The Filthy Thirteen was the name given to an elite unit within the ranks of the HQ / 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, of the United States Army, which fought in the European campaign in World War II. This unit was selected and trained to demolish enemy targets behind the lines. They were assigned to destroy a bridge over the Douve River during the Normandy Invasion of Europe in June 1944, a mission that cost the lives of most of these men. The group was airdropped for the mission by aircraft of the 440th Troop Carrier Group of the U.S. Army Air Force.
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 other. The inspiration for this came from Jake McNiece, who was part Native-American.
After a disciplinary incident while on leave, McNiece joined the "Pathfinders". These were paratroopers sent in ahead of the main force to guide them in. Expected casualties were 80-90%. The pathfinders were dropped into the encircled city of Bastogne at the height of the Battle of the Bulge. Their equipment enabled them to guide in subsequent airdrops of supplies crucial to the continued resistance of the trapped 101st Airborne Division.
Many believe this unit was the inspiration for E.M. Nathanson's The Dirty Dozen. While there were similarities between the Filthy Thirteen and the Dirty Dozen, there were also many differences. For example, the Filthy Thirteen was not a unit of convicts, though they did have a well-earned reputation for hard living, drinking and fighting. 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.
Jake McNiece considered that any activities not directly concerned with killing the enemy were irrelevant. This attitude caused him to be in constant trouble with the military authorities. Nevertheless McNiece finished the war with four combat jumps including Normandy and Market-Garden - a very rare feat for US paratroopers.
An interview with Jake McNiece and Jack Agnew can be found on the two disc version of the "Dirty Dozen" DVD.