An inspiration for the scriptwriters of the excellent The Dirty Dozen war movie was the story of the actual military unit, which was formed partially by the group of Polish soldiers.
The Dirty Dozen (1967) by Robert Aldrich is a classic war movie. Although its first screening was over half a century ago, the movie is still appreciated by the fans of military cinema because of its riveting, keeping in suspense, plot, the characters sharply outlined, and witty, dazzling with black humor, dialogues. The story is set at the end of World War II. Maj John Reisman (Lee Marvin) is to train a band of convicts sentenced to death or many years of prison. They are to form a disciplined and well-trained commando squad to do an extremely difficult task: they will be dropped on the German rear to get to the enemy command center and kill as many officers as possible. Those who prove their best and survive the escapade will be remitted a penalty.
The plot is not all fiction, it is inspired by a true story that occurred at the end of World War II. The story of a real squad, which was the model for scriptwriters, can be particularly interesting to the Polish readers, if only for the fact that in reality it was the group of Poles who played a crucial role in the operation.
The Filthy Five
The script of The Dirty Dozen movie was based on the novel by Erwin M. Nathanson published in 1965 under the same title. The starting point for the author and the scriptwriters was a story of the US paratrooper unit, called the Filthy Thirteen, airdropped during the Normandy Invasion of Europe. The unit was only an inspiration, and the script does not fully reflect the facts; most of all, none of the thirteen soldiers was a convict.
The origin of this peculiar name was explained by one of the unit members – and later also its commander – in his memoirs written long after the war: Jake McNiece. According to him, the name was created at the break of 1942/1943, when the soldiers who were the core of the group were undergoing their military training in Toccoa Base in Georgia, USA. At the time, the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division of the United States Army had their training there. The soldiers were quartered in fives in the tents with no floor. As McNiece recalled, these were plain military field conditions, and on top of that, the year was exceptionally rainy, which meant soldiers had problems with hygiene. No wonder they soon started to call themselves “the filthy five.”
McNiece was lodged in the same tent with Martin “Max” Majewski, an American soldier with Polish roots. It was through him that the “filthy” guys met a group of Polish-Americans, who had trainings in the same base. McNiece described them with great fondness: “There was another group of guys in our demolition platoon called the "Warsaw Seven". Most of these boys were Polish and spoke the Polish language real fluent, although they were all born in America. They all had buddied together and were a pretty hard-headed bunch of kids to get along with. They adopted me as one of their own.” This moment of ‘buddying’ also remembered one of the Poles, Frank Palys, who recalled: “We made Jake an honorary Polack [!], and tried to teach him some of the Polish language, but he was an Indian from Oklahoma, so we gave it up as a bad job, he was plain hopeless.” This time must have been a good time for McNiece – in his memoirs 60 years later, he still remembered eating the best Polish sausage ever, which he got from his buddies in exchange for the sardine cans his family had sent him.
According to McNiece, the Warsaw Seven consisted of: Eddy Malas, Edmund Lojko, Francis “Frank” Palys, George Baran, Joe Baranosky, Joe Oparowski and Joseph “Joe” Oleskiewicz. They were young guys whose families were Polish immigrants living in the United States. McNiece described them: “Most of these Polish boys were pretty smart kids.”
For Drinking and For Fighting
This was the origin of a group that gave the name to the entire platoon: the Dirty Five with the Warsaw Seven. The thirteenth member was Salinas, whom McNiece mentions only incidentally in spite of the fact he was a co-creator of the group’s initial force. The name of the Filthy Thirteen clung to the group so much that it was also used later on, although the group members – as well as their number – would change. The Poles were in majority originally, as there were eight of them (Warsaw Seven and Max Majewski). In the meantime, the members of the First Demolition Section, as it was originally called, would constantly change. McNiece emphasizes in his memoirs that quite often some of them, even if they were self-reliant and efficient, they remained insubordinate, and would not really abide by any rules or regulations. They were ready to start fights and get drunk any time, which resulted in disciplinary problems. They also had a specific attitude to hygiene: reportedly, they would rarely shave, and after having been quartered to England, they would use their water ratios to cook illegally shot deer. Nota bene, the hygiene motif was reflected in the Aldrich movie.
The Filthy Thirteen was combat ready in the spring of 1944. They were air-dropped with parachutes in northern France on June 5, 1944, one day before D-Day in Normandy. There exist some documentary photographs taken by American military reporters which show the unit right before their take-off for the mission. These photographs are famous for the specific look of soldiers: McNiece, to honor his Native American origin, talked his fellow soldiers into cutting their hair off and wearing a scalp lock, just as Indian warriors setting for war used to wear. They also finger-painted their faces with war colors, applying the paints used for painting the so-called “invasion stripes” on their aircraft fuselages.
In Normandy Invasion the platoon suffered great losses. The commander, Charles Mellen, was killed in fight, and McNiece, who replaced him, summed it up: “I jumped off the plane with 20 people, and came back with two.”
The lives of the Warsaw Seven soldiers went on differently. Not all of them took part in the Normandy landing with McNiece. During training for the operation in the United States, Joe Oparowski accidentally died, and Lojko, Baran and Palys were transferred to other units. McNiece wrote many warm words about Joseph „Joe” Oleskiewicz who, as one of the Filthy Thirteen, took part in the operation: “When Joe Oleskiewicz came into the outfit, he was seventeen. He was just a kid. (…) [he] was the best soldier in the whole bunch. He just had the guts for it.” Oleskiewicz survived Normandy. In the fall of 1944, he took part in Operation Market Garden with the soldiers of Filthy Thirteen, but he did not have McNiece’s luck: he died during fights in the Netherlands on October 10, 1944.
Lusty Fellow, Good Soldier
In Normandy also fought George Baran, who was heavily injured. He came from a Polish family living in a small town of Adams, Massachusetts. Most of its residents still declares Polish origin. McNiece described Baran in these words: “He was a coal miner and a bull of a man. He had lot of guts and was a good soldier. He was one of the original Warsaw Seven but he did not stay with us.” A remark on Baran’s profession is an interesting parallel with the Dirty Dozen movie, because Joseph Wladislaw, a Pole portrayed by Charles Bronson, is also a coal miner in the movie, and comes from Silesia, Poland. Baran, Lojko, and the remaining soldiers of the Warsaw Seven survived the war: Palys returned to Chicago and was a steelworker, and Majewski came into wealth, running his construction business.
Translated by Anita Kwaterowska
autor zdjęć: US Army