Valor Friday

| December 2, 2022

Peter Ortiz

This one will be a tad longer than normal, but the subject is just that incredible.

When someone hears about US Marines in World War II, the mind immediately goes to the South Pacific. The Marine Corps’ amphibious assault specialization meant they were a perfect fit for the island hopping campaign in the Pacific War. There were however a handful of Marines who served in the European Theater of Operations (ETO), but they were by far the exception rather than the rule.

Peter Ortiz is one of those exceptions. His story is more than worthy of an epic movie. Especially when you find out he went into acting after the war and was in several John Wayne movies as well as in flicks with other blockbusting actors of the era like Gary Cooper, Gregory Peck, Humphrey Bogart, Abbott and Costello, James Cagney, and Doris Day.

Most of the Marines that saw active combat service in the ETO, during America’s involvement in the war, were with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). The OSS was the US foreign intelligence service, conducting many operations behind enemy lines, mostly in occupied Europe. It is then not surprising that Peter Ortiz was an OSS Marine.

The OSS was modeled on the British Special Operations Executive, which formed in 1940 to conduct covert espionage and sabotage on Axis forces in the occupied Allied countries. The OSS was the forerunner to the modern Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), specifically the CIA’s Special Activities Division (SAD). The CIA-SAD is the direct-action, paramilitary arm of the CIA.

Ortiz was born in New York City in 1913. His father was a Frenchman of Spanish heritage, and his mother was Swiss. He was educated in France at the University of Grenoble. A linguistic polymath, Ortiz spoke ten languages including English, Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, German, and Arabic. As you can imagine, when World War II came around, these were helpful skills to have.

At age 19, in 1932, Ortiz joined the famed French Foreign Legion on a five-year enlistment in north Africa. The French Foreign Legion is a storied fighting force and with good reason. Largely made up of foreign troops, with many coming from the third world, service in the Legion guarantees French citizenship. They have a reputation as one of the finest infantry units in the world.

Ortiz apparently joined the Legion just for the thrill. One man said, “Pete enlisted in the Legion just for adventure. He’d read a lot of romantic tales. He had a Polish girlfriend at the time (who was also at Grenoble) and she accompanied him to Marseilles.”

Not only does service in the FFL provide French citizenship, but you can join under a new name, no questions asked. The Legion is therefore a way for a man to escape his past. You can enlist in a new name and when you get your citizenship, you get a French passport under your new identity. Ortiz enlisted under his girlfriend’s name in fact.

Being an elite organization, training for the Legion is intense. If a man doesn’t speak French, he’ll learn it during basic training. The intensity of the training is highlighted by a focus on brotherhood, esprit-de-corps, and heritage. Though Legionnaires come from literally all over the world, they soon operate as a tightly knit team.

Ortiz attended basic training in French Algeria, and then saw service in Morocco. When Ortiz’s father heard of his enlistment, he came to Morocco and attempted to buy him out of his contract. Pete would have none of it.

At this time the Legion numbered about 30,000 men. Tensions in the region were still high. The French Foreign Legion had played a large role in the Rif War in Spanish-controlled Morocco in the early 1920s. The combined French and Spanish forces defeated the nominally independent Rif Republic, dissolving them.

The Rif War was seen either as the first in the series of many post-World War II colonial independence conflicts or as the last of the European started colonial wars that had been so prevalent in the 19th Century.

Though defeated, the Riffians continued to cause problems for the Europeans. Ortiz, who was made a corporal in 1933 and sergeant in 1935, saw action in these conflicts. He received the Croix de Guerre for battlefield bravery. His Croix de Guerre for Foreign Operational Theaters held a whopping four citations (two palms, one gold star, one silver star). Depending on the level at which he was cited, these are roughly analogous to an American Silver Star or Bronze Star Medal w/ “V”.

Ortiz also received the Médaille militaire (Military Medal), one of the highest honors in the French awards and decorations system. At the time it ranked as the second-highest award for bravery, behind only the Légion d’honneur (Legion of Honor). That made it analogous to an American service cross. He was also a recipient of the Combattant’s Cross and the Moroccan Ouissam Alouite, an award for combat bravery.

An adept warrior, he was made an acting lieutenant by the time his enlistment ran out. The Legion offered him a full commission if he were to re-up, but he elected to leave the service in 1937. He returned to the United States and worked as a technical advisor on Hollywood war films.

When war came again to the European continent in September 1939, Ortiz felt the need to return to uniform. America was officially neutral. At the time public sentiment was decidedly against getting involved in another foreign war. Indeed in the 1940 Presidential Election, President Roosevelt campaigned (and was re-elected) on a promise of non-interventionism.

Since the US wasn’t going to join the war, Ortiz re-enlisted with the French Foreign Legion in 1939. With the Invasion of France by Germany in May 1940, Ortiz was given a battlefield commission as a lieutenant.

During the Battle of France, in June 1940 he got word that a fuel dump had been left behind by his men as they retreated. They preferred to destroy it, to deny the enemy the free fuel. Ortiz grabbed a motorcycle and drove through enemy lines. Passing right through the German camp, he arrived at the fuel dump, and blew it up. On his return trip through the enemy, the element of surprise was obviously gone. He was shot at least once, through the hip. While the bullet exited his body, it hit his spine along the way, paralyzing him temporarily. Being unable to walk, he was quickly captured.

Before becoming a prisoner, Ortiz’s performance in the fighting to fend off the German Blitzkrieg earned him another two citations of the Croix de Guerre (one palm and one silver star, on the World War II version of the award). He also received the Combattants Cross (1939-1949 version).

As a POW, Ortiz was held for 15 months at camps in Germany, Poland, and Austria. He attempted to escape several times, finally succeeding in October 1941. He seems to have used his linguistic skills to his advantage, as he made his way over the next two months to Lisbon, Portugal. From there, he secured passage back to the United States.

On his arrival in the US on 8 December 1941 (the day after the Attack on Pearl Harbor), Ortiz was interrogated by both Army and Navy intelligence. He was promised an American military commission.

Over the next few months he waited to wear an American uniform. He turned down offers from the Free French and the Portuguese governments for a commissioned position on their respective military forces. By June 1942 he’d grown weary of waiting for military intelligence to come through with an American commission, so he enlisted on the 22nd of that month in the Marine Corps.

Of all the American service branches, the US Marines are most like the French Foreign Legion. They are both small, highly mobile light infantry formations. Both operate with often outdated and otherwise hand-me-down equipment when compared to their Army brethren. The two branches also share long, proud histories with exceptionally well-developed esprit-de-corps.

Ortiz, a tall, handsome man with an athletic build carried himself well. You’d expect such from a man who’d spent five years in the FFL, had been highly decorated for that service, and even been commissioned. It should be no shock then that he immediately drew the attention of the drill instructors at boot camp aboard Parris Island. I don’t think he wanted to fly under the radar, since he wore his numerous French and Moroccan decorations on his uniform.

Ortiz’s demeanor and experience drew the attention of the Marine colonel commanding recruit training at Parris Island, Louis R. Jones. Jones was a decorated veteran of the First World War, having received two Silver Stars and the French Criox de Guerre for battlefield bravery. Later in World War II, Jones would rise to the rank of major general, receive the Navy Cross, and two Legions of Merit w/ combat “V”.

Colonel Jones wrote to the Commandant of the Marine Corps recommending Ortiz for an immediate commission. In his correspondence he included copies of Ortiz’s battlefield citations and this personal observation;

Private Ortiz had 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 and makes an excellent appearance. The undersigned is glad to recommend Ortiz for a commission in the Marine Corps Reserve and is of the opinion that he would be a decided addition to the Reserve Officer list. In my opinion he has the mental, moral, professional, and physical qualifications for the office for which he has made application.

The letter was sent on 14 July, just weeks after Ortiz had enlisted. The Commandant agreed with Colonel Jones, and Ortiz was commissioned a second lieutenant of Marines on 1 August 1942, with a date of rank of 24 July. He was an enlisted Marine for only a month.

Ortiz was initially kept at Parris Island to assist with instructing recruits. He was then sent to airborne school, despite already being a French-qualified parachutist. Ortiz thus became one of a rare breed of World War II Marine, a Paramarine. By the end of his career, with all his French, American, and OSS training jumps, including operational jumps with the latter, Ortiz logged 154 parachute drops.

Almost immediately, Ortiz’s past experience, his native-level speaking of French, and his passable Spanish and Arabic brought him to the attention of those at the highest ranks of the Corps. Then-Colonel Keller Rockey, working in the Marine Corps Division of Plans and Policies recommended that Ortiz be seconded to the Army for service in north Africa.

Rockey later rose to lieutenant general. A veteran of the Great War (where he’d earned both a Navy Cross and an Army Distinguished Service Cross) and of the Banana Wars (he earned a second Navy Cross in Nicaragua in 1928), he was well suited to pick out an exceptional man like Ortiz from the tens of thousands of new enlistees coming in every month.

Rockey wrote to the Commandant, “The rather unique experiences and qualifications of Lieutenant Ortiz indicate that he would be of exceptional value to American units operating in North Africa.” He also recommended a promotion to first lieutenant or captain for Ortiz.

Colonel Rockey’s recommendation was heeded. Ortiz was promoted to captain on 3 December (less than six months after joining the Corps), and he left for Tangier, Morocco on the 21st. His official assignment would be as a naval attache, but that was only his cover. His real mission was to organize a patrol of Arab tribesmen to scout on German positions.

This would be Ortiz’s start with the fledgling OSS. The OSS was under the command of the legendary Major General William “Wild Bill” Donovan (a WWI MoH, DSC, and Silver Star recipient). Ortiz went straight to work. Soon he was on a patrol and again engaging with Wehrmacht forces.

General Donovan forwarded to the Commandant a message from Algiers. It read, “While on reconnaissance on the Tunisian front, Captain Peter Ortiz, U.S.M.C.R. was severely wounded in the right hand while engaged in a personal encounter with a German patrol. He dispersed the patrol with grenades. Captain Ortiz is making good recovery in hospital at Algiers. The [P]urple [H]eart was awarded to him.”

In April 1943 Ortiz was returned to Washington to recover from his wounds. In just a few years he’d been seriously wounded twice while serving with two different country’s armed forces.

Ortiz wasted no time. By May he was already assigned to Naval Command, OSS and was on his way to Europe by July. He was flown to London (a VIP mode of travel at the time) and from there was detailed to France.

On 6 January 1944, Ortiz was dropped by parachute into the Haute-Savoie region of eastern France along the Swiss border. After the German victory in the Battle of France, the area was initially under Vichy France. From November 1942 until September 1943 the region was under Italian military occupation. After that, the German military occupied the area.

The French Resistance, known as the Maquis, were very active in the area. So active in fact that during the winter of 1943 into 1944 the Germans burned about 500 farms in the region in revenge for resistance activity. About 3,000 Maquisards were active in the region.

Haute-Savoie is home to the Vercors Massif. The Alpine plateau was of interest to the British SOE, American OSS, and General de Gaulle, leader of the Free French. They wanted to turn the mountaintop into a redoubt that the Germans would be forced to attack in vain. It was hoped that this would draw German attention when the Invasion of Normandy commenced in the summer of 1944.

In furtherance of this goal, the SOE organized an Allied team of SOE, OSS, and Free French operators to determine the capabilities of the Maquis in the Savoie, Isere, and Drome regions. Once connected with the resistance groups, they would help organize, train, and equip them for the coming liberation of their country.

On 6 January, Ortiz, team commander British officer Captain Henry Thackwaite, and French radio operator Camille Monier were dropped from a British Handley Page Halifax heavy bomber. The operation was given the code name UNION.

After landing and connecting with the Maquis, both Thackwaite and Ortiz switched from the civilian clothing to their military uniforms. By Thackwaite’s estimation, this made them “the first allied liaison officers to appear in uniform in France since 1940″. Thackwaite later wrote, “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.”

Finding several thousand Maquisards, the Allied commandos arranged for clandestine weapons training as well as air drops of additional arms and munitions. They were challenged by a lack of money and resources since they were so deep into enemy-held territory. They also had to get varying, competing factions to work together.

Ortiz didn’t shy away from the enemy. In a repeat of his original Steve McQueen-like motorcycle ride through Nazi-occupied territory, he would just go right into the German held towns. Lieutenant Colonel Robert Mattingly wrote in his prize-winning monograph, Herringbone Cloak–GI Dagger: Marines of the OSS:

It might be reasonable to suppose that the team remained hidden in the high country, but this was not the case. Ortiz in particular was fond of going straight into the German-occupied towns. On one occasion, he strolled into a cafe dressed in a long cape. Several Germans were drinking and cursing the [M]aquis. One mentioned the fate which would befall the filthy American swine when he was caught. (The Nazis apparently knew of Ortiz’ existence in the area with the [M]aquis) This proved a great mistake. Captain Ortiz threw back the cape revealing his Marine uniform. In each hand he held a .45 automatic. When the shooting stopped, there were fewer Nazis to plan his capture and Ortiz was gone into the night.

As if his work coordinating and fomenting a revolution against the brutal Nazi regime wasn’t enough, he also secreted downed airmen to safety. The British made Ortiz a Member (MBE) of the Order of the British Empire, a chivalric order and award of the British monarch to noteworthy citizens. It is a high honor, particularly for a foreign serviceman, to receive. Ortiz received his MBE for helping secure four downed RAF aircrew, and accompanying them, at great personal risk, until they were safely to the Spanish border (Spain being neutral).

One of the RAF officers personally commended Ortiz for his “consummate skill and daring in his methods.” He was so daring in fact, that he raided Gestapo garages to “procure” vehicles. Stealing one Gestapo car would be a feat, but Ortiz stole ten!

Ortiz also somehow got himself a Gestapo pass to use, so he could move around freely. He did this despite being well-known to the enemy. The British flyers were “unanimous in their opinion that the gallant and brave work performed by [Ortiz] is worthy of recognition.”

In May 1944, just days before D-Day, the UNION team was pulled back to England for reassignment. For his bravery, skill, and cunning in operating behind enemy lines for four months, Ortiz received the Navy Cross upon his return. This is the second highest award for combat gallantry, behind only the Medal of Honor.

Ortiz was soon promoted to major and returned to France on 1 August 1944 to lead a new mission, called UNION-II (with the previous UNION retronamed UNION-I). This would be similar to his first OSS mission in France, but would involve more direct action. The Invasion at Normandy had been a success, but the Germans were putting up steep resistance. UNION-II would coincide with Operation Dragoon, the Allied invasion of Southern France. Opening up a second front in the fight for the liberation of France.

This new mission saw the OSS and Maquisards conducting sabotage and intelligence gathering, as they had done before, but they were now openly attacking the Germans. Always wearing uniforms, they had a primary mission of securing key installations to prevent their destruction by the retreating Germans.

Ortiz (second from left) with his OSS team in France on 2 Aug 1944

Having uniformed Allied personnel leading their raids improved morale of the Maquis. When I say that the OSS commandos wore their uniforms, I should clarify. They weren’t simply wearing fatigues or battle dress with American insignia or name tapes. Ortiz favored his full service dress green uniform, with all of his numerous award ribbons. His cohorts were similarly decked out in their finest daily dress uniform, complete with rank, badges, and ribbons. The USAAF officer with them similarly wore his Class A.

Ortiz (center left in field jacket) on 1 Aug 1944 at the landing site (note the parachute on the ground behind them)

To get into France, they were parachuted in a daylight operation into Les Saises in the Haute Savoie region. They dropped with hundreds of containers of weapons, ammunition, and other supplies for the Maquis. On his OSS team Ortiz had an Army Air Forces captain, five US Marine NCOs, and a Free French officer.

Unfortunately, the mission started off poorly as one of the Marine sergeants had a line on his parachute snap. This resulted in a ‘chute failure, killing him. He was buried with full honors before they continued with their mission.

Military funeral for Sergeant Charles Perry (USMC)

Ortiz and his men immediately set about in training the resistance fighters in the operation and maintenance of their new weapons. By 14 August, Ortiz and his men were following a lead from the city of Beaufort about Maquisards operating in the area of Montgirod. Arriving there, they were immediately shelled by German artillery. Forced to retreat to the mountains, the Germans surrounded them, but somehow they made it out.

On 15 August, Operation Dragoon hit the beaches. Germany sent reinforcements south, which Ortiz and company discovered in the area of Centron on the 16th. They came upon a dozen trucks of the 157th Alpine Reserve Division. Ortiz was faced with several hundred Wehrmacht mountain troops.

The German troops dismounted, and fired on the Allied men. Taking withering fire, the team was split in two. Ortiz and two of his sergeants were retreating to the southwest, while the other four went southeast. The men going to the east fled to a river, where they became separated, with one of the officers taking a bullet to the leg along the way. To the west, Ortiz and his men were moving house to house as the Germans pursued them.

Within the French houses, the civilians implored the OSS operatives to surrender for fear of German reprisals. Ortiz ordered his men to make their escape while they could and he’d hold off the enemy, but they refused, unwilling to leave him behind.

Ortiz was aware of the massacres the Germans had been wreaking on French civilians for the resistance activities of their neighbors. He decided to surrender, sparing the citizenry from certain death should he fight it out with the Germans.

Ortiz later wrote that it was “not too difficult” a decision to make. He said, “I had been involved in dangerous activities for many years and was mentally prepared for my number to turn up.” It probably didn’t hurt that he’d already once before been captured and escaped from the Nazis.

Ortiz explained his reasoning to his sergeant who said, “Major, we are Marines, what you think is right goes for me too.” They joined him in surrendering for the greater good, well aware that the Germans were likely to treat them as spies and not as common infantrymen.

Ortiz called to the enemy offering his surrender, but apparently couldn’t be heard. In a brief lull in the shooting, he stood and casually walked towards the enemy. With machine gun rounds bouncing off the ground around him, he continued forward. Probably not believing what they were seeing, they stopped firing and Ortiz was able to speak with the German commanding officer.

Ortiz secured a promise from the enemy officer to take he and his men prisoner and not to retaliate against the townsfolk. When only two more Marines stepped out at Ortiz’s order, the German major refused to believe he’d been facing only three men. A subsequent search of the town didn’t turn up the platoon or company that he had thought he was fighting against.

Major Ortiz, cooler than cool, seen here in France, before his capture. He favored removing the reinforcing ring on his combination cover, giving it that USAAF crush cap look.

For the second time during the war, Ortiz was captured. His two NCOs disarmed, Ortiz ordered them to attention. Snapping to, the men were then given orders to provide only the information required under the Geneva Convention. The display of military bearing apparently impressed the Germans, as they received decent treatment and were not summarily executed as the spies and saboteurs they were.

Over the next month and a half Ortiz was transported through Europe to a German naval POW camp. Along the way he looked for chances to escape, but didn’t have any opportunities. Once at the Marlag und Milag Nord camp, which held mostly British and Commonwealth navy and merchant sailors, they found an apathetic guard. Aside from periodic searches and regular roll calls, the POWs were left to their own devices.

Ortiz, with his penchant for escaping, was given orders by the ranking POW, a British Royal Navy captain, that escape attempts were forbidden. Ortiz instead declared that he was the ranking American POW present and that he would be making his own rules.

Over the notoriously cold winter of 1944 into 1945, no escape attempts were made. With the Allies creeping closer and closer though, on 10 April the camp commandant gave the order for the POWs to prepare to move out within three hours. The retreat from the camp was so hasty that several prisoners were left behind.

Ortiz, having a reputation among the Germans, had been placed under special watch and so was in the column of troops marched out of camp. While marching out, a British Spitfire strafed the troops. Ortiz and his closest men used the chaos caused in the attack to run and hide in nearby woods. They hid and waited for the column to continue on, which it soon enough did.

The escaped prisoners hoped to be found by the Allied battle line almost immediately. They were not as close as they thought. For ten days the men stumbled around, mostly traveling at night, and stumbling into enemy positions. They were discovered by the Germans once, but were able to get away. Several other times they had close calls.

On day seven they returned to the area of their former prison camp. They reconnoitered the area and it looked like the camp had only a token guard and that the prisoners were fully in charge. After three days of sitting outside the camp, the men decided they’d rather be back in their prison huts than die of exposure and starvation just outside the wire.

Ortiz and his fellow escapees literally walked into the camp through the front gate. The guard gave no alarm or challenge and the prisoners in the camp welcomed them “home” with rousing cheers. Just days later, on 29 April 1945, the British 7th Armored Division liberated the camp.

Ortiz, his two captured OSS teammates, and a fellow OSS Marine officer reported to a US Navy radar officer assigned as liaison with the British division. They requested to be attached to the unit immediately. They wanted to kill a few more Germans before the war ended. The request was denied. The War in Europe ended within two weeks anyway.

The men were evacuated to the rear, then to Brussels where they reported in with the OSS, and then back to London. In London, Ortiz received his second Navy Cross. The award citation notes that “the story of this intrepid Marine Major and his team has become a brilliant legend in that section of France where acts of bravery were considered commonplace.”

When the war ended, Ortiz had been in training to work for the OSS mission in Indochina. After the war, Ortiz returned to California. He remained in the US Marine Corps Reserve, where he’d eventually be promoted to lieutenant colonel. In 1954, he wrote to the Marine Commandant asking to be returned to active duty and assigned as an observer in French Indochina (Vietnam), but the request was denied.

In California, Ortiz returned to work in the film industry. He was good friends with famed director John Ford. He was in several of the man’s movies, frequently with John Wayne. He was said to be a “terrible actor”, but he enjoyed being in the movies, though he never watched the ones in which he appeared. He lists 26 (mostly uncredited) movie roles on his resume from 1949 to 1957.

Ortiz and The Duke in Rio Grande (1950)

Ortiz retired from the Marines in 1955. As was common at the time, he was advanced to colonel on the retired list for having been decorated in combat. He also received a Legion of Merit as a retirement award.

Légion d’honneur

The awards and decorations of Colonel Ortiz are numerous. In addition to his two Navy Crosses, he received two Purple Hearts, the POW Medal, and all the normal WWII ETO service medals. The British gave him the previously mentioned MBE. France made him a Chevalier (Knight) in the Légion d’honneur, the highest award of the French government, for his service with the OSS. He added to his numerous awards from his time with the French Foreign Legion, the Escapee’s Medal (Médaille des Évadés), and the Medal for the War Wounded (Médaille des Blesses).

In his personal life, Ortiz married Jean (1929-2016), and had one son. At the time of Ortiz’s death in 1988 from cancer (the only fight he ever lost), his son Peter J. Ortiz Jr. was a major in the Marine Corps.

Category: Historical, Marines, Navy Cross, POW, Valor, We Remember

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USMC Steve

There were a significant number of Marines in the OSS serving in Europe. I read somewhere that it was almost one third of the force. Cannot verify that info however, but it was a lot of them. Even though the Army leadership didn’t want them involved in the ETO at all. Marshall and his gang also apparently didn’t know there were Marine Detachments on every Navy ship light cruiser and larger floating around in that theater of operations as well…


Thrilling read. Thanks Mason.


How in the hell did a man like this not be known to me before this!


He was an amazing legend. Charles Kuralt did a nice piece on him back in the 90s but I can’t find it on line. There is a Peter Ortiz Award out there now for special operators.

Old tanker

That man’s life would make for multiple movies, not just one. There is no way they could do justice to his exploits in only one film.


A Hardcore Warrior’s Warrior. Surprised he could move around on his missions with the weight of his medals…and those massive ‘nads. Good chance he was the Marine that an Uncle-in-Law of mine served with in the Marquis. Gilbert (pronounced Jill Bear) got his mother and 2 sisters out of France right after the Knot Zees had over run the place. Not all of the Frogs surrendered…or ran.

Great story, Mason…again. Thanks!


My Lord! Absolutely incredible career! I remember him in “Rio Grande”. He really stood out from the rest of the actors in the way that he carried himself.


Wearing their uniforms was not just a bold move but a smart one as well. Had they been captured while out of uniform they could have been legally executed as spies. Captured in uniform, they were POW’s and entitled to treatment as such.

Great read, Mason… 👍 


With that hair, he had to of wanted to be Motor-T. We would have welcomed him into the low and loose, cover tilted back clan.



“The Pride don’t ride without Motor-T.”


How the Germans didn’t find him sooner, what with all the loud clanging from his giant steel balls.


Great read for Valor Friday. Colonel Ortiz had himself a set.