Dan Daly. Smedley Butler. John Basilone. Lewis “Chesty” Puller. These names and their stories are drilled into the heads of every Marine while in initial training. The name and story of Col. Peter J. Ortiz, however, isn’t as recognizable.
Ortiz fought in Europe during World War II. While his exploits may seem the stuff of legend, his story is real and exemplifies a Marine tradition of adapting and overcoming tremendous odds to complete the mission.
Born July 5, 1913, in New York City, Ortiz spent much of his youth in his father’s native country of France. Looking for fun and adventure, he joined the famed French Foreign Legion at the age of 19. Starting as a private, he attained the rank of “acting lieutenant,” with the promise of being commissioned as a second lieutenant if he reenlisted and became a French citizen. Ortiz turned down the offer, and returned to the United States in 1937.
However, Ortiz was not out of the military for long. In 1939, with World War II underway, Ortiz returned to the French Legion. The following year, he conducted a daring demolition raid on a fuel dump his fellow Legionnaires had failed to secure before evacuating the area. Ortiz succeeded, but a gunshot wound temporarily paralyzed him and he was captured by the Germans.
For 15 months, Ortiz repeatedly tried to escape from prisoner-of-war camps in Germany, Poland, and Austria. In 1941, he finally succeeded and escaped to the United States. Ortiz then made his way to Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C., to start his enlistment in the Corps.
Ortiz stood out from the moment he arrived at the depot. He was allowed to wear the ribbons he had earned as a Legionnaire, and made an impression on everyone who saw it, including Col. Louis R. Jones, who at the time was the chief of staff at MCRD Parris Island. Jones contacted the commandant of the Marine Corps about commissioning Ortiz immediately into the Marine Corps Reserve, citing his numerous awards and military bearing and character.
By Aug. 1, just 40 days after starting his enlistment in the Marine Corps, Ortiz was a second lieutenant, and was promoted again to captain in December.
Headquarters Marine Corps immediately took an interest in Ortiz’ file, and came up with a plan that utilized his experience with the Legion, his ability to speak ten languages and his uncommon resolve to complete any mission given to him. In July 1943, Ortiz reported to England to prepare for a guerilla operation in France. In January, he arrived with two other officers. They become the first uniformed Allied officers to appear in France in four years.
Ortiz quickly acquired a reputation as a fearless leader and a faithful Marine. He often wore the service “alpha” uniform, even while on reconnaissance in German-controlled towns.
The Gestapo quickly took notice of Ortiz’s actions and considered capturing him to be a high priority. German officers grew to dislike him so much that they would curse his name and the Marine Corps as a toast. One unlucky group of officers did this when Ortiz was in attendance. Accounts vary, but the consensus is that Ortiz opened his jacket, revealing his uniform underneath, shot the offending officer, and then escaped into the night.
The mission was recalled in May, due to the impending Normandy invasion on D-Day.
In August, Ortiz returned to France with a larger team, including five fellow Marines. After a surprise encounter with a German convoy, Ortiz and two of his Marines tried to escape through a nearby town but instead turned themselves in to save the lives of the local villagers.
The guards were warned of Ortiz and his past exploits as a POW, and kept a close eye on him, although this didn’t stop his efforts to flee. Facing an Allied assault, the Germans had to move the prisoners and Ortiz managed to escape again. He met up with members of the British armed forces in April 1945 returned to England where he received his second Navy Cross.
After the war, Ortiz returned to California and remained in the Marine Corps Reserve. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel and worked in the movie industry as an actor and a technical advisor. His actions in the war inspired two movies, “13 Rue Madeleine” in 1947, and “Operation Secret” in 1950. In 1955, Ortiz retired and was promoted to the rank of colonel in recognition of his service, which included two Navy Crosses, the Legion of Merit, two Purple Hearts, and five Croix de Guerre. On May 16, 1988, Ortiz passed away, and America lost one of her finest heroes.