It’s August 1944, and a small band of Marines find themselves perilously close to an approaching Nazi patrol in eastern France. Running for their lives, the Americans take refuge in a nearby village to regroup and perhaps come up with a plan to escape.
And as fire comes in from all sides, the situation looks desperate for the trapped Marines. Cut off from the rest of their group, three men – Major Peter Ortiz and Sergeants Jack Risler and John Bodnar – attempt to dodge the hail of German ammunition by darting between dwellings. The U.S. soldiers try to give as good as they get, however, by returning fire.
Given their heavy artillery, though, the German forces look set to come in and take the village. And Major Ortiz realizes the ramifications of that situation for the locals: the villagers would likely suffer reprisals from the Nazi troops for having seemingly helped the Marines. So, the major does something rather unexpected: he tries to negotiate with the enemy.
By that point, Major Ortiz was an accomplished military man – and one with a life story fit for Hollywood. In fact, Ortiz was no stranger to Tinseltown, as he had actually worked in the movies before becoming a U.S. Marine. And even the tale of how the soon-to-be hero worked his way up to the Corps is ripe for a big-screen adaptation.
Having dropped out of college, New York City-born Ortiz enrolled with the French Foreign Legion in 1932; he then served for five years or so in North Africa, earning three decorations for his efforts. After Ortiz’s tour ended, though, the experienced soldier headed to America, where he took on the position of technical advisor on several war-themed cinematic productions.
Then, in 1939, after World War Two had been declared in Europe, Ortiz once again joined the French Foreign Legion. During the Battle of France in 1940, however, Nazi forces invaded the Gallic nation, and then-Sergeant Ortiz was taken prisoner by the Germans. Still, after months in captivity, the determined Legionnaire managed to escape and travel back to America.
And once back in the States, Ortiz seemed determined to keep fighting. He even volunteered himself for the Army Air Corps, which pledged to commission him. However, the process to officially make him a member of the Corps moved too slowly for the soldier. Rather than wait, then, Ortiz instead joined the U.S. Marines in June 1942.
Furthermore, within months of enlisting in the Marines, Ortiz had risen to the position of captain. In 1943 the newly promoted officer also began work for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) – an intelligence agency said to be a forerunner of the CIA – for which Ortiz was involved in a covert operation as well as combat situations.
It was while working for the OSS, though, that Ortiz became one of only a handful of U.S. Marines to see action in Europe. And his time in service on the continent was certainly eventful. In early 1944 the Marine rescued four British Royal Air Force pilots trapped behind enemy lines; during that mission, he also stole ten vehicles belonging to the Gestapo from a Nazi military garage. In a separate incident, he is also said to have forced several Nazi officers – at gunpoint – to drink toasts to both the U.S. President and the Marine Corps.
In January 1944, however, Ortiz was one of the men tasked with making contact with the French Resistance movement in the east of the country and assessing the locals’ readiness to join the battle against the Germans. Along with a British colonel and a radio operator from France, the experienced soldier spent four months tutoring and coordinating the resistance fighters before leaving France in May that year.
Then, in August 1944 it was time for Ortiz’s mission – codenamed Union II – to begin in earnest; alongside the now-major were just seven other soldiers. The team duly parachuted into the south-eastern area of Haute-Savoie, ready to meet up with the French Resistance, but they immediately lost one of their number. Tragically, one man died during the jump after his chute failed. Another soldier also wouldn’t be able to participate, having injured himself upon landing – cutting the group’s total to just six.
What was left of Ortiz’s team rendezvoused with the resistance fighters and spent a number of days training the French to use the weapons that had also been dropped in the region. The combined forces then conducted several raids against the Germans. There would be severe repercussions for any members of the resistance captured by the Nazis, however; they would be immediately shot.
Then, after one such ambush against the Nazis, injured members of the resistance took refuge in the village of Montgirod. The Marines kept moving, however, and managed to just miss German forces surrounding the settlement. But local residents were not so lucky. “They burned the place down… They killed them all,” Sergeant Major Bodnar, one of the Union II Marines, later recalled.
So, it seems that Ortiz’s decision to surrender when half of the Union II squad found themselves pinned down in another small town wasn’t just surprising and brave, but selfless as well. The major would explain in a later report on the mission, “Since the activities of [Operation Union II] were well known to the Gestapo, there was no reason to hope that we would be treated as ordinary prisoners of war.”
But Ortiz’s actions didn’t end there, since the major was indeed able to negotiate with a Nazi officer. The proposition was that the Marines would lay down their arms – but only if the villagers’ safety was assured. The German major agreed to this measure, and so the two remaining U.S. servicemen came forward from their hiding places.
But the Nazi soldier was furious after the Americans had revealed themselves. Having thought that an entire Allied battalion was in the area, the major couldn’t believe that just three Marines had held off almost 4,000 German troops. When a search of the town produced no further combatants, however, the officer had no choice but to honor the deal.
Ortiz’s story doesn’t end there, though. Having been taken as a prisoner of war in Germany and held for several months, the major managed to escape his captors. However, after ten days in the wilderness, he eventually walked back into the POW camp, having decided that eating in captivity was better than starving in freedom. That turned out to be a canny decision, since the camp was liberated by the British just two days later.
And Ortiz went on to become one of the most decorated members of the now-defunct OSS. He received an incredible 23 service awards from four separate countries, having been honored by America, France, Morocco and Great Britain. Furthermore, the citation accompanying Ortiz’s second Navy Cross spoke of his conduct during Operation Union II, saying, “The story of this intrepid major and his team became a brilliant legend in that section of France where acts of bravery were considered commonplace.”
Then once Ortiz had left active service – with the rank of colonel also bestowed upon the brave soldier at the point of his retirement – he returned to the movies. This time, though, he wasn’t just an advisor. Yes, the veteran would turn his hand to acting, appearing in, among other movies, the 1950 John Wayne epic Rio Grande.
But despite the colonel’s later successes, the little village that he saved, Centron, never forgot what he did. Despite Ortiz’s passing in 1988, aged 74, his bravery was commemorated on the 60th anniversary of the settlement’s rescue. And in August 1994 Centron’s central square was named in his honor as Place Colonel Peter Ortiz. Is there a more fitting ending to such an incredible story?