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The Unknown Legend

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.
Col. Peter J. Ortiz, lost the only battle of the many he fought May 16, 1988, when he died of cancer. He was buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va.

Col. Peter J. Ortiz, lost the only battle of the many he fought May 16, 1988, when he died of cancer. He was buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va.

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.

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  • Terry Bond

    Same here, and to think I spent time within an hour or so drive of his home and didn’t know he existed. I did get to meet Greg Boyington at LeJeune but this fellow would have been special.

  • Mike Munoz

    Great Story! Does anyone know his childhood background, who were his parents?

  • Carl Emmons

    Not as a criticism of Col. Ortiz, but there were uniformed allied officers in France in August, 1942. The Dieppe raid.

  • Tdy646

    I can only imagine how he must have felt when he was in camp, his heart must have dropped just seeing the conditions that he was facing. This story is inspiring as he maintained his rational even under imposable conditions.

  • Jvs316

    God Bless Colonel Ortiz, his loved ones and Our Corps. Semper Fidelis!

  • WO Littlewood (0205)

    What about giving him credit for being one of the few Marines to be assigned to the Office of Strategic Services?  You left that very important detail out of this report!

  • Manymarks

    Outstanding Marine,
    Semper Fi, In all my years in the Corps I never heard of him

  • James O. Tweedy

    Great story! It’s amazing what we as Marines can acomplish!!!!

    Semper Fidelis

  • Jersey Shore Leathernecks

    This story was motivating !! Good to hear about the Marines in Europe during WWII.
    Semper Fi Col Ortiz

  • Fightin Dirty

    Wow. Truly amazing. Ortiz had a steel pair. Thank you Col Ortiz for your outstanding service.

  • Esteban Montoya

    I just love a true story such-as-this one. It is true that ONCE A MARINE, ALWAYS A MARINE, and yes, I too get a huge lump every time I even think of my uniform. What it still stands for, HONOR, INTEGRITY, and FOREVER FAITHFUL. SEMPER – FI my fellow “DEVIL – DOGS”, and may GOD bless you all !!!

  • Pam Glover

    Semper Fidelis!!!!

  • Dolores wilham

    The hierarchy of the corps recognized this warrior’s worth, ability, training, and successes. Why shouldn’t he join ranks with Chesty & company as part of the tradition drilled into the recruits. Doesn’t make sense to me.

  • Cpl Don Johnson

    No…the pride never diminishes…..even after 40 years, I still get a lump in my throat when I hear the Marine Corps Hymn. Orrrahhhh Semper Fi.

  • Willie B. Williams

    I agree with Charles whole heartedly! Reading about Marines ( I knew about it after leaving boot camp) of this nature and all the commercials as is said once you become a Marine the change is forever!!!

  • Mew

    Great story! Thank you.

  • charles white

    this the type of story that all Marines should learn about in boot camp. This is the type of Marine that we all should strive to be regardless of our MOS. this is the type of story that makes us proud to be called Marine even if we are no longer on active duty. Everytime I see a Marine Corps comercial I get that old feeling I had when I was on active duty. You never lose that pride.