listed on Amazon. I like the cover. Title is They Were the Rough Riders, but it’s coming out in January. I think both… The Filthy Thirteen is now in paperback, it’s small print. The hardbacks are hard to get, and I think War Paint is still for sale on Amazon, but I have a… I retired as the Army Transportation Corps historian, and I did a lot of research on gun trucks, both Vietnam and Iraq, and I have several books on those.
And with the Convoy Ambush Case Studies, volume 1, Vietnam and Korea, I was interviewing guys 30 to 40 years after the fact, and so it’s a lot thinner than volume 2, which is Iraq and Afghanistan. My style of writing there was to put you in the vehicles and to get you into the kill zone, okay? I do a much better job on the Iraq volume, because… I was interviewing guys day… ‘Cause I went down range. I rode on convoys. I was interviewing guys days and weeks after the ambush, at most maybe a year after the ambush, but they give you a feel about both the good… How soldiers react under fire, good and bad, heroes and cowards. And those are online. You can buy them, but they’re online, and you go to the Army Transportation Corps web page, click History, click… Or you just type in my name and Convoy Ambush Case Study and you click public… History, and then there’s a publications list, and it has all those books, and you can read them online.
Brett McKay: Well, Richard Killblane, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Richard Killblane: Alright. Hey, thanks for having me on.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Richard Killblane. He’s the author of the book The Filthy Thirteen and War Paint: The Filthy Thirteen. They’re both available on amazon.com. Also, check out our show notes at aom.is/filthythirteen, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
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