The Legend of the Filthy 13
No other group the 440th Troop Carrier Group carried into battle has inspired more legend and myth than the story of the special demolition squad, the "Filthy Thirteen." Their story, told on page 40 of DZ Europe: The Story of the 440th Troop Carrier Group, was an account of the Thirteen taken from a June 1944 issue of Stars and Stripes. It's hard to tell almost sixty years on whether the fictional parts were derived to inspire the folks at home or to scare the hell out of the Germans, maybe both.
The few survivors of the famous Filthy Thirteen have a slightly different story to tell. 101st Airborne historian Mark Bando interviewed a couple of the original Thirteen for his book, The 101st Airborne at Normandy, published in 1994.
They were members of HQ/ 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, and the roster included: "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." Only a few survived the Normandy mission, though the members of the unit did complete their assigned mission, blowing bridges over the Douve River.
A review of surnames from the group quickly disposes of the myth that they were all "Indians." Several are of Polish descent and Robert Cone who was badly wounded in Normandy and captured was Jewish. He would spend the remainder of the war in POW camps.
Another myth of the Thirteen was that Lt. Mellen could whip any member of the group. According to Jake McNiece, "any one of our group could have whipped him without working up a sweat." Lt. Mellen was KIA in Normandy and was found dead, bandaged about the arm and leg. Apparently he fought on for some time after being wounded.
The notoriety the Filthy Thirteen gained in Stars and Stripes and the famous photo in DZ Europe of two of them applying war paint certainly inspired first the novel and then the movie, "The Dirty Dozen," a completely fictional story. Fortunately, a new book about the famous Thirteen is due out in April 2003, The Filthy Thirteen: The True Story of the Dirty Dozen, by Richard Killblane and Jake McNiece. It is to be published by Casemate and details the story of the famous squad from Normandy to Bavaria.
Sources: The 101st Airborne at Normandy, by Mark Bando; Trigger Time, 101st Airborne web site, by Mark Bando; Stone & Stone Second World War Books web site.