Five weeks after the North African invasion began, a U.S. Marine Captain turned north from London's Brook Street, passed through a series of concertina wire barricades, and entered the offices of United States Naval Forces, Europe, at 20 Grosvenor Square.
"For Excellent Personal Reasons"
The young officer wore the then-unfamiliar silver wings of a parachutist centered above a row of ribbons which bore no resemblance to any normally seen in an American officers' mess. There was an air of confidence about him, something which bespoke a maturity beyond his years or rank. Tall, husky, and dark-eyed, he had the manner of a veteran soldier.
The harried yeoman to whom he presented his orders sensed none of this. Drawing a large rubber stamp from his desk, the clerk placed a blurred imprint on the papers, initialed them in the prescribed black ink, and handed them back to the waiting officer. Within 15 minutes, his business complete, Captain Peter J. Ortiz, USMCR, was back beneath the wind-stripped limbs of Grosvenor Square's trees. He to did not waste much time. There was another aircraft to catch. Ortiz was going back to Morocco.1
Peter J. Ortiz was 29 years old. Born in New York City during a violent electrical storm, he grew up in La Jolla, a picturesque seaside village in Southern California. After elementary school,
Peter's father--longtime Parisian publisher Philippe G.J. Ortiz--insisted that his son be educated in Europe.
Peter dutifully attended the Lycée de Pau and Bayonne. Later he spent a year at the College du Montcel in Versailles. But school bored Ortiz. He was more interested in rugby and mountain climbing than literature or mathematics. In 1932 he quit the classroom and traded his school books for the white kepi of a Private in the Foreign Legion.
The Legion proved to be more hard work than adventure, but he was young, strong, and intelligent. The desert and discipline made him tough as well. For five years, Ortiz served in North Africa, learning to fight the sand and sun more often than the Riff Berbers. He was a model soldier and advanced steadily in rank; took parachute training with the 7th Regiment at Meknes; became a Sergeant. Near the end of his enlistment, Ortiz was NCO-in-Charge of an armored car squadron. "Sign on again," the Colonel said, "and you'll be an officer."
It was a tempting offer and Ortiz almost took it. Yet, he had not seen America for a decade and was anxious to try his hand at something new. Discharged from the Second Regiment in 1938, he returned to California and south work in the film industry as a technical advisor on war movies.
When the Germans attacked Poland the next year, Ortiz smelled action. Failing to find a place aboard a merchantman leaving New York for France, he travelled to Canada where the problems of an American citizen looking to get into the war were simplified. Ortiz caught his ship. Unfortunately so did a U-Boat. Luckily he was a good swimmer.
October 1939 found Ortiz back in the uniform of the Legion's 11th Regiment, where he rose swiftly to First Lieutenant. The Legion
fought well during the battles of May-June 1940, but in the end it was overwhelmed. Lieutenant Ortiz did not walk into captivity with the masses of sullen French soldiery. Instead, he went to a POW camp on a stretcher with a Mauser slug in his back.
German doctors saved his life. By way of repayment, he immediately attempted to escape.
For the next year, Ortiz toured occupied Europe--Germany, Poland, finally Austria--always as guest of the Wehrmacht's Stalag system. He was labelled a "troublemaker" and "dangerous." Finally, in October 1941, he made a clean break, eluded the clutches of the Gestapo, and slipped safely into neutral Portugal. From there it was a ship back to New York. America was still at peace when Ortiz left Lisbon, half-way across the Atlantic when the sun rose on December 7th.
During his stay in Portugal, Ortiz was contacted by both the British and Free French military representatives, who offered him commissions. This time, however, he cast his lot with the United States. In June 1942, his back healed, Ortiz of the Legion became a Private in the United States Marines.2
It was a time of strange recruits at Parris Island, yet very few sported a row of decorations and French parachutist insignia on their graduation uniforms. In recommending Ortiz for immediate commission, his commanding officer wrote, "We spotted him shortly after his arrival. From appearances, the Marine Corps would be unbeatable if all our men were like him."3
While the rest of his recruit platoon went on to further training, Ortiz waited for his commission. Soon after pinning on his gold bars, he was transferred to New River, N.C. for service with a Marine
Parachute Battalion. It was a good assignment in terms of previous experience. Ortiz already had well over 100 jumps.
Instead of becoming a platoon commander, he was instantly promoted to temporary Captain (a not uncommon practice for officers going on special assignments where specific ranks were required) and assigned to the Office of Strategic Services for duty as Assistant Naval Attaché and Marine Corps Observer, Algiers.
Recognition of the OSS contribution to the success of TORCH, had prompted calls for more of the same in Tunisia. In early 1943, General Mark Clark, commanding the Fifth Army, requested direct support operations and a small group of OSS men was directed to establish an operating base at Oujda, Algeria.
Clark had arrived in December 1942, with instructions not only to prosecute the war in North Africa but also to begin long-range planning for an eventual move into continental Europe. Mindful of the uncertain status of Spain, he was also designated as the primary commander for a contingency plan--Operation BACKBONE--targeted against Spanish Morocco. OSS was requested to support both the shooting war in Tunisia and the intelligence collection requirements for BACKBONE. So critical was the concern over what Franco might do, that a considerable supply of arms and ammunition destined for Patton's Second Army was diverted to dumps located nearer to Spanish territory.4
In order to gain experience in the "fighting" potion of this new assignment, Colonel Eddy arranged for a few Americans--all military members of OSS--to join the SOE's mission (codename BRANDON) which was cooperating with the British First Army. "Participation in this British operation constituted the first OSS experience in sabotage and
combat intelligence teams in front areas and behind enemy lines. That the jobs actually done by the handful of OSS men who joined in the SOE Tunisian campaign were not typical of future activity was due as much to the exigencies of the battle situation as to the misunderstanding of their function by the British and American Army officers whom they served."5 Rather than intelligence collectors, the members of BRANDON were simply reconnaissance troops whose instructions were to find Germans and kill them.
Peter Ortiz had flown from London to Gibraltar, then on to Casablanca. On 13 January, he reported to Tangier and Captain Holcomb. Holcomb directed the newly arrived "observer" to spend a few days in Morocco and then contact Eddy in Oran.
Ortiz's orders were extraordinarily general. He was simply to go to North Africa and observe the fighting in any fashion which seemed appropriate. This latitude presented a situation which, for Ortiz, made combat inevitable. he struck out immediately for the headquarters of the U.S. Second Corps, near Tebessa. Once there, he secured further authorization to roam about virtually at will and attach himself to any unit that struck his fancy. In his "after-action" report, Captain Ortiz wrote:
I was, for excellent personal reasons and as a representative of the Marine Corps, particularly desirous of seeing and taking part in action against the Germans. I happened to be in Gafsa* when the evacuation order was received. Although later claimed by the press as a perfect example of an orderly and well-planned retreat, I thought it characterized by confusion and an alarming contagion of panic. Dozens of
* Near Kasserine Pass.
vehicles were damaged or abandoned and an number of American soldiers and local civilians run over through inadequate traffic control. Bridges were prematurely blown up, stranding our men on the wrong side.6
During the ensuing battles, Ortiz first joined an armored recon unit from the British Derbyshire Yeomanry; next caught on with a Foreign Legion outfit for a week; and ended up with the U.S. 1st Armored Division. He was bombed, mortared, strafed, and participated in one tank action where he witnessed the terrifying effectiveness of the German 88mm dual-purpose gun.
On 3 March, Ortiz reported back to Colonel Eddy,made his report, and requested more "combat time." Eddy was reluctant to continue giving his Captain such free rein, but during the course of their conversation, the subject of heavy casualties being suffered by BRANDON surfaced. Naturally this opened new vistas for Ortiz, who promptly volunteered to serve as a replacement for another Marine, Captain Elmer Harris,who had been wounded by a mine that morning.7 Finally, perhaps recalling his own personal activities at Belleau Wood, Eddy agreed. Ortiz was off again.
On 8 March, he left Algiers for Guelmna, where he reported to the commander of BRANDON. The British Colonel sent Ortiz forward to the operational base at Le Kouif, which was supporting the 2nd Corps' tactical area. There he was given a squad of five anti-Franco Spaniards and a British radio operator. Their mission was to link up with another similar group commanded by an SOE Captain and "do some mischief with the Jerries."8
The SOE groups were now concentrating their efforts to the south of Bir-el-Hatig as a means of detecting any movement by the 21st Panzer Division, elements of which were thought to be at Matleg, 50
miles away. Ortiz and his English counterpart decided to conduct a series of foot patrols toward the Matlag Pass in hope of gaining both intelligence and a chance for a fight.
On the night of 18 March, Ortiz' squad pushed off in a pouring rain. Three days later, they were well beyond the Allied lines and moving across the rough cross-compartments Northwest of the pass. It was still raining. At 2300, Ortiz called a halt. Leaving his assistant, a Spaniard named Amando, in charge, he struck out alone for the main roadway far below.
Crossing a valley in which he constantly sank to his knees in mud, Ortiz finally reached the highway and began cautiously looking for tank tracks. It was pitch black and the downpour blotted out any sound.
Moving slowly in and out of the shallow wadis which cut across the roadbed, Ortiz spent nearly two hours on his personal reconnaissance. Then, just before turning back, the enemy he was seeking found him.
Ortiz was hit by the first burst of fire. One bullet shattered his right hand and another grazed his left leg. Rolling to his left, he saw the flashes of a machine gun 30 yards to his front. Rising to one knee he began throwing Petard anti-tank grenades left-handed. The first fell short,but the second scored a direct hit, exploding with "a terrific blast that stopped all automatic fire."9
With rifle shots still singing around him from another position further to the right, Ortiz crawled away. Despite loss of blood and the effects of shock, he managed to reach his men, who carried and dragged him all the way back to friendly lines.10
After a series of hospital and a successful operation on his hand, Ortiz reported back to Eddy for further assignment. He asked for more combat duty. This time, however, the Colonel was adamant. Ortiz was an enfant terrible who needed a rest before he resumed his one-man mission against everything Teutonic. Eddy ordered him evacuated. Much to his chagrin, Captain Ortiz wax placed on the first available aircraft destined for the long trans-Atlantic flight home. He arrived in Washington on 27 April and, characteristically, reported directly to Headquarters Marine Corps he next day.
Ortiz immediately began preparing a detailed report of his activities for Donovan. In it, he recounted not only his personal experiences, but also observations of British and American tactics, weapons, and equipment. His practiced eye and thoughtful conclusions obviously impressed "Wild Bill," who scribbled across the top" "Very interesting, please re-employ this man as soon as possible."11 Captain Ortiz' war was far from over.
A few days after Ortiz was wounded, the remaining OSS personnel with BRANDON were withdrawn to Algiers. This marked the end of an experiment which was "inevitable wasteful of talented and trained men."12 OSS would not repeat the same mistakes in Italy or France. BRANDON was a "learning experience" which paid dividends by demonstrating to the Army the need for better reconnaissance units and removing OSS from the business of providing them.
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