‘The Dirty Dozen’: Meet D-Day’s Real Rogue Commandos

June 6, 2023Mac Caltrider
The Dirty Dozen

Members of the “Filthy Thirteen” don Choctaw war paint. US Army photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In June 1944, the Allied powers mustered 160,000 soldiers to storm the beaches of Normandy, break through Hitler’s dreaded Atlantic Wall, and begin the liberation of Nazi-occupied Europe. Among the American units tapped to participate in the invasion were an elite group of commandos belonging to the US Army’s 101st Airborne Division. Experts in explosives and sabotage, they were officially called the 1st Demolition Section of Headquarters Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment. But because of their blatant disregard for Army grooming standards and basic hygiene, they were better known by a different name: “The Filthy Thirteen.”

Dirty Dozen

The Filthy Thirteen double check their gear before jumping into Normandy, June 1944. US Army Signal Corps photo, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Related: John Wayne Dodged the Draft in WWII, But These 6 Movie Greats Did Not

Suicide Squad

The leader of the 1st Demolition Section was Sgt. Jake McNiece, an Oklahoman of Choctaw descent. On the eve of D-Day, he shaved his head into a mohawk and smeared his face with war paint. The 12 other members of the 1st Demolition Section, who were also of Native American descent, followed McNiece’s example and adopted the same look. Some of the men neglected to shower in the days leading up to the operation. A few sported beards because they refused to shave. 

On the night of June 5, the Filthy Thirteen boarded a C-47 in Portland Bill, England. They were given a suicide mission: Jump behind enemy lines ahead of the bulk of the invasion force and destroy several key bridges. If successful, they would disrupt the Germans’ ability to withdraw from and reinforce key positions across Normandy.


A jumpmaster from the Round Canopy Parachuting Team conducts parachute inspections in Fresville, France, June 2, 2016. US Army photo by Spc. Joseph Cathey.

The Filthy Thirteen parachuted into northwestern France and proceeded by foot along the banks of the Douve River. Ultimately — though at the cost of four commandos killed in action, five wounded, and four more taken prisoner — they succeeded in destroying two bridges and seizing control of a third. In time, their exploits would become known to the world, inspiring the 1965 novel The Dirty Dozen, which was adapted to the big screen two years later.

Related: Steve McQueen Was A Brig-Rat Marine Legend Before He Became Hollywood’s ‘King of Cool’

The Dirty Dozen Cast Were Mostly War Veterans

The Dirty Dozen premiered in theaters on June 15, 1967, and quickly climbed to the top of the box office. It earned $45.3 million, to become MGM studio’s highest grossing film of the year.

Jake McNiece

Jake McNiece, right, applies war paint to another member of the Filthy Thirteen. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Dirty Dozen’s success was partly owed to its ensemble cast. Furthermore, many of the actors were themselves World War II veterans. Lee Marvin played Maj. John Reisman, a character loosely based on McNiece. Marvin had served as a scout sniper in the Marine Corps and was wounded while fighting on the island of Saipan. George Kennedy, who appears in the film as Maj. Max Armbruster, served in Patton’s army after being told he was too big to be a pilot. He earned two Bronze Stars during the Battle of the Bulge and continued serving in the Army for another 16 years.

The list goes on. Before playing Joseph Wladislaw in The Dirty Dozen and developing a reputation as one of Hollywood’s biggest badasses, Charles Bronson served in the Army Air Forces as a B-29 gunner. He flew 25 combat missions over Japan and earned a Purple Heart.

Lee Marvin

Lee Marvin played Maj. Reisman in The Dirty Dozen. Before acting, Marvin served in the Marine Corps as a scout sniper. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Actor Ernest Borgnine played Maj. Gen. Sam Worden. Having already served six years in the Navy prior to World War II, he reenlisted after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and joined the crew of an anti-submarine ship. Telly Savalas, who plays Archer Maggott, served in the Army but was discharged before deploying overseas because of an injury he sustained in a car accident. The film’s director, Robert Aldrich, also enlisted during the war but was quickly discharged from the Army Air Force’s Motion Picture Unit due to an old football injury. 

Jim Brown, who played Robert Jefferson, was an Army veteran, but he didn’t join the service until after World War II. In addition to his successful career as an actor, Brown was also a professional athlete. He is the only person in history to be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, the NFL Hall of Fame, and the Lacrosse Hall of Fame.

The Dirty Dozen

Members of The Liberty Jump Team, a team of commemorative, veteran jumpers, load onto "Placid Lassie," a restored World War II-era C-47 Skytrain, for a jump onto Fryar Drop Zone at Fort Benning, Georiga, during a demonstration April 4, 2019. US Army photo by Patrick Albright.

In addition to the squad of veterans, the film also stars John Cassavetes as Victor Franko, Trini Lopez as Pedro Jiminez, Donald Sutherland as Vernon Pinkley, and Clint Walker as Samson Posey.

Related: 5 Things You Probably Didn’t Know: ‘Band of Brothers’

Historical Accuracy

The Dirty Dozen was inspired by the real-life Filthy Thirteen, but as with most war films, Hollywood took some liberties with the facts. In the movie, the commandos are convicted criminals who are given the chance to earn back their freedom by volunteering for a suicide mission. In reality, none of the elite paratroopers were felons — they were just soldiers who tended to disregard Army customs and regulations.


US service members are represented by white headstones for the men that lost their lives during World War II at the American Cemetery, Normandy, France; June 2, 2015. US Army photo by Sgt. Austin Berner.

The filmmakers also deviated from history by making the unit’s mission the assassination of German officers rather than the destruction of bridges. The fictional soldiers succeed in killing a group of officers ahead of D-Day. Only three of the Dirty Dozen survive. 

Nevertheless, The Dirty Dozen is largely responsible for preserving the memory of the Filthy Thirteen. According to one of the unit’s survivors, Jack Agnew, the movie was about 30% true and 70% fiction. 

“We weren’t murderers or anything,” Agnew said in 2010. “We just didn’t do everything we were supposed to do in some ways and did a whole lot more than [the Army] wanted us to do in other ways.”

Read Next: What Hollywood Gets Right — and Wrong — About the Alamo’s Last Stand

Mac Caltrider
Mac Caltrider

Mac Caltrider is a senior staff writer for Coffee or Die Magazine. He served in the US Marine Corps and is a former police officer. Caltrider earned his bachelor’s degree in history and now reads anything he can get his hands on. He is also the creator of Pipes & Pages, a site intended to increase readership among enlisted troops. Caltrider spends most of his time reading, writing, and waging a one-man war against premature hair loss.

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