In August 1944 Maj. Peter J. Ortiz and five other US Marines parachuted into Europe to help the French Resistance. After one of the Marines was killed and another injured, the remaining four continued their mission. They eventually wound up in a firefight with the Germans, who believed they were fighting an entire battalion of men.
Major Pierre Julien Ortiz
Ortiz was a true hero of the war, with vast combat experience and a long list of medals and awards to his name, including two Navy Crosses, an OBE, and the Légion d’Honneur. He was born in the US in 1912, but in 1932 decided school life was too boring for him, so he joined the French Foreign Legion.
Ortiz was discharged in 1937 and went back to America, where he worked as a Hollywood advisor on war films.
When WWII began Ortiz returned to the Legion and fought in the Battle of France, but was eventually captured by the Germans. After a year and a half as a POW Ortiz escaped and once again returned to the US. Here, he attempted to join the US Army Air Force, but when the process took too long he joined the Marine Corps instead in 1942.
Ortiz stood out among the other new Marine recruits, with his wealth of experience and chest of medals. He was quickly put in for a promotion. His time in the Legion taught him many things, having performed over 150 parachute jumps.
He was also fluent in multiple languages, which made him useful to the OSS in North Africa. He was involved in a number of dangerous missions, often hunting the enemy alone and moving past retreating soldiers. He was wounded in March 1943 and sent back to the US. After recovering, his multilingual skills were put to use in Europe.
Operation Union II
On August 1 1944 Ortiz, five other Marines, and an Air Corps officer parachuted into France. Once there, they met with Joseph Arcelin, a Free French officer disguised as a Marine. Their mission was to link up with the Maquis, a band of the French Resistance, and stage attacks against Germans retreating through France. The operation was called Union II. Ortiz had already conducted a similar mission before in January with Union I, which saw him supply and organize the Resistance.
To reduce the chances of being attacked or scattered, Union II’s drop was performed at a low level. Straight away the mission went awry.
The parachute of one of the Marines, Sgt. Charles Sperry malfunctioned during the jump. At such low levels reserve chutes were useless, and so Sperry was killed on impact with the ground. The remaining Marines were part of a small number to see action in Europe during the war.
They collected 864 supply drops filled with equipment, ammunition, and supplies and started training the Resistance fighters. They surveyed the area, set up ambushes, and performed reconnaissance. Their activities quickly came to the attention of the Germans though, who were still wary of Ortiz after the Union I mission earlier in the year.
In mid-August, the team was in unfamiliar territory and was nearly captured. While trying to return to their base of operations they were discovered by a large group of German troops in the village of Centron.
The team split up and held off the Germans in a fierce firefight, dominated by Ortiz and his Marines. Intense house-to-house fighting ensued, but the Allied fighters realized their actions may bring more harm than good.
As the Germans had on a few occasions destroyed towns and massacred civilians thought to have helped the French Resistance, Ortiz and his men feared that if they successfully escaped, the Germans may enact revenge on the village.
He attempted to communicate with the Germans but this failed, so he bravely walked out of the village while under fire and approached the German commander, Major Kolb. The Germans stopped firing, and Ortiz spoke to the German commander in one of the many languages he knew. He made Kolb an offer: to surrender himself and his men if the Germans guaranteed to spare the town.
Kolb, under the impression that he was fighting a large force, agreed. When Ortiz’s small group of men walked out of the village the Germans were baffled and refused to believe that was the entire force.
“Initially, the German officer was in disbelief,” said Major Steven White, a Marine Corps intelligence officer. “He did not believe that only 4 Marines had held off his forces for this long. He insisted that Maj. Ortiz turn over the rest of his team members.”
Despite Arcelin not speaking English, the Germans believed that he was a Marine.
Ortiz and his men spent the rest of the war as POWs. He was one of the most decorated Marines of the entire war.