. . . INTO THAT GREAT BIG DROP ZONE IN THE SKY . . .
John "Jack" Agnew, 1922-2010, American Paratrooper, Hero of World War II
Member of Unit Linked to 'Dirty Dozen' Dies in Pennsylvania
By RON TODT - Associated Press
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.
(During) 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.
A real young Charles Bronson, before becoming consumed by hatred & vengeance in the Death Wish series of films.
In interviews, Agnew, a private first class, said that came directly from the unit's leader, Jake McNiece.
Jake McNiece, somewhere in England, 5 June 1944.
"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.
Bona-fide-war-hero-in-his-own-right Lee Marvin cuts the definitive cool guy submachine gun action pose in Dirty Dozen.
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.
"The Dirty Dozen" author E.M. Nathanson may have gotten the idea for the title (if not the plot) of his best-selling novel from a real-life group of World War II 101st Airborne Division paratroopers nicknamed "The Filthy Thirteen." These men, demolitionists in Headquarters Company of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st, supposedly earned their nickname by not bathing or shaving for a long period of time during training prior to the Normandy invasion. Members of The Filthy Thirteen can be seen in famous vintage film footage and still photos, their faces painted with Indian "war paint," before boarding their planes for the D-Day jump.
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.
Jack Agnew and Robert Cone getting ready for the Normandy Jump.
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.
They climbed onto those birds in England and exited over Normandy . . . and became the Stuff of Legends . . . they are Heroes . . . Honor them.