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

A Marine in the OSS

While it seems improbable for him to be wearing his service uniform with decorations, that detail cannot be dismissed out of hand. Different, reliable accounts agree that on his two missions to occupied France (Union I and Union II) he did carry his Marine Corps uniform. Also, when he returned to France in August 1944 in Operation Union II, maquis leader Raymond Bertand, a professional photographer, took photographs of Ortiz, now a major, in his Marine Corps service uniform in which his badges and ribbons are clearly seen, near German-held Albertville. Those photographs were reproduced in a California State Military Museum biography of Ortiz by Benis Frank.

Union I was terminated on May 20, and the team was airlifted back to England to await reassignment. During this period Ortiz received his first Navy Cross for his actions in Union I and was promoted to major.

On Aug. 1, 1944, Ortiz returned to the Haute-Savoie as leader of Operation Union II with a team composed of fellow Marines Gunnery Sgt. Robert LaSalle, Sgts. Charles Perry, John Bodnar, Fred Brunner, and Jack Risler, Army Air Force Capt. John Coolidge, and Joseph Arcelin, a Free French officer carrying papers identifying him as a Marine. Union II’s mission reflected the OSS’ changed priorities following D-Day and the impending Operation Dragoon, the Allied landings in the South of France. Union II was an Operational Group, a heavily armed force capable of “direct action” against German troops as they retreated to Germany.

Ortiz and his men would surrender, provided Kolb would give his word that the townspeople would not be harmed. Thinking he opposed a company-sized unit, Kolb agreed. The Germans were thunderstruck, and Kolb was furious, when only Bodnar and Risler emerged.

As well as sabotage, Union II-led maquis units were to seize and hold key installations and prevent their destruction by the Germans. In addition to the team, 864 containers were air dropped to supply their contact, the Free French “Bulle Battalion.” Despite ideal conditions and a daylight drop, the mission began badly – with Perry’s chute malfunctioning, causing him to fall to his death – and soon unraveled.

John Wayne Peter Ortiz

Col. Peter J. Ortiz (left) and John Wayne during filming for the 1950 western movie Rio Grande. In the film, Ortiz played Capt. St. Jacques. Photo courtesy of Charles Pinck

German troops in the area refused to be cowed. On Aug. 14, Ortiz and his men found themselves far from their operational base, surrounded in unfamiliar mountainous terrain where they narrowly escaped capture. Two days later, their luck ran out.

En route back to their base, they encountered a German troop convoy in the village of Centron. The team split into two groups, with Coolidge and Arcelin in one group and Ortiz, Risler, and Bodnar in the second. House-to-house fighting ensued, with Ortiz and his Marines drawing the bulk of the Germans’ attention. Reminded by villagers of recent German reprisals against civilians who were caught with the maquisards and Jedburghs, after conferring with Risler and Bodnar, Ortiz agreed to surrender.

Ortiz called out in English, French, and German his desire to parley. Then, unarmed, he ignored German gunfire and began boldly walking toward the German lines. An old Frenchwoman ran up in an attempt to shield him with her body. He gently disengaged himself from her. When the bullets stopped, he made his proposal to the German commander, Maj. Kolb. Ortiz and his men would surrender, provided Kolb would give his word that the townspeople would not be harmed. Thinking he opposed a company-sized unit, Kolb agreed. The Germans were thunderstruck, and Kolb was furious, when only Bodnar and Risler emerged.

Coolidge and Arcelin were also captured, with Arcelin rejoining at one point Ortiz, Bodnar, and Risler. Despite speaking no English, the Germans accepted the claim that Arcelin was a Marine. During their trip into captivity, Kolb talked with Ortiz and revealed so much about Ortiz and his mission that Ortiz became certain that there was a spy among the maquis with whom he fought.

Despite attempts to escape, Ortiz finished out the war a POW. He received a Gold Star to his Navy Cross for his service in Union II. In 1946, Ortiz was discharged from active duty. He remained in the Marine Corps Reserve, finally retiring on March 1, 1955, promoted to colonel on the retired list.

Ortiz returned to Hollywood in 1946 and resumed his career in the movie industry. Two movies loosely based on his life were released, 13 Rue Madeline (1947) starring James Cagney, and Operation Secret (1952) starring Cornel Wilde. Ortiz served as technical adviser and had cameos in both. He formed a friendship with and appeared in several movies by director John Ford. He also appeared in movies by producer Joseph H. Lewis and appeared in two John Wayne movies, Rio Grande and The Wings of Eagles. A still from Rio Grande shows Ortiz, in the role of Capt. St. Jacques, wearing his Légion d’honneur.

Ortiz died on May 16, 1988, at age 74. He was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. In addition to a Marine Corps honor guard, the funeral was attended by representatives from the French and British military, his Union II comrades Bodnar and Risler, and members of his family, including his son, Lt. Col. Pierre Ortiz, Jr., USMC.

This article was first published in The Year in Special Operations: 2014-2015 Edition.

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