Several excruciating days had passed since the telegram reached my great-grandmother’s doorstep in Queens, New York:
The secretary of war desires me to express his deep regret that your son Second Lieutenant Murray L. Simon has been reported missing in action. … If further details or other information are received, you will be promptly notified.
At 1:41 a.m. on May 6, 1944, a German fighter plane shot down the B-24 Liberator that Simon was piloting on a secret moonlit mission over Nazi-occupied France. His crew of seven airmen leapt from the burning plane, and he followed. Barreling down from the inferno while tugging his parachute open, he closed his eyes and thrust his hands up before finding himself dangling a foot from the ground, his chute harness tangled in a tree.
The Roanne area was teeming with Vichy French and German troops searching for the fallen American airmen. My grandfather was a 23-year-old, six-foot-tall American Jew who could hardly pronounce the French phrases listed on the notecard he’d been told to read if shot down. If captured by the Germans, he could be viewed as a spy and tortured and killed accordingly. His best chance of getting home was finding the French Resistance.
After about a week of bouncing from helper to helper, Simon reached a safe house in Valence, where resistance fighters introduced him to a 30-year-old American Marine Corps major who had helped several other downed Allied airmen escape across the Spanish border. He went by several aliases, including Chambellan and Jean-Pierre, or J.P. He was 6-foot-2, with chiseled cheekbones, bright blue eyes and a posh English accent. He spoke English, French, German, Spanish, Russian and Arabic. And his real name was Pierre Julien Ortiz, often anglicized as Peter J. Ortiz.
The mysterious young officer had arrived in France four months earlier on a top-secret operation code-named Union I. He and his companions—a British Special Operations Executive (SOE) officer and a French Army radio operator—were the first Allied agents to land in France in uniform since the fall of Paris in June 1940. Ortiz was working for the CIA’s forerunner organization, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Tasked with collecting intelligence and mobilizing French resistance units ahead of D-Day, he had just been recalled to the OSS’s London office.
Ortiz’s offer to escort my grandfather back to England came with a warning: He’d nearly been captured a few weeks earlier. His covers, along with those of several guerrilla bands he’d been working with, were blown, and he had a reward of half a million French francs on his head.
Together, Ortiz and Simon drove through France in an SS staff car (one of a fleet of ten stolen by Ortiz), rode trains under the noses of Gestapo officers, trekked the Pyrenees with tobacco-smuggling Roma, and marched through Andorra and Spain with an escaped Russian prisoner of war. They reached Gibraltar at the end of May and arrived safely in England just before D-Day. Nearly a month after my grandfather was shot down and declared missing in action, he sent a telegram to his mother: “I am well and safe. No need for worry. Write to my old address.”
I never met my grandfather. He died of lung cancer in 1981, a few years before I was born. But as I leafed through his wartime scrapbook—which included a photo of Ortiz receiving a Navy Cross opposite a clipping from a 1946 True magazine article about him headlined “Secret Mission”—I got curious about the swashbuckling spy my grandfather described to my mother as “a real-life knight of the Round Table.” The OSS officer, it turns out, was a hero to many more than my grandfather.
Ortiz’s status as one of the most decorated members of the OSS—and a Marine in the European rather than Pacific theater—made him stand out, even within the elite assemblage of college professors, amateur spies and daring commandos who laid the foundation for an intelligence organization that would, in 1947, morph into the CIA. At various points in his life, Ortiz worked as a lion tamer, a circus performer, a dude ranch manager and a racecar driver. His now-declassified OSS personnel file describes a real-life James Bond: an operative who was “not a good candidate for a desk job ever.”
Born in New York in 1913 and raised between California and France, Ortiz was a restless young man. At age 15, he dropped out of the fancy French boarding school he’d been sent to and shipped out as a seaman on an American liner. This decision wasn’t particularly pleasing to his parents, especially his father, Philippe Ortiz, the publisher of Paris Vogue, who persuaded him to return to school but couldn’t keep him from traveling across Europe in search of adventure and romance during the summer months.
In 1932, Ortiz again dropped out of school and, at age 18, joined the rough-and-tough French Foreign Legion, using the last name of his Polish girlfriend as an added act of rebellion. He remained in the service until 1940, when he was taken captive by the Germans and held as a prisoner of war. After several failed escape attempts, a nurse at a Vienna hospital helped him make his way back to France, where he joined the Resistance. “I stayed in Paris for about a month, hoping to pull a job on Gestapo headquarters,” Ortiz later recalled. “[But] I felt that I wanted to get back to the States and serve my country more directly.” He arrived in New York just after Pearl Harbor and enlisted in the Marines soon after.
Out to learn more about Ortiz, I connected with Marine and CIA officer-turned-writer Nick Reynolds, the historian responsible for developing the OSS gallery of the CIA’s in-house museum. Reynolds is an expert on the spy organization, whose alumni include four future CIA directors, a Supreme Court justice, the first Black Nobel laureate and many other notable Americans. But one particular individual stood out to Reynolds so much that he kept a picture of the officer on his desk for years. It was Ortiz. -Katie Sanders
A heroic surrender in the French Alps
After completing Union I and escorting Simon to safety, Ortiz immersed himself in preparations for Union II, a second deep-penetration mission in France, with his signature mix of modesty and seize-the-moment bravado.
On June 14, Ortiz visited OSS headquarters in central London, where he made an impression on the debriefer, who described him as “a tall, sunburned, good-looking young man, slightly older in appearance than his 31 years,” stylishly dressed in a gray suit.
Ortiz “did not think there was anything of real interest in his story,” the debriefer noted. He disagreed, concluding in his top-secret report that Ortiz had done a “magnificent job … under most difficult conditions.” The OSS concurred, arranging for Ortiz to receive his first Navy Cross for his role in organizing and training the maquisards—French Resistance fighters—as well as battling the Germans and rescuing downed Allied airmen like Simon. Neither the OSS nor SOE hesitated to greenlight the follow-up mission, Union II, which was intended to coincide with Allied landings in France in the coming months.
Ortiz assembled a team from two familiar elite outfits: an officer named Francis L. Coolidge from the tiny community of Americans who had served together in the Foreign Legion in North Africa and five noncommissioned officers from the only slightly larger cadre of Marine parachutists, all of whom happened to be in England.
August 1—the day Ortiz returned to France—was ideal for flying, the sky clear and blue, the wind barely noticeable. Roaring in breathtakingly fast and low, at roughly 150 knots some 400 feet over the ground (the norm was closer to 90 knots at 600 or more feet), 78 American B-17 bombers dropped 864 canisters of supplies, along with Ortiz and his six men, onto a high plateau near a mountain pass in the Savoie known as the Col des Saisies.
Though emboldened by the massive resupply, the French resisters waiting on the ground were horrified when Sergeant Charles L. Perry landed hard, lying lifeless at their feet. Now, maquisards and Americans alike found themselves at Perry’s funeral.
While German troops hunted for them, the members of Ortiz’s team, all in American uniforms, formed up to render honors to their comrade. Ortiz himself wore what the Marines call a “barracks cover,” intended for formal ceremonies and seldom worn or even carried into battle. He could have been forgiven if he had ordered the body buried in a makeshift grave and moved on; instead, here the men were, standing at attention alongside a proper grave, heaped with flowers and a four-foot wooden cross.
After the funeral, Ortiz and his men took stock of their situation. Almost two months had passed since the first D-Day landings in Normandy. The Allies had not yet captured Paris but were relentlessly pushing the German Army back from the coast. Liberation seemed like simply a matter of time; French men—and women—were flocking to the Resistance. Some French and even American guerrillas eagerly plunged into the fight. But not Ortiz. His team methodically equipped and trained the Maquis before conducting reconnaissance patrols to catalog German strengths and weigh the prospects for attack. Watching Ortiz work, Marine Jack R. Risler was impressed: The major not only had “no fear” but “could [also] think like the Germans.” He could even rattle off the enemy’s unit designations.
Only on August 12 did Ortiz conclude that the time had come to fight. The Maquis seemed ready to start pushing the Germans out of the mountain valleys. While a German spotter plane circled high above, Ortiz and his team entered the hamlet of Montgirod and paused for a lunch of bread, cheese and rabbit while 200 maquisards waited nearby.
Soon, mortar shells started landing, injuring four maquisards, two of them so badly they couldn’t be moved. They would hide as best they could in a nearby church.
Ortiz led his men into the nearby hills, where from 800 feet up they could see flames rising into the night sky from Montgirod. They would soon learn that the enemy had executed the injured maquisards, razed the church and torched the town, evoking memories of a July massacre at Vassieux-en-Vercors, where Waffen SS troops massacred 72 French citizens and burned the town to the ground.
Under constant attack from Allied forces and fearing an ambush at every bend in the road, the Germans were behaving more and more like cornered animals, especially when feeling provoked by French resisters and Allied commandos, who were already at grave risk. (Adolf Hitler’s October 1942 “commando order” decreed that members of this raiding and reconnaissance force be summarily executed, even if in uniform and trying to surrender.) Operation Dragoon, the Allied invasion of Provence on August 15, added more pressure from the south. It also drove Ortiz to risk a move after daybreak on August 16.
“Pete, we have been seen,” shouted Coolidge as the team, carefully spread out over 100 yards, proceeded down the road leading out of the village of Centron toward Montgirod, a few miles away.
Ortiz shouted to return fire and take cover—a tricky proposition, since the road ran through open fields. Shots rang out from the German convoy, about 200 strong, motoring down the national highway that intersected the road. The intense machine gun and rifle fire left Ortiz little choice but to fall back to Centron, which was little more than a few clusters of houses and a church. In the confusion, the team split in two. While their comrades slipped away, Ortiz found himself with Marine sergeants Risler and John Bodnar, who kept firing as fast as they could. The Germans advanced and surrounded the village. Ortiz heard the clearly terrified inhabitants begging him not to make a stand that would lead to another massacre like Vassieux.
“I felt my responsibility for the lives of these people very keenly,” Ortiz later recalled. Without outward hesitation, he decided to surrender to spare the villagers. He knew his decision likely meant torture and execution at the hands of the enemy. Aware of the bounty on his head, as well as the Germans’ brutal treatment of Allied spies, Ortiz was certain “there was no reason to hope that we would be treated as ordinary prisoners of war.”
But Risler and Bodnar might have initially felt differently. “For the other members of the mission … to surrender [while they could all still] fight … required a real sacrifice,” Ortiz said. While dodging German bullets, he explained his decision to Bodnar, giving the two Marines the option of escaping and evading. They declined because they “[were] Marines” and would stick together; what Ortiz thought was right would be right for them, too.
Certain this would be the end for him, Ortiz grabbed a villager’s white sheet and walked toward the Germans, shouting out in German, English and French that he was ready to give himself up.
At first, the Germans kept firing, their bullets kicking up puffs of dirt around Ortiz before slackening and finally stopping. Various accounts have Ortiz and a German major named Johann Kolb parlaying. Kolb offered Ortiz a cigarette; Ortiz refused, lighting his own. Ortiz offered to surrender his men in return for a guarantee that the Germans would not harm the citizens of Centron. Kolb, a World War I veteran, gave his word. Ortiz shouted for Risler and Bodnar to come out. The men surrendered with ceremony. Expecting to see a platoon of 40 to 50 soldiers come forward, the Germans were outraged. How could Ortiz’s small band have maintained such a heavy volume of fire?
Still, Kolb kept his word. The people of Centron lived, while Ortiz, Risler and Bodnar went into captivity along with a French officer posing as a fellow Marine. The German knew a great deal about the two weeks of Union II but apparently did not connect Ortiz to Union I, when his exploits had spanned more than four months.
Treating his captives not as commandos but as regular troops, Kolb shielded them from the SS and the harsh treatment that hard-line Nazis would likely have meted out. Instead, he sent the Marines to a series of prisoner-of-war camps in northern Germany, where they were treated relatively humanely. In April 1945, British troops liberated the camps, and the OSS Marines set out for home—but only after higher powers declined Ortiz’s offer to continue fighting the Germans. -Nick Reynolds
A postwar reunion in Hollywood
I heard Simon’s and Ortiz’s voices for the first time when, in the basement of the film and radio archive at the University of California, Los Angeles, I listened to a recording of the NBC radio show “This Is Your Life.” Ortiz was the principal subject of a November 1949 episode.
The show’s host, Ralph Edwards, described the then-36-year-old American war hero as “a Marine whose life has been packed with enough adventure, thrills, hair-raising escapes, raw courage and excitement to make half a dozen movies.” My grandpa, one of the guests flown in to surprise Ortiz, then recounted the few details he could divulge regarding their escape from occupied France: “I was very much surprised when he showed up in a big, official-looking car”—one of the Nazi vehicles stolen by Ortiz. “We went right through the center of town with the Germans waving at us and Pete waving back.” Also there to celebrate Ortiz was a Resistance fighter from Centron, whose life Ortiz saved when he surrendered in 1944. -Katie Sanders
Hollywood embraced Ortiz in the years following the war. He worked as a technical advisor on the 1947 World War II spy film 13 Rue Madeleine, starring James Cagney. The 1952 film Operation Secret was also inspired by his exploits. His friend John Ford, OSS photographic unit head and bigwig director, cast Ortiz in many movies. But while Ortiz acted alongside John Wayne in Rio Grande and The Wings of Eagles, he didn’t like life in front of the camera. Nor did he care for articles chronicling his life with sensational headlines like “They Called Him the Widow Maker—the Fantastic Saga of Pete Ortiz: WWII’s Most Incredible Spy” and “Odyssey of an OSS Officer Who Knew Not Fear.”
Ortiz would fall far short of stardom—and even a steady paycheck. Between playing minor roles in movies, he bounced around North America in a mobile home and moved twice to Mexico with his wife, Jean, and son, Pete Jr. There, he taught philosophy, rounded up donations for local orphanages and delivered first aid to hurricane victims. He never seemed to escape a gravitational pull toward adventure and sacrifice.
In 1947, Ortiz found himself back in Europe on a mysterious spy mission. “I posed as a French communist and went to see how it was behind the Iron Curtain,” he wrote in the autobiography he sold to Warner Brothers. “I went to Poland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia.” The official record is silent on whether Ortiz went for his government. In the 1950s, he volunteered at least once to return to active duty in the Marine Corps, reportedly even offering to parachute into Dien Bien Phu, the French outpost in Vietnam that was about to fall to the communist Viet Minh. The Marines politely declined his offer.
In October 1985, after being diagnosed with terminal cancer, Ortiz wrote a letter to then-Secretary of State George Shultz, volunteering himself for one last mission: “I do in fact hereby propose … that I unreservedly and unconditionally place myself under the physical control of the ‘Jihad,’” he wrote, suggesting that the U.S. government send him, a decorated American hero, to Islamic extremists as a prisoner in exchange for innocent hostages. His proposal was denied.
Three years later, nearly 44 years to the day after he intercepted Simon and led him out of France, Ortiz was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery. Along with American, British and French officers, his wartime comrades Risler and Bodnar stood loyally by, just as they had at another burial in occupied France in 1944. -Katie Sanders and Nick Reynolds