Marine Colonel Peter J. Ortiz, OSS, Story Reads Like Fiction

The OSS was an eclectic organization; General William Donovan wanted operators, he didn’t care about a soldier’s background or his political beliefs. The OSS wanted as Donovan said, “PhDs who can win a bar fight.” McGeorge Bundy said of  the organization, “The OSS was a remarkable institution: half cops and robbers and half faculty meeting.”

But perhaps the most fascinating operator in the OSS was Marine Lieutenant Colonel Peter J. Ortiz. Ortiz’s story reads like a Hollywood fiction story.  There were actually two Hollywood films made about Ortiz’s exploits, “13 Rue Madeleine” starring James Cagney and “Operation Secret” starring Cornell Wilde. Ortiz was one of the few Marines who saw combat in Europe during World War II. He was the recipient of two Navy Crosses, an OBE (Order of the British Empire) and numerous French awards. After the war, he became an actor and was in several films.

Ortiz was born in New York to an American Mother of Swiss descent and a French-born Spanish father. He was educated in France and spoke 10 different languages including Spanish, French, German and Arabic.

He did two stints in the French Foreign Legion, the first of which was in 1932 just for the adventure. He father tried to buy his way out once he found out but Ortiz wouldn’t leave. He stayed until 1937 and worked his way up from private to acting Lieutenant. Ortiz was awarded the Croix de Guerre with two palms, one gold star, one silver star, and five citations; the Croix des Combatants; the Ouissam Alouite; and the Medaille Militaire during his first tour and was offered a permanent commission as a Lieutenant if he’d reenlist for five more years and become a French citizen. But he turned them down and returned to the U.S.

He worked briefly in Hollywood as a technical adviser until WWII broke out. With the U.S. officially neutral, he reenlisted in the Legion in October 1939 and by 1940 had gotten a commission again. In 1940 he was wounded and taken prisoner. He escaped 15 months later making his way back to the U.S. thru Lisbon in December of 1941. He was awarded the Croix de Guerre (one palm, one silver star, two citations), Croix des Combattants during his second tour.

He joined the U.S. Marine Corps in June 1942 as a private, but due to his combat experience, his commander at the recruit depot wrote to the Commandant of the Marine Corps about him in July, requesting that he be given a commission. The letter, extraordinary in its own right, considering the subject of it was in boot camp .

Private Ortiz had made an extremely favorable impression upon the undersigned. His knowledge of military matters is far beyond that of the normal recruit instructor. Ortiz is a very well set up an and makes an excellent appearance. The undersigned is glad to recommend Ortiz for a commission in the Marine Corps Reserve and is of the opinion that he would be a decided addition to the Reserve Officer list. In my opinion, he has the mental, moral, professional, and physical qualifications for the office for which he has made application.

With the upcoming invasion of French North Africa looming, the Marine Corps, knowing of Ortiz’s knowledge of French, Spanish, and Arabic, he was offered to the Army to assist in the upcoming campaign. Although he’d only been a 2LT for three months, he was bypassed for 1LT and promoted directly to Captain. He was assigned as the Assistant Naval Attache in Tangiers, Morocco as a cover.

Ortiz organized a patrol of Arabs to scout German forces on the Tunisian front. And while doing so, his men got into a firefight with the Germans. Ortiz was badly wounded in the hand during the action.  MG Donovan, Director of OSS, forwarded to the Marine Commandant a message from Algiers which stated, “While on reconnaissance on the Tunisian front, Captain Peter Ortiz, U.S.M.C.R. was severely wounded in the right hand while engaged in a personal encounter with a German patrol. He dispersed the patrol with grenades. Captain Ortiz is making good recovery in hospital at Algiers. The Purple Heart was awarded to him.” Donovan read Ortiz’s after-action report and wrote on it, “Very interesting, please re-employ this man as soon as possible.”

While recuperating in Washington early in May, 1943, Ortiz was reassigned to the Naval Command, OSS. He would become part of the Jedburgh operation.

On January 6, 1944, Ortiz who had over 150 parachute jumps while in the service of the French was air-dropped into the Haute-Savoie region of German-occupied France as part of the three-man “Union” mission, with Colonel Pierre Fourcaud of the French secret service and Captain Thackwaite from the British Special Operations Executive.

Their mission was to evaluate the status of the Maquis and the resistance in the area and impress upon them that to conduct Guerrilla Warfare in their areas, especially after D-Day was the most important factor for everyone involved. But the Maquisards lacked weapons and ammunition. The team arranged several drops of supplies and arms for the Maquis.

Although they jumped into France in civilian clothing, they still carried their uniforms and once there, they became the first Allied troops on the mainland of France since 1940. Thackwaite wrote about Ortiz, that he “knew not fear and did not hesitate to wear his U.S. Marine captain’s uniform in town and country alike” which while it was a morale boost to the French, was infuriating to the Germans.

His team was able to rescue four RAF pilots and Ortiz would accompany them to the border with Spain. Then in an act of derring-do that was particularly amazing, Ortiz raided a German military garage and took off with ten Gestapo vehicles, even snagging a pass which he used frequently. He was awarded the O.B.E. for his action.

His legend grew, there are several stories of him waltzing into German occupied towns in full uniform and having a go with the German troops. While the stories vary, they reinforce the fact that he was not afraid to go anywhere in his operational area. In the book “Herringbone Cloak–GI Dagger: Marines of the OSS” written by LTC Robert Mattingly, perhaps the best version of these events unfolded:

Ortiz, in particular, was fond of going straight into the German-occupied towns. On one occasion, he strolled into a cafe dressed in a long cape. Several Germans were drinking and cursing the maquis. One mentioned the fate which would befall the filthy American swine when he was caught. (The Nazis apparently knew of Ortiz’ existence in the area with the maquis) This proved a great mistake. Captain Ortiz threw back the cape revealing his Marine uniform. In each hand, he held a .45 automatic. When the shooting stopped, there were fewer Nazis to plan his capture and Ortiz was gone into the night.

Operation Union was ended on May 20 and the team exfilled to London. He was then decorated with the first of two Navy Crosses and promoted to Major. Ortiz returned to France on August 1, 1944, the head of a mission entitled UNION II. This OSS mission was no longer a Jedburgh operation but an Operational Group. These were heavily armed teams which were tasked with direct action against the Germans. They were not only to conduct sabotage but they were to also seize key installations to prevent retreating German units from destroying them.

OG members, unlike Jeds, were always in uniform. Along with Ortiz on this mission were Army Air Forces Captain Francis Coolidge, and Marine Gunnery Sergeant Robert La Salle, Sergeants Charles Perry, John P. Bodnar, Frederick J. Brunner, and Jack R. Risler, as well as a Free French officer, Joseph Arcelin, who carried false identification which showed him to be a U.S. Marine.

Things went wrong from the start on the second mission. Perry’s static line snapped causing him to fall to his death on the jump in. The rest of the team buried him on the drop zone. The men were advising the “Bulle” Battalion to support the Allied landings in Southern France. The Army Air Corps dropped 864 bundles of weapons, equipment, and supplies to support the team and their efforts.

The Germans (157th Alpine Division-Reserves) however was on the resistance’s tail almost immediately. On the 14th of August, the Germans shelled the town of Montgirod where they had entered and forced them and the Bulle Battalion into the mountains outside of town. They quickly surrounded them. On the 18th their luck ran out. They ran into a German column of trucks and troops numbering several hundred in the town of Centron.

The Germans kept the men under fire and the fighting was going from house to house. French civilians urged the men to surrender since the Germans had liquidated two entire towns of citizens for reportedly harboring the resistance. Ortiz didn’t want that to happen.

He walked out in full view of the Germans who kicked up the dirt around him with machinegun fire. In perfect German, he asked to speak to the Commander. He agreed to surrender his men if the German officer, a Major Kolb would spare the town any reprisals. Kolb agreed and then he and men were incredulous and then livid when only Bodner and Risler came out. The Germans thought they were in action against a company-sized element, when in fact, the three Marine OSS men held off a battalion.

He spent the rest of the war as a POW but made numerous attempts to escape. His final one in April of 1945 had Ortiz and three others escape and spend 10 days wandering around looking for British Army units. They were starving and eventually went back to their prison of war camp where they were cheered by the other POWs.

On April 29, 1945, the camp was liberated by the 7th Guards Armored Division and the men were returned to Allied control. When he returned to London, Ortiz was given his second Navy Cross. He returned to civilian life and was a technical advisor for Hollywood films. He was good friends with director John Ford and he put Ortiz in several of his films including “Rio Grande” with John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, and Victor McLaglen. And “Wings of Eagles” also with Wayne and O’Hara.

Peter Ortiz with Maureen O’Hara in Rio Grande

By his own admission, he was a terrible actor but thought that the making of films was a lot of fun. He died of cancer in 1988, the only battle he ever fought and lost.

With the news of last week where certain historians question the legacy of OSS and that of the US Army Special Forces, I wonder if many Marines know the legacy of Peter Ortiz. While so much of the Corps history centers around the island campaigns of WWII, one officer had an incredibly, packed career in just a short amount of time in Europe. And when it comes to Special Operators, he stands among the best.

Photos: National Archives, Republic Pictures