One of the most highly decorated Marine officers of WWII was Colonel Pierre (Peter) J. Ortiz. His story reads like a James Bond thriller and what makes it more interesting is that this Marine did it all in North Africa and Europe. Ortiz’s decorations include two Navy Crosses, two Purple Hearts, a Legion of Merit, an Order of the British Empire, five French Croix de Guerre, and the French awards of Medaille des Blesses, Medaille des Evades, and Medaille Coloniale. They didn’t slap things on his chest for nothing, he earned everything he wore. This man was a warrior.
Ortiz was born in New York City in 1913 to French-Spanish parents. His father was influential in the French publishing industry. While Pierre was a child his parents migrated to southern California where he spent the majority of his childhood. Eventually, Pierre and his older sister Inez, were sent to a French boarding school. As his education continued and he grew older, he ended up at the French University of Grenoble. By the age of 19 he was fluent in the languages of English, Spanish, French, and German. He became bored with the French college life and joined the French Foreign Legion in 1932. Pierre found the adventure his warrior spirit was craving. Ortiz would earn his first two Croix de Guerre, as well as his Medaille Militaire while fighting the Berbers in the Moroccan Rif. By 1935 he had picked up the rank of sergeant and was eventually offered a commission as a second lieutenant if he was willing to re-enlist in 1937. After five years in combat in the northern African wilderness, Ortiz decided it was time to return to his southern California home where he landed work in the movie industry. By then he had also become fluent in Arabic.
When World War II broke out in 1939, Ortiz re-enlisted in the French Foreign Legion and was commissioned as a lieutenant. He was wounded and captured by the Germans during the Battle of France in 1940. After about a year and half as a POW in a German prison camp, he would escape and find his way back to the United States. Ortiz offered his services to the U.S. Army Air Corps in early 1942, but they were slow with their promise of a commission and with the required paperwork to join. After many delays Ortiz enlisted in the Marines.
Pierre would wear his French decorations on his uniform during boot camp on Parris Island. His DI’s took note of them and quickly alerted the officers. Within a few weeks the Parris Island commander wrote the commandant of the Marine Corps requesting confirmation of Ortiz’s service in the French Foreign Legion. In the letter the commander noted that Ortiz was a “unique new recruit with knowledge of military matters far beyond that of a normal recruit.” On August 16th, 1942, Ortiz was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps. His pay was retroactive from the day he enlisted. In October 1942, Ortiz would complete jump school at New River. This was nothing new for him. He had already accomplished 154 jumps with the Legion. Jump School at New River was nothing more than a refresher course for Ortiz. He would later joke that “the Legion had its way and the Marine Corps had the right way. I never minded jumping. Airplane travel always made me sick so I was happy to jump out.”
After the successful Allied landings in French Northwest Africa during Operation Torch in 1943, Ortiz would be promoted to the rank of captain and assigned to the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS) because of his language skills and his experience in the region from his time in the French Foreign Legion. Nearly three hundred Marine officers and enlisted men served in the OSS during WWII. The OSS employed these men to work with partisan and resistance groups in Axis occupied nations. On January 13, 1943, Ortiz arrived in Morocco as assistant naval attaché and Marine Corps observer. Shortly thereafter, he began working with Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE) along the Tunisian border in Operation Brandon. During the operation, Ortiz and other OSS men were responsible for conducting reconnaissance missions, sabotage, and covert killings of German soldiers.
In February Ortiz was in Gafsa when the Battle of Kasserine Pass began. He briefly fought with an armored reconnaissance unit from the British Derbyshire Yeomanry and eventually linked up with a company of the American 1st Armored Division after he crossed paths with an old Legionnaire friend who was a captain. Ortiz would fight in a brutal battle near Pichon with his friend’s unit. In March he was given several long distance reconnaissance missions. On one of these missions near Matleg Pass, he was severely wounded. He was alone and having a difficult time in knee-deep mud since it had been raining for days. Ortiz was about to turn back when he was hit by machine gun fire. One bullet had shattered his right hand and another had hit him in the leg. In the darkness he spotted the vehicle that had hit him about thirty yards away. Crawling on his good hand, Ortiz was able to get close enough to destroy the vehicle with a grenade. Suffering from shock and loss of blood, he slowly made it back to his base camp and his team carried him back to American lines. Eventually Ortiz would be airlifted back to Washington D.C. to recover from his wounds. While he was there, the OSS trained him for the next mission.
Operation Union I – France
On January 6, 1944, Peter Ortiz, British Colonel H.H.A. Thackthwaite, and a Frenchman Andre Foucault parachuted with weapons and supplies into the French Alps in Operation Union I. The mission of Union I was to assess the military capabilities of several French resistance groups and to organize, train, and equip them. The Union I team soon found that many Frenchmen were willing to fight in the resistance but the groups lacked even basic supplies to equip fighters. The team organized base camps, set up secret hospitals and arranged for Resistance member’s families to receive stipends which helped boost morale greatly. As soon as weapons and explosives arrived via airdrops, the Union I team trained the Resistance fighters to use them. Ortiz lead sabotage missions while wearing his Marine Corps uniform. His first Navy Cross citation stated that he repeatedly lead successful raids and that he, “inflicted heavy casualties on enemy forces greatly superior in number, with small losses to his own forces”.
Ortiz would also assist four Royal Air Force officers who had been shot down in his region. The Union I team took the pilots to the neutral Spanish border and to safety. In order to do so, the Marine would steal ten Gestapo vehicles from a garage under the German’s noses. They used fake identification cards that Ortiz created to pass through check-points to get to the border of Spain. He would be awarded the Order of the British Empire for his rescue of the four RAF officers.
Perhaps the most amazing story from the Union I operation was the night that Ortiz confronted several German officers in a bar. This is the stuff that legends are made of and it is all amazingly true. One evening the Marine officer decided to get a drink at a local watering hole. As he sat incognito in a dark corner of a bar room, he overheard several German officers of the 157th Division cursing Ortiz, the Allies, President Roosevelt, and the Marine Corps. This group of Germans had all recently felt the wrath of the Resistance under the Ortiz’s direction. After hearing the drunken officers banter on, Ortiz had heard enough. He returned to his safe house, put on his Marine uniform and pulled a rain coat over it. He also concealed a Colt Model 1911 pistol. After his return to the bar he ordered drinks for the group of German officers. He then took off his raincoat revealing his dress Marine Corps uniform complete with decorations. He pointed his pistol at the soldiers and demanded “a toast the President of the United States”. The shocked Germans downed their drinks as he ordered a second round. Aiming his pistol at the crowd of officers he ordered them to make, “a toast to the Marine Corps”. Some accounts then have Ortiz gunning the Germans down. According to an interview years later, Ortiz would state that he would let the officers live because it would boost the morale of the French Resistance and put fear in the hearts of the Germans.
Operation Union II
On May 20th, 1944, the highly successful Union I mission was ended. The team was airlifted back to England to await a different mission. Ortiz was awarded his first Navy Cross during the down time and he would also gain the rank of Major. D-Day came and went and soon the Allies focus of attention turned towards a landing in the south of France. Union II would put a heavily armed force on the ground with the capability of direct action against any small German forces attempting to retreat to Germany. On August 1st, 1944, a group of Americans would be parachuted into the Haute-Savoie region of France. The group consisted of Major Ortiz, Marine Gunnery Sergeant Robert LaSalle, Sergeants Charles Perry, John Bodnar, Fred Brunner, Jack Risler, Army Air Corps Captain John Coolidge as well as Joseph Arcelin who was a Free French officer. It was hoped that the Union II group would employ French Resistance fighters to attack and hold key German positions and prevent the enemy from destroying them.
Unlike the incredible success of operation Union I, Union II quickly became a small scale tragedy. Marine Sergeant Perry’s parachute malfunctioned and he fell to his death. On August 16th, 1944, the Marines ran into a German convoy at the village of Centron. They engaged the Germans in house-to-house fighting until they were reminded by villagers of certain punishment that would come to the French citizens in the town if they assisted the Resistance. Ortiz shouted to his enemies that he wished to talk. He walked towards the German positions unarmed through a hail of gunfire. An elderly French woman attempted to shield Ortiz from the fire with her body but the Marine kindly moved her aside. The firing then stopped and Ortiz made an agreement with the German commander that the villagers would not be harmed in return for the Marines surrender. The Germans were enraged when the small handful of Marines emerged from the buildings. They believed they had been fighting a company-sized unit, but the agreement had been made and the villagers were not harmed by the Germans. His second Navy Cross citation would state “he disregarded the possibility of escape and, in an effort to spare villagers severe reprisals by the Gestapo, surrendered to this sadistic Geheim Staats Polizei. Subsequently imprisoned and subjected to numerous interrogations, he divulged nothing, and the story of this intrepid Marine Major and his team became a brilliant legend in that section of France where acts of bravery were considered commonplace.”
After the War
Ortiz would spend the remainder of the war as a POW. He made numerous attempts to escape and was finally successful in early April, 1945 when he and three others escaped while being moved to another camp. After ten days with little or no food they decided to return to their old camp after discovering that the prisoners had basically taken control during the massive German retreat. The camp was liberated on April 29th. The Marines would release Ortiz from active duty in 1946 and he would resume his career in the movie industry in Hollywood. Two movies were loosely based on his life and he would make cameo appearances and act as a technical adviser in both 13 Rue Madeline and Operation Secret. Ortiz would also appear in several films with director John Ford including Rio Grande where he played Captain St. Jacques. He would stay in the Marine Reserves until 1955 when he retired as a Colonel. In 1954 he volunteered his services in Indochina as a Marine observer but the Marine Corps rejected his request.
After a battle with cancer Peter Ortiz would pass away on May 16th, 1988 at the age of 74. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Representatives from the French and British militaries were in attendance at his funeral as well as Marine Corps representatives. In August 1994, Centron, France renamed the town center “Place Colonel Peter Ortiz” during a large ceremony. Let’s hear it for a true American badass, a Marine, and a warrior; Colonel Pierre J. Ortiz.