As Marines we all remember men like Basilone, Puller, Daly and a host of others, but who remembers Peter Ortiz? Perhaps his exploits are less well known because he served in the European theater during World War II, one of the few Marines to do so. But his legacy is extraordinary.
Ortiz was born in New York City in 1913 to a Spanish father and a French mother. He grew up speaking French, Spanish and of course English. At the age of 19 in 1932 his parents sent he and his sister to Grenoble University in France. He learned to speak German and was a good student, but the academic life offered little excitement for him. So, in 1933, to the consternation of his parents, he enlisted in the French Foreign Legion.
Ortiz was sent to Morocco and took part in the campaign fighting the Rif Berbers. He was awarded two Croix de Guerre medals and the Medaille Militare for heroism. To this he added parachute wings and learned to speak Arabic. In 1937 Ortiz was discharged from the legion as a sergeant. He returned to the United States and promptly went to Hollywood hoping for a career in the movies. Fate had other plans for Peter Ortiz.
In 1939 war erupted in Europe and Ortiz immediately returned to France and rejoined the Foreign Legion. He took part in the 1940 Battle of France and was wounded and captured while detonating the charges that blew up a bridge. In 1941 he escaped from a POW camp in Germany, made his way to Spain, and was able to return to the United States.
In 1941 Ortiz joined the Marine Corps. Upon reporting to Paris Island, Drill Instructors were amazed at their new recruit proudly wearing a Foreign Legion uniform with all of his decorations. Reviewing his history, language skills, and combat experience the Corps recommended Ortiz for the newly formed OSS. Ortiz was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant and sent to jump school at New River in North Carolina (even though he already had 154 jumps with the Foreign Legion).
In 1942 Ortiz was sent to Tunisia as part of Operation Torch. His mission was to sabotage and combat intelligence. In 1943 Ortiz was at the Battle of Kasserine Pass where American forces were mauled by the Germans. Ortiz found himself fighting with the British and then fell in with old comrades of the Foreign Legion. He was wounded while attacking a tank and invalided back to the United States.
In January 1944, fully recovered, Ortiz parachuted into southern France to organize the Resistance and assess its capabilities. While in occupied France, Ortiz always wore his Marine Corps Class A uniform with all his French and American decorations (he said later to impress the locals). During this first insertion into occupied Europe, Ortiz encountered four Royal Air Force pilots hiding out with the Resistance. Ortiz went to the local Gestapo headquarters, and while speaking perfect German stole a vehicle and drove the British pilots to Spain and freedom. For this he was eventually awarded the Order of the British Empire. In May he was awarded the Navy Cross by the Marine Corps.
Ortiz parachuted back into southern France again in August 1944 with five other Marines. During this second insertion Ortiz was sitting in a café one night. Nearby, four German officers were dining and drinking and in the course of the evening Ortiz overheard these Germans insulting the U.S., President Roosevelt, and finally the Marine Corps. This was too much for Ortiz; he returned to his room, put on his Marine uniform and a trench coat over it. He returned to the café, where he confronted the German Officers, whipped off his trench coat and pulled out his .45 automatic. The astounded Germans were then ordered to drink a toast to the U.S., Roosevelt and finally one for the Corps. Ortiz then shot out the light and in a hail of gunfire made his escape.
On August 16, 1944 Ortiz and his five Marines took on a company of German infantrymen. The Germans took hostages of the local villagers, threatening to shoot them if the Marines did not surrender. Calling out in German for the enemy to cease fire, Ortiz approached the German Major and surrendered his men on condition that the villagers were not hurt. The Germans were astounded that they were facing only six Marines. Ortiz spent the rest of the war in a POW camp from which he attempted multiple escapes.
Peter Ortiz ended the war with two Navy Crosses, the Legion of Merit "V" , two Purple Hearts, the Order of the British Empire, French Legion d Honneur, Medaille militaire, and five Croix du Guerres among many other awards. Ortiz retired in 1955 and was promoted to Colonel on the retired list as a decorated combat veteran. He died in 1988 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. He was a first class fighting Marine if ever there was one and deserves to be remembered.
By L. M. Howard, LtCol USMC, Ret.
LtCol Howard has served as a Docent at the MCRD Museum for over 15 years.