Q: I enjoy watching war movies, but I’ve always wondered whether “The Dirty Dozen” and “The Devil’s Brigade” have any basis in fact. What can you tell me?
J.F., of Cahokia
A: War is hell, they say, which means you want troops who are ready to give the enemy the devil of a hard time. While the movies you name feature plenty of Hollywood glitz and fact-stretching, both have more than a grain of truth in their stories of dashing, rough-and-tumble soldiers.
“The Dirty Dozen” could have been turned into a real-life account of “The Filthy Thirteen.” This was the very real nickname given to the U.S. Army’s 1st Demolition Section of the Regimental Headquarters Company of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, which fought in Europe during World War II.
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This unit was trained to demolish targets behind enemy lines. During the Normandy Invasion in June 1944, for example, it was ordered to either secure or destroy the bridges over the Douve River. Half of the unit were killed, wounded or captured, but they were successful. They also were airdropped to help capture the strategic town of Carentan, allowing those who had taken the Utah and Omaha beaches to join forces.
Unlike the movie, the unit was not made up of convicts. Even in the prologue of his novel on which the movie is based, author E.M. Nathanson states that while he had heard a legend of such a unit, he was unable to find any evidence that it existed.
Still, this 1st Demolition Section apparently had enough randy characters to give their celluloid counterparts a run for their money. The group’s nickname refers to the fact that, while training in England, they showered and shaved once a week and never washed their uniforms because they had used their water rations to cook illegally poached game. The unit consisted of 13 men — two six-man squads and the overseeing sergeant. It became well-known after a famous photo that showed two members of the unit wearing Mohawk-style haircuts and dabbing war paint on one another. This was the brainchild of Sgt. Jack McNiece, who was part Choctaw, and led to Tom Hoge coining the term “The Filthy Thirteen” in his article for the June 9, 1944, issue of Stars and Stripes.
“They called themselves the ‘filthy thirteen,’ and took pride in the the reputation they had of being the orneriest, meanest group of paratroopers who ever hit this base,” Hoge wrote of the men, who earned the reputation of being hard drinkers and fighters, winding up in the stockade as a result.
“We weren’t murderers or anything,” unit member Jack Agnew once said. “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. We were always in trouble.”
While “The Dirty Dozen” was supposed to be pure fiction, Barbara Maloney, Agnew’s daughter, told American Valor Quarterly that her father felt 30 percent of the film was historically accurate, including the scene in which the officers are captured.
The 1968 film “The Devil’s Brigade” is even more true to life. It’s based on the 1st Special Service Force, which became known during World War II variously as the Devil’s Brigade, the Black Devils and Freddie’s Freighters. In fact, the movie was based on the 1966 book of the same name that partially was written by historian Robert H. Adleman — and Col. George Walton, an actual member of the brigade.
The group was the idea of Geoffrey Pyke, an English journalist and inventor. In March 1942, he proposed to Lord Louis Mountbatten, chief of Combined Operations Headquarters, that Allied commandos be parachuted into the Norwegian mountains to engage in guerrilla actions against the occupying German army. Pyke called it Project Plough. Instead, the plan was offered to the United States, which decided to turn it into an elite American-Canadian unit under the command of the U.S. Fifth Army. After training at Fort William Henry Harrison near Helena, Mont., it fought in the Aleutian Islands, Italy and southern France before being disbanded in December 1944.
According to legend, while carrying out beachhead operations at Anzio, Italy, a Force member came across a journal of a German lieutenant from the Herman Goering Division.
“The Black Devils are all around us every time we come into the line,” one journal entry supposedly read. “We never hear them come.”
This story was never verified, but the unit was known as the Black Devils, and Gen. Robert Frederick had cards printed up with the unit’s insignia on them along with the words “Das dicke Ende kommt noch!” — or, in so many words, “the worst is yet to come.” Some say force members would leave these cards on the bodies of dead Germans as a type of psychological warfare.
The film, which stars O’Fallon native William Holden, tells of the formation, training and first mission of the Force when it was asked to capture what had been an impregnable Nazi camp in the mountain stronghold of Monte la Difensa, Italy. Despite some Hollywood puffery (only the actors wore red berets), it shows why, in real life, the group was well deserving of the Congressional Gold Medal that it was awarded in 2013.
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Answer to Wednesday’s trivia: Even in 1155 B.C., organized labor was able to flex its muscle. In the first documented strike in human history, workers building the burial chambers of King Ramses III were unhappy that promised rations of grain were arriving late, month after month. Fed up with the tardiness and apparent corruption at the highest levels, the workers lay down their tools one day and marched out of the unfinished necropolis, leaving their supervisors stunned. The next day, the workers reportedly marched toward the temple of Ramses II, where they spoke with the vizier, who was able to secure a partial payment of rations. Satisfied, the workers returned to their job. After more short strikes, officials increased the number of workers delivering rations to the workers, according to records written on papyrus by the scribe Amennnakhte.