Behind the Lines

Two awards of the Navy Cross; a Legion of Merit; two Purple Heart medals; Officer Order of the British Empire; Chevalier du Legion of Honor; Medaille Militaire, three Croix de Guerre; Order of Quissam Alaoouite.  These were the personal decorations of one Marine during his service in World War II representing the gratitude of three allied nations.

ORTIZ PJ 001Friends and enemy alike called him Peter.  His eventual rank was colonel, but long before he arrived at that point, he was in the trenches, behind the lines in German-occupied North Africa and France.  His full name was Pierre Julien Ortiz (5 July 1913—16 May 1988) and he was a U. S. Marine attached to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS).

Born in New York, his mother was an American of Swiss descent, his father a French-born Spaniard.  Educated in Europe, Peter spoke ten languages fluently.  There was a reason for this—at the age of 19, on 1 February 1932, Peter enlisted in the French Foreign Legion for a period of five years. He was assigned to North Africa and received his initial training at Sidi Bel Abbes, Algeria.  While serving in Morocco, he was promoted to corporal (1933) and sergeant (1935).  He received two awards of the Croix de Guerre during a campaign against the Rif [1].  During his service as an “acting lieutenant,” Peter was awarded the Médaille militaire [2].  The Legion offered Peter a commission as a second lieutenant, but he instead opted to accept his discharge in 1937.

With the outbreak of World War II and the neutrality of the United States at the time, Peter re-enlisted in the French Foreign Legion in October 1939; he was reappointed to the rank of sergeant.  In May 1940, he received a battlefield commission.  During the Battle of France, Peter was wounded during the process of blowing up a German fuel dump and was taken captive by the Germans.  He escaped in 1941 and made his way back to the United States.  On 22 June 1942, Peter enlisted in the U. S. Marine Corps.  His previous training and experience prompted the Marines to commission him a second lieutenant after only 40-days service.  In December 1942, Peter was advanced to the rank of captain and placed in the service of the OSS.

With his in-depth knowledge of the region, with the cover of his assignment as Assistant Naval Attaché, Tangiers, the OSS sent him to North Africa, where he performed behind-the-lines reconnaissance operations.  According to Kermit Roosevelt [3], in his official history of OSS operations in World War II, “In War Report of the OSS and an official history of OSS operations in World War II, “Participation in this British operation constituted the first OSS experience in sabotage and combat intelligence teams in front areas and behind enemy lines.  That the jobs actually done by the handful of OSS men who joined the SOE Tunisian campaign were not typical of future activity was due as much to the exigencies of the battle situation as to the misunderstanding of their function by the British and American Army officers whom they served.” In other words, rather than conducting intelligence collection and sabotage missions, staid military officers ordered these men to locate and destroy Germans.  Highly qualified intelligence operatives were being under-utilized.

In February 1943, Peter Ortiz witnessed the American disaster at Kasserine Pass [4].  Ortiz found himself traveling alone across the battlefield area, observing the panicked flight of American soldiers.  Ortiz briefly fought alongside a British armored reconnaissance unit and then attached himself to an element of the US 1stArmored Division.  In this capacity, Ortiz fought a desperate action near Pichon.

In March, Ortiz was handed a series of deep-penetration missions.  One of these was launched on 18 March supporting General Robinett’s Combat Command Bravo.  Ortiz almost lost his life.  After setting up a base camp in the dead of night, Ortiz struck off alone in search of indications of the presence of enemy forces.  The weather was horrible, the knee-deep mud from days of rain hampered Ortiz’ progress. He was about to turn back when a burst of automatic fire shattered his right hand and wounded him in the leg. Ortiz fell to the ground and spotted a machine gun and vehicle thirty or so yards distant.  With his good left hand, he tossed a sticky bomb and scored a direct hit.  Avoiding further enemy fire, Ortiz managed to crawl back to his camp, despite his loss of blood and suffering from shock.  Ortiz was airlifted to the United States and assigned to Washington DC during convalescence.

When Peter was back on his feet, the OSS sent him for training in preparation for his new assignment with the Jedburgh Group [5].  His training was completed at the end of December 1943.  In early January 1944, Ortiz air-dropped into the Haute-Savoie region of the Alps, along with British SOE colonel H. H. A. Thackthwaite and French Colonel Pierre Fourcaud [6] of the French Secret Serviceas part of Operation Union I.  Their mission was to assess the capabilities of the maquis units operating in SavoieIsere, and Drome, and assist them in organization and supply.  After landing, Thackthwaite and Ortiz changed from the covert clothing into their military uniforms —thus becoming the first allied officers to appear in uniform in occupied France since 1940.  In Ortiz’ case, he wore his U. S. Marine Corps service uniform with American and French decorations and badges, which was designed to impress the French resistance. Colonel Thackthwaite later wrote of this: “Ortiz, who knew not any fear, did not hesitate to wear his Marine Corps uniform into town, which cheered the French, but alerted the Germans and the mission was constantly on the move.”

ORTIZ PJ 002
Peter Ortiz, behind the lines. Picture by Raymond Bertand.

The Union I team soon discovered that the French Resistance, while willing to fight, lacked everything needed in order to do that: arms, ammunition, radios, money, and clothing.  The team quickly organized base camps, medical facilities, and for the families of French fighters to receive stipends.  Morale among these men dramatically improved.  Then, as war materials arrived, the team began to train the resistance in their use.  While wearing his Marine Corps uniform, Ortiz helped to lead covert missions; he believed that his uniform would give courage to the resistance.

(Then) Captain Ortiz was also instrumental in helping downed airman evade German capture and reach the safety of neutral Spain. His role in rescuing four RAF flight officers in February 1944 resulted in his spectacular act of theft, one that infuriated the Gestapo, and led to the award of the Order of the British Empire.  In his citation, we can read: “In the course of his efforts to obtain the release of these officers, he raided a German military garage and took ten Gestapo vehicles, which he used frequently.  He procured a Gestapo pass for his own use, even though he was well-known by the enemy.”

During this same period, Ortiz (by now notorious in his reputation with the Germans) committed an even greater act of daring: A group of officers from the German 157th Division, which had previously suffered at the hands of Ortiz and his resistance, were drinking in a local bar … one that Ortiz regularly visited.  They were loudly cursing the “American Marine,” President Roosevelt, and the United States Marine Corps.  Sitting at a table in the bar was Ortiz dressed in civilian attire.

He soon returned to his safehouse, changed into his Marine Corps Uniform, armed himself with two .45 pistols, pulled on his civilian raincoat, and returned to the bar.  Ortiz ordered drinks for the German officers and when all had been served, Ortiz removed his raincoat, revealing his Marine Corps uniform with accoutrements. The German officers were stunned into silence.  Ortiz then produced the sidearms and said in German, “A toast to the President of the United States.”  When the Germans downed their drinks, Ortiz ordered another round.  “Gentlemen, a toast to the United States Marine Corps.”

The story has more than one version.  In one of these, following the German toast to the U. S. Marine Corps, Ortiz then shot all the officers, killing them.  Ortiz claimed that he didn’t shoot anyone.  He left them alive because, by letting them live, the story of his action would boost even more his legend and further erode German morale.  The story is true, even if it would make one of the greatest of all Marine Corps sea-stories, and so too is the account of Ortiz wearing his uniform throughout all of his “covert” operations (See picture of Ortiz, above).

The Union I team was evacuated to England to await reassignment on 20 May.  In England, Ortiz was promoted to major and awarded his first Navy Cross.  In August 1944, Ortiz returned to the Haute-Savoie as the leader of Union II.  He was supported by Gunnery Sergeant Robert LaSalle, Sergeant Charles Perry, Sergeant John Bodnar, Sergeant Fred Brunner, Sergeant Jack Risler, USAAF Captain John Coolidge, and a Free French officer named Joseph Arcelin.  Arcelin carried papers that identified him as a US Marine.  This mission reflected the OSS’ change in priorities in the post-D-Day period: readiness for Operation Dragoon and the Allied landings in southern France.  Union II was an operational group: heavily armed and capable of direct action against retreating Germans.

In addition to acts of sabotage, Union II resistance units were ordered to seize and hold key installations and, if possible, prevent their destruction by the Germans.  In spite of this increased activity, the Germans were not intimidated.  On 14 August, Ortiz and his men found themselves in unfamiliar territory and they narrowly avoided capture.  Ortiz’ luck finally ran out two days later when his team encountered a German troop convoy near the village of Centron.  The fighting was intense, and significantly outnumbered, mindful of German reprisals against innocent civilians, Ortiz consulted with his team and they agreed to surrender.

An officer named Major Kolb commanded the German force.  Ortiz spoke to Kolb in German, saying that he and his men would surrender provided that Kolb give his word as an officer and a gentleman that none of the villagers would be harmed.  Kolb, thinking that he opposed a company sized unit, agreed to these terms.  Kolb was furious when only Sergeants Bodnar and Risler emerged from cover.

Ortiz remained in German custody until April 1945, when he and three other prisoners escaped while being transported to another camp.  After ten days without food, the three men returned to their old POW camp, only to discover that the prisoners had taken control.  The camp was liberated by allied forces on 29 April.

In 1946, Peter Ortiz was promoted to lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve and released from active duty.  From 1946 on, Peter worked in Hollywood as an actor and advisor to such film directors as John Ford.  He appeared in a number of films, not all of them credited.  He played a supporting role in the 1950 Ford production of Rio Grande, which starred John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, Ben Johnson, Harry Carey, Jr., Chill Wills, and Victor McLaglen.  Ortiz played the part of Captain St. Jacques.

According to Peter’s son, who also served as a U. S. Marine, “My father was an awful actor, but he had great fun appearing in movies.”  Two Hollywood films were based on Peter’s exploits during World War II: 13 Rue Madeleine (1947), directed by Henry Hathaway, starring James Cagney and Richard Conte, and Operation Secret (1952), directed by Lewis Seiler, starring Cornel Wilde, Steve Cochran, and Karl Malden.  He  participated in several additional films, although not always in a credited role: Task Force (1949), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), Sirocco (1951), Flying Leathernecks (1951), What Price Glory (1952), The Desert Rats (1953), and The Wings of Eagles (1957).

Lieutenant Colonel Peter Ortiz, Sr., retired from the U. S. Marine Corps Reserve in 1955.  In recognition of his extraordinary combat service, he was advanced to the rank of colonel upon his retirement.  Ortiz passed away in 1988 at the age of 74 years. He was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery.

Sources:

  1. Lacy, L. H. As a Young Man and Legionnaire, Ortiz: To Live a Man’s Life.  Phillips Publications, 2014
  2. Edwards, H. W. A Different War: Marines in Europe and North Africa.  USMC Training and Education Command, Quantico, Virginia, 2010
  3. Zimmerman, D. J. The Incredible Saga of OSS Colonel Peter J. Ortiz in World War II.  Defense Media Network, 2014.

Endnotes:

[1] A Berber speaking people of Northwestern Africa who derive their name from the Riff region in the northern edge of Morocco.  They belong to six separate tribal groups and five tribal confederacies.

[2] A decoration awarded for acts of bravery by the French Republic, the third highest decoration in France but the most senior award for military service.

[3] Highly energetic, unquestionably courageous, psychologically fragile son of Theodore Roosevelt, 26th President of the United States.

[4] The battle was the first major engagement between American and Axis forces in World War II. Inexperienced and poorly led American soldiers suffered many casualties and were quickly pushed back over 50 miles from their positions west of Faïd Pass.

[5] A clandestine group consisting of American, British, French, Dutch, and Belgian personnel whose mission was to collect intelligence, conduct sabotage, form and lead local resistance groups against German forces.

[6] Fourcaud (1898-1998) was among the first in France to rally to Charles de Gaullein 1940. He was prominent in the creation of the French Secret Service of post-War France, the Service de Documentation Extérieure et de Contre-Espionnage (SDECE).

13 thoughts on “Behind the Lines”

    1. My guess is that we never heard of Ortiz because much of what he did remained “classified” until long after the war. Gutsy fellow, I’ll say that.

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    1. The “sticky bomb” was an anti-tank grenade—also called ST grenade, invented because after Dunkirk, the British lacked anti-tank guns. The grenade had two pins; the first to expose the sticky adhesive, and the second to arm it.

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  1. I was just reading about him the other day. He should have stayed in after the war….but Hollywood beckoned.
    BTW, the Marines off the battleships and cruisers participated in liberating the Channel Islands which the Germans had seized early in the war. Most Marines don’t know that.

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    1. I did not know that; are you speaking now about US Marines, or Royal Marines? I see that the Troop List for Task Force 135 does identify RM participants, but nothing about American Marines. I’d be happy to receive sources from you via email if you have them. Semper Fi

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  2. You are in the know that our Corps used to have a Marine Detechments aboard capital ships, yes? The were part of the ship’s company and thus would not be singled out in a large OpOrder or Force List. I will do some more looking to assure that I didn’t just dream this up.

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  3. Did some looking around and could not nail anything down for sure. Here are some facts and some thoughts: U.S. Navy capital ships had U.S. Marine detachments as part of the ships company. The guarded the brig, provided the core of the ship’s landing force (rarely used in modern times), provided orderlies/drivers for the brass hats, conducted honors when required. A group of disciplined troops trained with infantry weapons which sailors were generally not. Think: Repel Boarders. Added to that they manned a number of anti-aircraft weapons….from 20mm up to 5″ guns during GQ.

    We know there were USN ships in the seizure of the French coast in June 1944.

    We know the Channel Islands (closer geographically) to France than Britain were seized by the Germans in 1940. In 1944 they were liberated. As they were British territory, it DOES seem more logical that the Royal Marines would be given the task to be among those to re-take them. I suspect some writer who did not know the difference between the USMC and RM got their take on history incorrect.

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    1. Thanks again. I have a piece coming up about Marine Detachments. My friend Andy served aboard the Eisenhower; I’m hoping he’ll weigh in.

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