Peter Ortiz is almost unknown outside the Marine Corps. Even within the Corps he doesn’t have the recognition he deserves, although his exploits in World War II were almost beyond belief.
Born in New York City in 1913, the future Marine hero was christened Pierre Julien Ortiz. His mother was an American of Swiss-German descent and his father French. Ortiz was reared mostly in the United States but partly in France and grew up speaking English, French, and German. He later acquired fluency in Spanish and Arabic and conversational proficiency in Italian and Portuguese. After attending grammar school in America, he was sent off to a prep school in France.
Upon graduation he was off to college at the University of Grenoble. Inspired by years of reading of tales of adventure, Ortiz dropped out of college after a year and joined the French Foreign Legion in 1932. After basic training at the Legion’s boot camp in Algeria, he was then was posted to Morocco. His father, a prosperous and well-connected figure in France, arrived in Morocco to buy Ortiz out of the Legion. The now 19-year-old Corporal Ortiz would have none of it.
There’s adventure aplenty for Ortiz in North Africa, provided by groups of rebels, Bedouin and Berber tribesmen, bandits, and pirates. He fought in several engagements and was wounded in one of them. For his valor he was awarded the Croix de Guerre twice and the Military Medal once. By the end of his five-year enlistment, he was the commander of an armored car unit with the rank of brevet 2nd lieutenant. Offered a regular rank of lieutenant if he would enlist for another five years, Ortiz instead headed for Hollywood.
With his Foreign Legion experience and his chest full of medals he quickly found work as a technical advisor for movies with a military or North African theme. When war erupted in Europe in September 1939, Ortiz quit Hollywood, flew to France, and again enlisted in the Legion. Given the rank of sergeant, he was soon in the thick of the fighting. In May 1940 he was awarded a battlefield commission as a lieutenant for his leadership and valor.
During a French retreat in June, Ortiz learned that a storage dump of gasoline had not been set ablaze. He sped to the dump on a motorcycle and lite the fuel on fire. Racing away, he was struck by a German bullet, which penetrated his hip and grazed his spine. Temporarily paralyzed, he crashed the motorcycle and was captured. For torching the dump he was later awarded his third Croix de Guerre.
Lieutenant Ortiz spent the next 15 months in POW camps, first in Germany, then in Poland, and finally in Austria. He attempted to escape from each camp. His third attempt succeeded when he disappeared from the Austrian camp in October 1941. Aided by partisans along the way, he arrived in Portugal at the end of November. Both the Free French and the British had clandestine operations in Portugal and they each offered Ortiz a commission. Ortiz was determined to return stateside, though, and see his ailing mother in California.
Sailing from Lisbon, Ortiz reached New York on Dec. 8, 1941. Before leaving for California, he was debriefed by both Army and Navy intelligence officers. He also submitted paperwork for a commission. After reuniting with his mother and resting for several months, he began wondering what had become of his application for a commission. Finally fed up with the delay, he enlisted in the Marine Corps.
The arrival of Peter Ortiz at Parris Island Recruit Depot in June 1942 caused quite a stir. He was more experienced and decorated than any of the drill instructors. Col. Louis Jones, a decorated veteran of World War I and the Chief of Staff at Parris Island, sent a packet to the Commandant of the Marine Corps with Ortiz’ application for a commission and the record of Ortiz’ service with the Foreign Legion. Also, in the packet was a personal note from Col. Jones, saying:
Private Ortiz has 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 man and makes an excellent appearance.… In my opinion he has the mental, moral, professional, and physical qualifications for the office for which he has made application.
This time, Ortiz’ application was acted upon immediately and in August 1942 Peter Ortiz was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant. He remained at Parris Island for another two months as an assistant training officer before going to Parachute School at Camp Lejeune. Already a qualified jumper from his service with the Legion, the course was merely a refresher for Ortiz.
Marine Corps Headquarters decided Lt. Ortiz, with his fluency in French, Arabic, and German and his five years with the Legion in North Africa, would be of exceptional value to the U.S. Army, which landed on beaches in Morocco and Algeria on Nov. 8 in Operation Torch.
Things were now moving fast for Ortiz. On Dec. 3, he was promoted from 2nd lieutenant to captain, skipping the normal step to 1st lieutenant. On Dec. 21, he flew to Tangier, Morocco, where he was assigned duties as an assistant naval attaché, a cover for his real mission of organizing and leading a patrol of Arab tribesmen to gather intelligence behind German lines in Tunisia as part of an Office of Strategic Services (OSS) operation.
The OSS was the creation of Maj. Gen. William Donovan, a Medal of Honor recipient in World War I. The mission of the OSS was collecting intelligence and conducting special operations behind enemy lines. “Wild Bill” Donovan said his ideal candidates for OSS operations are “Ph.D.s who can win a bar fight.” With exceptional intelligence, fluency in several languages, a combat record second to none, and an escape from a German prison camp, Peter Ortiz was exactly the kind of man Donovan wanted.
During January 1943, Ortiz led an OSS recon patrol behind enemy lines that gathered critical intelligence until his squad clashed with a German patrol in a fierce firefight. Though wounded, Ortiz continued throwing grenades with such accuracy that the Germans broke contact. The Purple Heart was added to Ortiz’ decorations.
General Donovan was highly impressed not only by Ortiz’ reconnaissance patrol and his valor in battle but also by the professional quality of Ortiz’ after action report. Donovan asked that Ortiz be assigned to the OSS full time.
Ortiz spent time recuperating in a hospital at Algiers and then in Washington, D.C. In May 1943, Ortiz was assigned to the OSS’s Naval Command. In July, he flew to London for training for a mission behind enemy lines in France.
The mission would be to a mountainous region of southeastern France known as the Haute Savoie, which borders Switzerland and Italy. There were large numbers of Free French in the region, particularly on the Vercors plateau, immediately south of Grenoble. Gen. Charles de Gaulle and other French leaders in exile thought the partisans at Vercors, if well armed and trained, would offer stout resistance to the Germans and divert German men and materiel from Normandy when D-day arrived.
On the moonless night of Jan. 6, 1944, a British agent, a French agent, and Peter Ortiz parachuted onto the Vercors Plateau in an operation code-named Union. They were dressed in civilian clothes but carried their military uniforms in packs. They quickly made contact with French partisans or Maquis, as they were known locally. The British agent later said “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.”
Reports of an American Marine leading Maquis raids and ambushes caused the Gestapo in Haute Savoie to increase their interrogations of French farmers and townsfolk. Ortiz seemed a ghostlike figure, appearing here and there and then disappearing. He walked into villages in his uniform in the middle of the day to the cheers of the townsfolk and was gone before German soldiers arrived. He led raids that stole German vehicles or set fire to German supply dumps. He rescued four downed RAF pilots and led them through southern France and across the Pyrenees to Spain.
One night Ortiz, wearing a long cape, strolled into a town and entered a café where three German officers were drinking and cursing the Maquis and the American Marine who was leading them. “The filthy American swine,” they shouted. They looked up to see a tall, lean-faced man staring at them. The man pulled back his cape to reveal a Marine uniform and drew two semi-automatic Colt .45s. He opened fire, riddling the Germans before they could unholster their sidearms, and disappeared into the night.
In late May 1944, after nearly five months of such derring-do, Ortiz was pulled out of Vercors by an airplane with special short-field takeoff and landing capabilities and flown to London. Decorated with the Navy Cross, he was promoted to major.
Ortiz spent the next two months preparing for another OSS mission behind enemy lines, code-named Union 2. This time Ortiz would lead five enlisted Marines, an Air Force captain, and a French officer. The French officer would carry documents identifying him as an American Marine. All members of the group would wear their uniforms.
On Aug. 1, 1944, they parachuted from an American B-17 onto a drop-zone at Vercors. The parachute of one of the Marines failed to open and he died upon hitting the ground. The others landed safely and, within days, Ortiz and his team were in heavy action. At one point, the Germans maneuvered the Americans into a steep-walled canyon and had them surrounded. Surrender seemed the only option, but when night fell Ortiz led his team out of the trap, crawling silently and undetected through the German lines.
On Aug. 16, Ortiz and the others began to cross a road when a German troop convoy came speeding around a curve and was suddenly upon them. The trucks screeched to a halt and out came dozens of German soldiers, firing their weapons as soon as their feet hit the ground. The Americans raced to the protection of buildings and houses of a roadside village and returned fire. The German firepower was overwhelming, though, and the residents of the town implored the Americans to surrender before the town was destroyed.
Ortiz ordered his men to cease fire and shouted to the Germans. The withering German fire slackened and Ortiz stepped out from cover and began walking towards the German lines.
When the German commander came forward, Ortiz said he would order his men to surrender only if the commander would guarantee the villagers would not be harmed. When the commander gave his word, Ortiz had his men come out from cover and assemble next to him. He called them to attention and ordered them to provide no information other than that required by the Geneva Convention. The German commander was so impressed with Ortiz and his men that he told his troops to treat the Americans with nothing but respect.
The Americans were transported by truck from one German army camp to another until they finally reached a POW camp in northern Italy. From there they were put aboard a train with boxcars full of French, British, and American prisoners. The train took them hundreds of miles north to a POW camp in Germany near the North Sea port of Bremen, arriving there at the end of September 1944.
The camp was divided into two separate compounds, one for officers and the other for enlisted men. Ortiz found himself with some 400 other officers, nearly all of them British. Only three, including Ortiz, were American. The senior Allied officer was a British Royal Navy Captain. Upon meeting him, Ortiz asked about plans for escape and was told there would be no escape attempts. Maj. Ortiz immediately declared himself senior American officer and said American POWs would plan to escape.
On the night of Dec. 18, Ortiz and an American Navy lieutenant spent more than an hour cutting and crawling through a series of wire fences before reaching an open field and making a dash for freedom. Searchlights illuminated the running Americans and they were soon captured and locked in solitary confinement.
On April 10, 1945, with Allied forces moving into Germany, the Germans decided to move most of the prisoners to a POW camp at Lubeck, a port on the Baltic Sea about 120 miles to the northeast. The prisoners began the trek, marching in a column along the side of a road, when a couple of RAF Spitfires swept down on the column and fired.
While most in the column dove for cover, Ortiz dashed into nearby woods. Two Americans and one Englishman followed him. With the Spitfires gone, German guards ordered the prisoners back into a column and the march began again. No one seems to have noticed the disappearance of Ortiz and the others.
The escapees moved only at night, hoping to encounter British troops but all they ever saw were Germans. After ten days of narrowly escaping detection and with nothing to eat, Ortiz decided they should return to their old POW camp and see if any food was left behind.
They walked into the camp and the few guards there, anticipating a German surrender, mostly ignored them. Among the few prisoners still there were the enlisted Marines from Ortiz’s OSS group.
A week later a British armored division finally reached the camp. Most of the remaining prisoners eagerly boarded trucks for transportation to the rear—but not Ortiz and his men. Ortiz asked if his group could join the British division. As Ortiz later put it, “We Marines wanted to join this unit in order to bag a few more Germans before hunting season closed.” The British refused and the Americans were sent to the rear.
Ortiz was debriefed by an OSS officer and then the commander of the U.S. Navy’s 12th Fleet decorated Ortiz with a second Navy Cross. By this time the war in Europe was over and Ortiz requested combat duty in the Pacific. By July 1945 he was in California preparing a team for an OSS mission to Indochina, but the atomic bombs in August ended the war.
Ortiz returned to Hollywood as a technical advisor, beginning with 13 Rue Madelaine, a WWII spy thriller released in 1947 starring James Cagney. Director John Ford, a veteran of the Navy and the OSS, who was involved in his own derring-do when he parachuted behind Japanese lines into a Burmese jungle, offered Ortiz a role in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, starring John Wayne. Suddenly, Ortiz was an actor.
Ortiz eventually appeared in five of John Ford’s movies and in 27 movies altogether as well as in two television series. In Retreat, Hell!, the best movie about the Marines in Korea, Ortiz played a Marine major, exactly what he was.
While Peter Ortiz was acting, Operation Secret, a movie inspired by Ortiz’ real-life derring-do was released in 1952. Cornel Wilde played Ortiz, called Peter Forrester in the movie, but as usual Hollywood took liberties with what really occurred.
Ortiz died in 1988, leaving behind a wife and a son, who by then was a Marine officer himself. Ortiz was buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery. In attendance were not only high-ranking American officers but also high-ranking French officers. Peter Ortiz died a hero for two nations. ◆