World Defense Review


Published 17 October 05
[Originally published at, 13 Oct 05]

W. Thomas Smith Jr.

Beyond the DropZone

W. Thomas Smith Jr.

A dramatic toast to the President
A tale of one of America's most colorful commandos

I WAS A YOUNG MARINE RIFLEMAN when I first heard of Captain Peter Julien Ortiz.

It was the mid-1980s, and I was shivering on a remote, bitter-cold hilltop in South Korea. My squad and I had spent the entire night patrolling the countryside, practicing ambushes and immediate action drills. But, as pre-dawn turned the black sky purple, we crouched around a tiny fire, exhausted and desperately trying to thaw the feeling back into our hands.

The company gunnery sergeant suddenly appeared out of the darkness. We could barely make out his broad smile and shoulder-holstered .45 automatic pistol. But we knew it was "Gunny." He never seemed to be bothered by the cold. He was always jovial, no matter the weather conditions; and he always had a story to share.

"Good mawnin' Muh-REENs," Gunny said just above a whisper in his unmistakable Alabama drawl. Spitting a long stream of tobacco juice on the frozen ground, he crouched down toward our fire.

"Did I evah tell you boys the sto-reh of Cap'm Aw-TEEZ?" he asked.

None of us had heard the story. So Gunny began telling us how Ortiz – a World War II-era Marine Corps officer and multi-linguistic operative in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) – had eluded the enemy time-and-again.

According to Gunny, one of Ortiz' most colorful exploits took place one night in a crowded, smoke-filled pub in Nazi-occupied Lyons, France.

Quiet, unassuming, and dressed in muted civilian attire, Ortiz strolled through the door; attracting little attention from a handful of German Army officers who were seated at a large round table in the center of the room. Approaching the table, Ortiz was offered a seat. He smiled, thanked the officers, and accepted.

Soon, drinks were flowing freely. Jokes were told. And the Germans began laughing at and cursing all manner of things American. Little did the officers know, Ortiz was a U.S. Marine parachutist detached to the super-secret OSS, the wartime predecessor to the modern Central Intelligence Agency, and he had been gathering intelligence on German forces in Lyons.

One of the German officers cursed President Franklin Roosevelt and followed it with a curse of the U.S. Marine Corps. Why or if the Corps was actually cursed has since been the subject of conjecture since the Germans had probably never met an American Marine on the battlefield. Nevertheless, it was a blanket condemnation of everything Ortiz held dear.

Politely excusing himself from the table, Ortiz left the pub and returned to a nearby safe house where he changed into the olive green uniform of an American Marine captain complete with parachute wings and combat decorations. He then draped a cape over his shoulders, concealing the uniform, and returned to the pub. There, he was raucously greeted by his former drinking partners.

Ortiz took a seat and ordered a round of drinks. When the beverages were served, he stood up and tossed back the cape, revealing his uniform and a .45 automatic. The Germans were speechless.

"A toast," Ortiz shouted, as he whipped out his sidearm. "To the President of the United States."

He leveled his pistol at each officer as they emptied their glasses. Another round of drinks was ordered, and Ortiz proposed a toast to the U.S. Marine Corps. Again the Germans drained their glasses. A smiling Ortiz then eased backwards out of the bar and vanished into the night. (Other versions of the story have Ortiz actually shooting it out with the Germans, even killing a few, before disappearing into the back alleys of Lyons.)

Few special operators during World War II performed their missions with quite as much dash and aplomb as Ortiz. Certainly, none were more courageous. Yet little is known of him outside of Marine Corps or Intelligence Community history circles, even less so among America's proud Hispanic community of which he will forever be one of its most colorful members.

Of course, Gunny had piqued my interest in this man. I had to know more: In time, I did.

Ortiz was born in New York on August 5, 1913, to a French-Spanish father and an American mother, and he spent much of his boyhood in France. As a young man, he was a student at the University of Grenoble in the French Alps. In 1932, at the age of 19, he joined the French Foreign Legion. He soon saw action in Africa, was decorated for heroism, and was wounded in 1933.

Ortiz rose through the ranks from private to acting-lieutenant, and was offered a permanent commission if he agreed to a re-enlistment hitch of five years. He rejected the offer and returned to the United States. Settling in California where his mother lived, Ortiz working briefly as a Hollywood film technical advisor on military matters.

When World War II erupted in Europe, Ortiz returned to the Legion. He reenlisted in October 1939 and received a battlefield commission in May 1940.

In June, he was wounded during a raid on one his unit's gasoline dumps that had been captured by the Germans. Ortiz, riding a motorcycle, led the attack. But during his escape he was shot in the hip, the bullet hitting his spine before exiting his body. Temporarily paralyzed, he was easily captured.

Ortiz spent the next fifteen months as a prisoner of war in Germany, Austria, and Poland. Despite his wound, on numerous occasions, he attempted to escape, finally succeeding in October 1941. In December, he returned to the United States. In June 1942, Ortiz enlisted in the U.S. Marines and attended boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina.

Recognizing and placing great value on his previous training and experience – as well as the fact that he could speak English, French, German, Spanish, and Arabic – the Marines awarded Ortiz a commission in August.

Following two months as an assistant training officer and a brief stint at the Corps' wartime parachute training school in North Carolina (he had previously completed the Legionnaire parachute course), Ortiz was directed to Tangier, Morocco where he was posted as an assistant Naval attachι. However, the posting was a cover for his operational activities.

Ortiz was tasked with organizing and leading a unit of Arab tribesmen in scouting operations along the German lines in Tunisia. Not long after he began his work, the Commandant of the Marine Corps received a dispatch from U.S. Army Major General William J. "Wild Bill" Donovan, director of the OSS. A portion of the dispatch reads:

"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 Purple Heart was awarded to him."

In April 1943, Ortiz was temporarily reassigned to Washington, D.C., and in May he was detached to the OSS. In July, he shipped to England where he underwent further training in special operations. Soon after, he was dropped by parachute into France to aid units of the French underground and to assist in the rescue of downed allied pilots. Though his peers wore civilian clothes in order to blend with the populace, Ortiz often wore his uniform when mixing with the locals. This thrilled the French who cheered his defiance. But the Germans were alerted by rumors of an American commando in Marine green.

Several days prior to the June 6, 1944 landings at Normandy, Ortiz and a few of his compatriots were withdrawn and sent to England. There they trained for direct action operations against the Nazis. They returned to France in August as members of OSS Operational Groups.

When the war ended in 1945, Ortiz' work became the basis of two movies – 13 Rue Madeleine (1946) and Operation Secret (1952) – by famed Hollywood film director John Ford. And Ortiz himself played bit parts in a number of movies between 1949 and 1957.

Ortiz died in 1988.

It's been two decades since I huddled with my buddies on that frigid Korean hilltop and listened to Gunny's tale of "Cap'm Aw-Teez" and the toast to the President.

Like the exploits of 21st-century special operators – including U.S. Navy SEALs, Army Delta soldiers, Force Recon Marines, Air Force commandos, and CIA paramilitary operatives – stories of men like Ortiz are rarely gleaned from books, newspapers, and magazines. Their incredibly dangerous work often goes unseen and is thankless.

But only for the moment.

— W. Thomas Smith Jr., a former U.S. Marine infantry leader, parachutist, and shipboard counterterrorism instructor, writes about military/defense issues and has covered conflict in the Balkans and on the West Bank. He is an award-winning author of four books, the co-author of two, and his articles have appeared in USA Today, George, U.S. News & World Report, BusinessWeek, National Review Online, CBS News, The Washington Times, and many others.

W. Thomas Smith Jr. can be reached at

© 2005 W. Thomas Smith Jr.

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