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John Agnew; served in unit that inspired 'Dirty Dozen'

By Ron Todt
Associated Press / April 13, 2010

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PHILADELPHIA — John Agnew, one of the original members of a US 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.

Mr. Agnew 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, said his daughter, Barbara Agnew Maloney.

Mr. Agnew belonged to the Filthy Thirteen, an unofficial unit of 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 Valour Quarterly, a publication of the nonprofit American Veterans Center.

Before the Battle of the Bulge, Mr. Agnew and other members of the unit were requested for pathfinder duty and parachuted into Bastogne, which was besieged by German forces. Mr. 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.

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

“We weren’t murderers or anything,’’ he told the quarterly. “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.’’

Mr. Agnew was among those interviewed in a documentary, “The Filthy Thirteen: Real Stories from Behind the Lines,’’ which 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 on 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 that 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.

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, 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.’’

Mr. Agnew will be buried with military honors today at Forest Hills Cemetery in Huntingdon Valley, in the Philadelphia suburbs, where he and his wife, Elizabeth Agnew, lived for 56 years, Maloney said.