It’s hard to imagine how a small group of marines managed to hold off against an entire battalion of Germans that were convinced that they were fighting against a battalion of marines. In reality, there were only four of them. That’s exactly what happened in August 1944 when Maj. Peter J. Ortiz and three others went on a mission that eventually led them to an intense firefight with the German forces. Here’s how they did it through a mission called Operation Union II.

A Man From Fiction

Peter J. Ortiz’s military career was like something you would read in a fiction book. He was born in New York to an American mother and a French father. He studied in France and learned to speak ten different languages, including French, Spanish, German, and Arabic. Soon, he joined the French Foreign Legion and became a war hero with his long list of medals and awards, including two Navy Crosses, the Legion d’Honneur, and the Order of the British Empire.

Peter J. Ortiz, U.S. Marine Corps. (U.S. Marine Corps, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

He was discharged in 1937 and worked briefly as a Hollywood advisor on war films. When World War II broke out, Ortiz went back to the Legion and fought in the Battle of France, where he was captured by the Germans. He was a POW for a year and a half before he managed to escape and return to the US. Once there, he attempted to be part of the US Army Air Forces, but the process was too long for him, so he instead joined the Marine Corps in 1942.

Having the vast experience and stash of medals, Ortiz easily stood out among the new recruits. He was quickly promoted and got involved in dangerous missions. His multilingual skills also made him useful to the OSS in North Africa.  In March 1943, he was wounded and sent back to the US to recover.

Operation Union II

When Ortiz fully recovered, he was sent on a mission on August 1, 1944, along with five other Marines. They met up with Joseph Arcelin in France, a Free French officer disguised as a Marine. Their mission, called Union II, was to link up with the Maquis, a band of the French Resistance, and execute attacks on the German forces retreating through France. This was something that Ortiz had done before in January with Union I, where he supplied and organized the Resistance.

Maquisards (Resistance fighters) in the vicinity of Savournon, Hautes-Alpes in August 1944. SOE agents are second from right, Krystyna Skarbek, third John Roper, fourth, Robert Purvis. (Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Their small team was dropped to a low level to reduce their chances of being attacked or scattered, which would be disastrous. Problems immediately arose as Sgt. Charles Sperry’s parachute malfunctioned during the jump, and his reserve parachute was deemed useless due to the low level of their jump. Sperry died from the impact. The remaining marines moved forward. They successfully collected about 864 supply drops with equipment and ammunition. They also successfully set up ambushes and performed reconnaissance. Unfortunately, they drew the attention of the wary Germans, who obviously had not moved on yet from the successful Union I mission earlier that year.

It was in mid-August that their operation was discovered while they were trying to return to their base and a large group of German troops in the village of Centron found them.

Battalion of Four

The small team split up and engaged in a fierce gunfight with the Germans. One of them was wounded, and so Ortiz and the three others managed to hold off and dominate the fight. Soon, the intense fighting moved from house to house, and they soon realized that it was not a good thing. They knew that the Germans had a history of destroying towns and massacring civilians they thought helped the French Resistance fighters. Ortiz’s team worried that even if they managed to escape, the wrath would fall on the villagers, and the Germans might take revenge on them.

Instead of continuing to fight, Ortiz tried to communicate with the Germans, but when the attempt failed, he walked out of the village amidst the firing bullets and approached Major Kolb, the German commander. They came up with an agreement that Ortiz and his men would surrender if the Germans would guarantee to spare the town and its people.

Kolb, who was under the impression that he was engaging with a large force, agreed with the condition. When the remaining three men walked out from their cover to surrender, the Germans were confused and called it a bluff. As Major Steven White, a Marine Corps intelligence officer, said,

He did not believe that only 4 Marines had held off his forces for this long. He insisted that Maj. Ortiz turn over the rest of his team members.

When they discovered that there were indeed no more team members left hiding, they took the four men as prisoners, and all of them spent the rest of the war in jail.