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The Incredible Saga of OSS Col. Peter J. Ortiz in World War II

A Marine in the OSS

In March, he was given a series of covert deep penetration reconnaissance missions. One mission, launched on March 18 in and around Matleg Pass in support of Brig. Gen. Paul Robinett’s Combat Command B headquartered at Bir-el-Hatig, almost cost Ortiz his life. After setting up a base camp, at 2300, Ortiz struck off alone in search of enemy tanks. It had been raining for three days, and his progress was hampered by knee-deep mud. Just as he was about to turn back, 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 about 30 yards ahead. Rising to one knee with his good left hand he threw a Mills grenade that fell short, followed by a Petard grenade [probably a MK 74 “sticky bomb”] that scored a direct hit. Avoiding rifle fire, and despite loss of blood and suffering from shock, Ortiz managed to crawl back to the base camp and, with his team’s help, make it to friendly lines. During his convalescence, Ortiz was airlifted back to Washington, D.C., where he wrote a detailed report of his experiences for OSS Commander Col. William J. Donovan. After reading it, Donovan wrote across the top of the first page, “Very interesting, please re-employ this man as soon as possible.”

When Ortiz recovered, he was sent to the Congressional Country Club near Washington, D.C., to begin training for his new assignment as a member of the multinational Jedburghs. By the end of December 1943, he had completed training and was ready for his new assignment.

He then returned to the club and approached the German officers. Ortiz ordered drinks for them, then doffed his raincoat to reveal his dress Marine Corps uniform complete with badges and decorations, and aimed his pistols at the stunned officers. “A toast to the president of the United States,” he said. After the Germans had downed their drinks, Ortiz ordered another round and said, “A toast, to the Marine Corps.” Some accounts have him then shooting the officers, killing them.

On Jan. 6, 1944, Ortiz, British Col. H.H.A. Thackthwaite, and Frenchman Andre “Monnier” Foucault, regarded as one of the best radio operators in the OSS, and their weapons and supplies were parachuted into the Haute-Savoie departement of the French Alps in Operation Union I.

Union I’s mission was to assess the military capabilities of maquis units in the Savoie, Isere, and Drôme departements and assist in the organization and supply of the units. After landing, Thackthwaite and Ortiz changed from their standard issue civilian jump clothes to their military uniforms, thus becoming “the first Allied officers to appear in uniform in [occupied] France since 1940.” In Ortiz’s case, it was his Marine Corps service uniform with all its badges and French combat and campaign ribbons, the better to impress the French Resistance fighters they planned to meet. But his intention didn’t stop with impressing just the maquis. As Thackthwaite later wrote, “Ortiz, who knew not fear, did not hesitate to wear his U.S. Marine captain’s uniform in town and country alike; this cheered the French but alerted the Germans, and the mission was constantly on the move.”

Ortiz French maquis

Maj. Peter J. Ortiz inspects members of the French maquis near Albertville, France, Aug. 7, 1944. Photo courtesy of Laura Lacey

What the Union I team discovered was that there were many maquis willing to fight in the Resistance, but they had little means to do so. The maquis needed everything from arms and ammunition to radios, money, and blankets – every imaginable supply needed for military operations. The team organized base camps and hospitals and arranged for families of Resistance members to receive stipends, which helped boost morale among the maquis. As weapons and explosives arrived, the team trained the maquis in their use. Wearing his Marine Corps uniform, Ortiz helped lead sabotage missions, believing his uniform and medals would steel the French fighters’ courage. He also was instrumental in helping downed Allied airmen evade the Germans and reach safety in Spain.

His role in rescuing four RAF officers in February 1944 resulted in him committing a spectacular act of theft that infuriated the Gestapo and led to him ultimately receiving the Order of the British Empire. According to his OBE citation, “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 in spite of the fact that he was well known by the enemy.”

It was also during this period that Ortiz, who by now had garnered a notorious reputation with the Germans, committed an even greater act of derring-do, a Hollywood-style confrontation between himself and some German officers that, though true, makes for one hell of a sea story. Accounts vary in some of the details. What follows is one version.

A group of officers from the German 157th Division, which had previously suffered at the hands of Ortiz and the maquis, were in the bar of a club (in a town, sadly, unknown) Ortiz occasionally visited and were loudly cursing the “tall American Marine” (Ortiz), the Allies, President Franklin Roosevelt, and the U.S. Marine Corps, among others.

Ortiz, who was sitting nearby and dressed in civilian clothes, determined that he had heard enough. He returned to his safe house and donned his Marine Corps uniform and brace of Colt Model 1911 pistols over which he pulled on his raincoat. He then returned to the club and approached the German officers. Ortiz ordered drinks for them, then doffed his raincoat to reveal his dress Marine Corps uniform complete with badges and decorations, and aimed his pistols at the stunned officers. “A toast to the president of the United States,” he said. After the Germans had downed their drinks, Ortiz ordered another round and said, “A toast, to the Marine Corps.”

Some accounts have him then shooting the officers, killing them. Ortiz said that he escaped without killing the officers because by letting them live, the story of his action would boost even more his legend and further erode German morale.

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DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...