John ‘Jack’ Agnew dies at 88; his World War II unit inspired ‘The Dirty Dozen’

Associated Press

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 novel and movie “The Dirty Dozen,” died of heart disease Thursday at a hospital in Abington, Pa. He was 88.

Agnew belonged to the Filthy Thirteen, an unofficial unit within the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division.

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 Valor Quarterly, a publication of the nonprofit American Veterans Center.


John “Jack” Agnew obituary: The obituary of World War II veteran John “Jack” Agnew in Tuesday’s LATExtra section said he was born in 1927. He was born in 1922. —

Before 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 novel “The Dirty Dozen” by E.M. Nathanson not because any of the unit’s members were convicts like the novel’s characters -- they weren’t -- but because of their reputation for brawling, drinking and spending time in the stockade.

In interviews, Agnew, who was a private first class during the war, said that came directly from the unit’s leader, Jake McNiece.

“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.

Agnew was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1927 and at age 5 immigrated with his family to the United States, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

After World War II he worked as an installer for Western Electric in Pennsylvania.

Survivors include his wife, Elizabeth; two daughters, five grandchildren, two great-grandchildren and a brother.