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Member of Unit Linked to 'Dirty Dozen' Dies in Pennsylvania
John "Jack" Agnew belonged to the Filthy Thirteen, an unofficial unit within the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, that parachuted into France to take a bridge over the Douve River during World War II.
PHILADELPHIA -- John "Jack" Agnew, one of the original members of a U.S. Army unit that operated behind enemy lines in World War II and is often credited with having loosely inspired the movie "The Dirty Dozen," has died at age 88.
Agnew belonged to the Filthy Thirteen, an unofficial unit within the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. He was pronounced dead Thursday at Abington Memorial Hospital after becoming ill at his home in the Maple Village retirement community in Hatboro, where he and his wife moved about a year ago, his daughter Barbara Agnew Maloney said.
On D-Day, the Filthy Thirteen parachuted into France to take a bridge over the Douve River. It was "a mission that would cost most of the men their lives," according to an article in the winter 2008-09 edition of American Valour Quarterly, a publication of the nonprofit American Veterans Center.
Before the Battle of the Bulge, Agnew and other members of the unit were requested for pathfinder duty and parachuted into Bastogne, which was besieged by German forces. Agnew operated a beacon to help guide in planes carrying badly needed supplies.
Tales of the unit's exploits and a Stars and Stripes military newspaper photograph are said to have inspired "The Dirty Dozen," not because any of the unit's members were convicts like the movie's characters -- they weren't -- but because of their reputation for brawling, drinking and spending time in the stockade.
In interviews, Agnew, a private first class, said that came directly from the unit's leader, Jake McNiece.
"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," he told the quarterly. "We were always in trouble."
Agnew was among those interviewed in a documentary, "The Filthy Thirteen: Real Stories from Behind the Lines," that was included in a 2006 special edition DVD of "The Dirty Dozen."
The 1967 movie, about an Army major who has to train and lead 12 convicts into a mission targeting German officers, starred Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, Telly Savalas, Donald Sutherland and Jim Brown.
Maloney said her father told her about 30 percent of the movie was true.
"And, actually, the scene where they captured the officers, Dad said that was true and he really coordinated that," she said Sunday.
Two months ago, Maloney said, she accompanied her father to a military history convention in Louisville, Ky., where she met with three of the four surviving Filthy Thirteen members and three members of Easy Company, which was the focus of the HBO series "Band of Brothers".
"Dad, when we were little kids, he'd always say, 'I won the war; I know you don't believe me, but someday you'll know,'" she said. "We didn't really realize it until the 'Band of Brothers' came out."
Agnew will be buried with full military honors Tuesday at Forest Hills Cemetery in Huntingdon Valley, in the Philadelphia suburbs, where he and his wife, Elizabeth Agnew, lived for 56 years, Maloney said.
Book Description - "The Filthy Thirteen"
Since World War II, the American public has become fully aware of the exploits of the 101st Airborne Division, the paratroopers who led the Allied invasions into Nazi-held Europe. But within the ranks of the 101st, a subunit attained legendary status at the time, its reputation persisting among veterans over the decades. Primarily products of the Dustbowl and the Depression, the Filthy13 grew notorious, even within the ranks of the elite 101st. Never ones to salute an officer, or take a bath, this squad became singular within the Screaming Eagles for its hard drinking, and savage fighting skill and that was only in training. Just prior to the invasion of Normandy, a "Stars and Stripes" photographer caught U.S. paratroopers with heads shaved into Mohawks, applying war paint to their faces. Unknown to the American public at the time, these men were the Filthy 13. After parachuting behind enemy lines in the dark hours before D-Day, the Germans got a taste of the reckless courage of this unit except now the men were fighting with Tommy guns and explosives, not just bare knuckles. In its spearhead role, the 13 suffered heavy casualties, some men wounded and others blown to bits. By the end of the war 30 men had passed through the squad. Throughout the war, however, the heart and soul of the Filthy 13 remained a survivor named Jake McNiece, a half-breed Indian from Oklahoma the toughest man in the squad and the one who formed its character. McNiece made four combat jumps, was in the forefront of every fight in northern Europe, yet somehow never made the rank of PFC. The survivors of the Filthy 13 stayed intact as a unit until the Allies finally conquered Nazi Germany. The book does not draw a new portrait of earnest citizen soldiers. Instead it describes a group of hardscrabble guys whom any respectable person would be loath to meet in a bar or dark alley. But they were an integral part of the U.S. war against Nazi Germany. A brawling bunch of no-good niks whose only saving grace was that they inflicted more damage on the Germans than on MPs, the English countryside and their own officers, the Filthy 13 remain a legend within the ranks of the 101st Airborne.
Members of the Filthy Thirteeen
Jake McNiece, Jack Womer, John Agnew, Lt. Charles Mellen, Joseph Oleskiewicz, John Hale, James T. Green, George Radeka, Clarence Ware, Robert S. Cone, Roland R. Baribeau, James E. Leach and Andrew Rassmussen. Others including Frank Palys and Charles Plaudo were sometimes members of the group.