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“ A Ph.D. Who Can Win A Bar Fight”—WWII’s Most Incredible Spy Was Also a Hollywood Heartthrob: The Story of Peter Ortiz (Hollywood Goes to War)

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
August 8, 2023 3:01 am

“ A Ph.D. Who Can Win A Bar Fight”—WWII’s Most Incredible Spy Was Also a Hollywood Heartthrob: The Story of Peter Ortiz (Hollywood Goes to War)

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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August 8, 2023 3:01 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, in 1944, Peter Ortiz parachuted into Nazi-occupied France, where the Gestapo offered a reward of half a million francs for his capture. The actor—who appeared in many classic John Ford Westerns was also a two-time recipient of the Navy Cross.

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Here's McGrath. Peter Ortiz began his career in Hollywood as a technical advisor for all things military. After highly decorated service in World War II, he began appearing in movies as a character actor. Tall, lean, and handsome, and with a military bearing, he often portrayed military officers, which he had been. He appeared in five of John Ford's films, including She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande. He appeared in 22 other films and in two television series.

He worked with such directors as John Sturgis, Michael Curtiz, Raul Walsh, Robert Wise, and Sam Fuller. The lead actors in the movies that Ortiz had roles in included such stars as John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Gregory Peck, Humphrey Bogart, and James Cagney. Peter Ortiz is born in New York City in 1913. He's christened Pierre Julien Ortiz, but will go by Peter. His mother is an American of Swiss German descent and his father French. He's reared partly in New York and partly in France and grows up speaking English, French, and German. He later acquires fluency in Spanish and Arabic and conversational proficiency in Italian and Portuguese.

He's an excellent student in a private secondary school in France and is accepted for admission to the University of Grenoble. Inspired by his reading of Tales of Adventure, Ortiz drops out of college after a year and joins the French Foreign Legion in 1932. He's sent to the Legion's training camp in Algeria, then a French colonial possession. He excels in his training and upon graduation is posted to Morocco. His father, a prosperous and well-connected figure in France, arrives in Morocco to buy Ortiz out of the Legion. However, the now 19-year-old Corporal Ortiz will have none of it.

His adventure aplenty for Ortiz in North Africa provided by groups of rebels, Bedouin and Berber tribesmen, bandits, and pirates. Ortiz is in several engagements and is wounded in one of them. He's awarded the Croix de Guerre twice and the military medal once. As his five-year enlistment nears an end, he's the commander of an armored car unit and has the rank of brevet second lieutenant. The Legion offers him a regular rank of lieutenant if he will enlist for another five years.

Ortiz decides it's time for a new adventure and heads for Hollywood. With his foreign legion experience and his chest full of medals, he quickly finds work as a technical advisor for movies with a military or North African theme, which are popular at the time. Ortiz works as a technical advisor for almost three years when war erupts in Europe in September 1939. A month later, Ortiz quits the good life in Hollywood, flies to France, and again enlists in the foreign legion.

He's given the rank of sergeant but is awarded a battlefield commission as lieutenant in May 1940. He's also awarded the Croix de Guerre for a third time. During a withdrawal of French forces in German, he learns that a storage dump of gasoline has not been torched by his retreating men. Lieutenant Ortiz swings his leg over a motorcycle, speeds back to the dump, and sets the gasoline on fire. The blazing fuel alerts the Germans and they open fire on Ortiz as he races towards the French lines. A bullet penetrates his hip and grazes his spine. Temporarily paralyzed, he crashes the motorcycle and is captured. Lieutenant Ortiz spends the next 15 months in POW camps, first in Germany, then in Poland, and finally in Austria.

He attempts to escape from each camp. The third time proves the charm when he disappears from the camp in Austria in October 1941. Aided by partisans along the way, he arrives in Portugal at the end of November. Both the Free French and the British have clandestine operatives in Portugal, and they each offer Ortiz a commission in their forces. However, Ortiz is determined to return to the United States and see his ailing mother in California.

Sailing from Lisbon, Ortiz reaches New York on December 8, 1941, the day after the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. Before he heads for California, he is debriefed by both army and naval intelligence officers. He also submits paperwork for a commission. After reuniting with his mother and resting for several weeks, he grows restless, wondering what's become of his application for a commission.

His inquiries get no results. Fed up with the delay, in June 1942, he enlists in the Marine Corps, a natural choice for him. The arrival of Peter Ortiz at Parris Island Recruit Depot causes quite a stir. Within weeks, Colonel Louis Jones, a decorated veteran of World War I and the Chief of Staff at Parris Island, sends a packet to the Commandant of the Marine Corps with Ortiz's application for a commission and their record of Ortiz's service with the French Foreign Legion. Also in the packet is a personal note from Colonel Jones saying, Private Ortiz has made an extremely favorable impression upon the undersigned.

His knowledge of military matters is far beyond that of the normal recruit instructor. Ortiz is a very well set up man and makes an excellent appearance. The undersigned is glad to recommend Ortiz for a commission in the Marine Corps Reserve and is of the opinion that he would be a decided addition to the reserve officer list.

In my opinion, he has the mental, moral, professional and physical qualifications for the office for which he has made application. Well, this time Ortiz's application is acted upon immediately and on August 1, 1942, Peter Ortiz is commissioned a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps. He remains at Parris Island for two months as an assistant training officer before going to parachute school at Camp Lejeune. Already a qualified jumper from his service with the Legion, the course is merely a refresher for Ortiz. At Marine Corps headquarters, it's determined that Lieutenant Ortiz, with his fluency in French, Arabic and German, and his five years with the Foreign Legion in North Africa, would be of exceptional value to the U.S. Army, which landed on the beaches in Morocco and Algeria on November 8 in Operation Torch. Things are now moving fast for Ortiz. On December 3, he's promoted from second lieutenant to captain, skipping the normal step to first lieutenant. On December 21, Captain Ortiz flies to Tangier, Morocco, where he's assigned duties as an assistant naval attaché, a cover for his real mission of organizing and leading the patrol of Arab tribesmen to gather intelligence behind German lines in Tunisia as part of an Office of Strategic Services operation.

And you're listening to one heck of a story about Peter Ortiz. Born a privilege, he wants the action. He drops out of college, he joins the French Foreign Legion, and his dad tries to buy him out, and his son will have nothing of it. Comes for his second adventure after doing a good and strong stint in the French Foreign Legion to Hollywood. And then a trip to America. He gets bored hanging with his mom and joins the Marine Corps.

And quickly, the brass understands what they have. A multilingual, courageous fighter who they're going to use for great purposes in what will be the future, as you can tell already, espionage world, what would become our modern CIA. More of the story of Peter Ortiz here on Our American Stories. For each person living with myasthenia gravis, or MG, their journey with this rare neuromuscular condition is unique. That's why Untold Stories Life with myasthenia gravis, a new podcast from iHeartRadio in partnership with Argenics, is exploring the extraordinary challenges and personal triumphs of underserved communities living with MG. Host Martine Hackett will share powerful perspectives from people living with the debilitating muscle weakness and fatigue caused by this rare disorder. Each episode will uncover the reality of life with myasthenia gravis. From early signs and symptoms to obtaining an accurate diagnosis and finding care, every person with MG has a story to tell. And by featuring these real-life experiences, this podcast hopes to inspire the MG community, educate others about this rare condition, and let those living with it know that they are not alone.

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Let's pick up where we last left off. The Office of Strategic Services, or the OSS, was the creation of Major General William Donovan, a Medal of Honor recipient in World War I. The mission of the OSS is collecting intelligence and conducting special operations behind enemy lines. Known as Wild Bill, General Donovan says his ideal candidates for OSS operations are PhDs who can win a bar fight.

McGeorge Bundy, an Army Intelligence Officer during World War II and later a professor at Harvard and a National Security Advisor, said of Donovan's organization, The OSS was a remarkable institution, half cops and robbers and half faculty meeting. With exceptional intelligence, fluency in many languages, a combat record second to none, and an escape from a German prison camp, Peter Ortiz is exactly the kind of man Donovan wants. Ortiz now finds himself leading a reconnaissance patrol behind German lines in Tunisia during January 1943.

Over several weeks, he gathers critical intelligence until his patrol clashes with a German patrol in a fierce firefight. Ortiz is wounded in the action, but continues fighting, and it's his accurate throws of grenades that cause the Germans to break contact. Ortiz will receive the Purple Heart for the wound he suffered. General Donovan is highly impressed not only by Ortiz's reconnaissance patrol and his valor in battle, but also by the professional quality of Ortiz's after-action report. Donovan says he wants Ortiz assigned to the OSS full-time. Ortiz spends time recuperating in a hospital at Algiers and then at another in Washington, D.C.

In May 1943, the now fully recovered Ortiz is assigned to the OSS's Naval Command. In July, he's flown to London for training or a mission behind enemy lines in France. The mission will be to a mountainous region of southeastern France known as the Haute Savoie, which borders Switzerland and Italy.

There are large numbers of Free French in the region, particularly on the Vercourt Plateau, immediately south of Grenoble. General Charles de Gaulle and other French leaders in exile think the French partisans at Vercourt, if well armed and trained, can offer stout resistance to the Germans and divert German men and materiel from Normandy when D-Day arrives. The mission to Vercourt is codenamed Union.

On the moonless night of January 6, 1944, a British agent, a French agent and Peter Ortiz parachute onto the Vercourt Plateau. They are dressed in civilian clothes, but carry their military uniforms and packs. They quickly make contact with French partisans or maquis, as they are known locally, and the OSS team begins to train them. The British agent later said that Ortiz, who knew not fear and did not hesitate to wear his U.S. Marine captain's uniform in town and country alike, this cheered the French, but alerted the Germans and the mission was constantly on the move. Ortiz finds the morale of the maquis good.

They willingly follow him on raids and ambushes, but they need more arms and ammunition. Ortiz coordinates parachute drops with the needed materiel and eventually has hundreds of maquis armed and attacking Germans. Reports of an American Marine leading maquis raids causes the Gestapo in the area to increase their interrogations of farmers and townsfolk.

Ortiz seems a ghost-like figure, appearing here and there and then disappearing. He walks into villages in his uniform in the middle of the day to the cheers of the townsfolk and is gone before German soldiers or the Gestapo arrive. He leads raids that steal German army or Gestapo vehicles or set fire to German supply and ammo dumps. He sets ambushes of German patrols. He rescues four downed RAF pilots and leads them through southern France and across the Pyrenees to Spain. One night Ortiz strolls into a German occupied town wearing a long cape and enters a cafe where three German officers are drinking and cursing the maquis and the American Marine who is leading them. The filthy American swine, they shout.

They look up to see a tall, lean-faced man staring at them. The man opens his cape to reveal a Marine uniform and draws two semi-automatic Colt 45s. He opens fire before the Germans can unholster their sidearms. They're riddled by bullets and Captain Peter Ortiz disappears into the night. In late May 1944, after nearly five months of such daring do, Ortiz is pulled out of the Corps by an airplane with special short field takeoff and landing capabilities and flown to London.

He's decorated with the Navy Cross and promoted to Major. Ortiz spends the next two months in London preparing for another mission behind enemy lines, which is codenamed Union 2. This time Ortiz will lead an OSS operational group to act as guerrillas behind German lines. The group consists of Ortiz and five enlisted Marines, an Air Force captain and a French officer. The French officer will carry documents identifying him as an American Marine.

All members of the group will wear their uniforms. On August 1, 1944, they parachute from an American B-17 into a drop zone at Vercourt. The parachute of one of the Marines malfunctions and he free falls to the ground and dies upon impact. The others land safely and within days Ortiz and his team are in heavy action. At one point the Germans maneuver them into a steep walled canyon and have them surrounded. Surrender seems the only option, but Ortiz tells his men of tight spots he's been in before and, if they're willing, to follow him.

When night falls, Ortiz leads them crawling silently and undetected through the German lines. On August 16, Ortiz and five others just begin to cross a road when a German troop convoy comes speeding around a curve and is suddenly upon them. The trucks screech to a halt and out come dozens of German soldiers firing their weapons as soon as their feet hit the pavement. The Americans race to the protection of buildings and houses of a roadside village and return fire.

The German firepower is overwhelming, though, and the residents of the town implore the Americans to surrender before the town is destroyed. And you're listening to Roger McGrath tell the story of Peter Ortiz, who moved up the ranks of the officer corps in the Marine Corps quickly. His competency, his courage, rewarded in the field of battle, stood the test in this newly formed OSS, the equivalent of the modern day CIA. And not just gathering intelligence, but going behind enemy lines and conducting operations. One of them to try and divert German troops away from Normandy. Imagine the importance of an operation like that. He's ultimately awarded the Navy Cross and we find him back at war again, even after the awards.

By the way, the description of these men in the early OSS, PhDs who can win a bar fight, half cops and robbers, half faculty meeting. And this cowboy with a refined multilingual sensibility going into combat for the sheer adventure of it. When we come back, more of Peter Ortiz's story here on Our American Stories. For each person living with myasthenia gravis or MG, their journey with this rare neuromuscular condition is unique. That's why Untold Stories Life with myasthenia gravis, a new podcast from I Heart Radio in partnership with Argenics, is exploring the extraordinary challenges and personal triumphs of underserved communities living with MG. Host Martine Hackett will share powerful perspectives from people living with the debilitating muscle weakness and fatigue caused by this rare disorder. Each episode will uncover the reality of life with myasthenia gravis from early signs and symptoms to obtaining an accurate diagnosis and finding care. Every person with MG has a story to tell. And by featuring these real life experiences, this podcast hopes to inspire the MG community, educate others about this rare condition and let those living with it know that they are not alone.

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That's goldco.com slash I heart. You never know what a project will throw at you, whether you're in the middle of building a shed, replacing a sink or hanging a ceiling fan. Sometimes you get stuck. That's why the Home Depot app is made for doing that doesn't miss a beat. Need help identifying a part?

Snap a picture and image search will tell you what it is. Heading to the store? With store mode, you can find everything on your list and navigate to it faster with product locator. Want to pick up your order or get it delivered? Take advantage of convenient delivery options so you can get your shopping done fast and get back to doing. The app gives you easy access to the digital tools you need to take any project from doing to done.

For doing that doesn't stop, download the Home Depot app. And we continue with our American stories and with Roger McGrath telling the story of Peter Ortiz. Let's pick up where we last left off. On August 16, Ortiz and five others just begin to cross a road when a German troop convoy comes speeding around a curve and is suddenly upon them. The trucks screech to a halt and out come dozens of German soldiers firing their weapons as soon as their feet hit the pavement.

The Americans race to the protection of buildings and houses of a roadside village in return fire. The German firepower is overwhelming, though, and the residents of the town implore the Americans to surrender before the town is destroyed. Ortiz looks at a sergeant positioned close to him and explains that, considering the circumstances, it would be best to surrender. A sergeant looks Ortiz in the eye and says, Major, we are Marines.

What you think is right goes for me, too. Ortiz orders his men to cease fire and shouts at the Germans, who continue to lay down a withering fire. Finally realizing there is no return fire, the German shooting slackens. Ortiz steps out from cover and begins walking towards the German lines. A few rounds kick up dust around him, but Ortiz continues walking, all the while calling for the German commander. When the commander comes forward, Ortiz says he will order his men to surrender only if the commander will guarantee the villagers will not be harmed. The commander gives his word and Ortiz orders his men to assemble next to him.

Ortiz calls them to attention and orders them to give no information other than that required by the Geneva Convention. The German commander is impressed by both the order and the look of Ortiz and his men and tells his troops to treat the Americans with respect. Ortiz and his men are now transported by truck from one German army camp to another until they finally reach a POW camp in northern Italy. They are not there for long before they are put aboard a train with boxcars full of French, British and American prisoners. The train takes them hundreds of miles north to a POW camp in Germany near the North Sea port of Bremen.

They arrive at the end of September 1944. The camp is divided into two separate camps, one for officers and one for enlisted men. Ortiz finds himself with some 400 other officers, nearly all of them British. Only three, including Ortiz, are American.

The senior Allied officer is a British Royal Navy captain. Upon meeting him, Ortiz asks about plans for escape and is told there will be no escape attempts. Major Ortiz immediately declares himself Senior American Officer and says American POWs will plan to escape. On the night of December 18, Ortiz and an American Navy lieutenant, Hiram Harris, spend more than an hour cutting and crawling through a series of wire fences before reaching an open field and making a dash for it. Searchlights illuminate the running Americans and they're escorted back to the camp and locked in solitary confinement. On April 10, 1945, with Allied forces moving into Germany, it's decided to move most of the prisoners to a POW camp at Lubeck, a port on the Baltic Sea about 120 miles to the northeast. The prisoners begin the trek, marching in a column along the side of a road, when a couple of RAF Spitfires sweep down on the column and open fire.

While most in the column die for cover, Ortiz dashes into nearby woods. Two Americans and one Englishman follow him. With the Spitfires gone, German guards order the prisoners back into a column and the march begins again.

No one seems to have noticed the disappearance of Ortiz and the others. Ortiz thinks that British troops must be near and it will not be more than a day or two before they arrive. The escapees move only at night and all they ever see are Germans. Several times they only narrowly escape detection. After ten days of this and with no food, they are starving and exhausted. Disgusted by the slow advance of the British, Ortiz decides they should return to their old POW camp and see if any food was left behind. They walk into the camp and the few guards there mostly ignore them. The guards know the war is nearly over. Among the few prisoners still there are the enlisted Marines from Ortiz's OSS group. They give them a rousing welcome.

For better or worse, they are together again. A week later, a British armored division finally reaches the camp. Most of the remaining prisoners eagerly board trucks for transportation to the rear, but not Ortiz and his men. Ortiz asks if his group can join the armored division. As Ortiz later put it, we Marines wanted to join this unit in order to bag a few more Germans before hunting season closed.

The British refuse and Ortiz and the others are sent to the rear. Ortiz is debriefed by an OSS officer and then the commander of the U.S. Navy's 12th Fleet decorates Ortiz with a second Navy cross. By this time, the war in Europe is over and Ortiz requests combat duty against the Japanese. By July 1945, he's in California preparing a team for an OSS mission to Indochina.

But the atomic bombs in August end the war before the mission is launched. Ortiz returns to Hollywood to again work as a technical advisor beginning with 13 Rue Madeleine, a World War II spy thriller released in 1946 starring James Cagney. Ortiz is content with working as a technical advisor and has no ambitions to become an actor. But the director John Ford, a veteran of the Navy and the OSS, who was involved in his own daring do when he parachuted behind Japanese lions into a Burmese jungle, offers Ortiz a small role in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon starring John Wayne. Because the offer comes from John Ford, Ortiz accepts it. During the next decade, Ortiz appears in five of Ford's movies and in 27 movies altogether, as well as in two television series.

He enjoys the work because he doesn't really act but simply plays himself, often portraying a military officer. In Retreat Hell, the best movie about Marines in Korea, Ortiz plays a Marine major, exactly what he was. While Peter Ortiz is acting, Operation Secret, a movie inspired by Ortiz's real life daring do, is released in 1952. Cornell Wilde plays Ortiz, called Peter Forrester in the movie.

But as usual, Hollywood takes liberties with what really occurred. Ortiz eventually retires from Hollywood and moves with his wife to Prescott, Arizona. Their son becomes a Marine officer like his dad.

In 1988, at the age of 74, Peter Ortiz dies. He's buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery. Not only are high-ranking American officers there, but also high-ranking officers from France. He's an American hero and a French hero.

To this day, Peter Ortiz is commemorated in France as the hero of Haute Savoie. And a terrific job on the production, editing, and storytelling by our own Greg Hengler. And a special thanks to Roger McGrath, our Hollywood Goes to War series. It's his brainchild and it's his storytelling. And there's so much good stuff.

Go to OurAmericanStories.com and just put in Hollywood Goes to War. And Dr. McGrath has appeared on numerous History Channel documentaries. And again, is a regular contributor here at Our American Stories. And what a story he told here. Peter Ortiz, imagine this, two, not one, but two Navy Crosses. He's a POW not once, but twice.

Once with the French Foreign Legion serving in World War II. And again, in an operation behind enemy lines. And the character, you can almost see him, feel him, and hear him. The joy of spoken words sometimes is that you don't need the pictures.

Sometimes we can fill them in ourselves. And when he returns to Los Angeles, the next thing you know, well, a director who knew a little about war, John Ford, he himself was in the OSS and the Navy and fought in World War II, hired him as an actor to play, of course, military men. And he did that because it's who he was and it's what he knew. And Peter Ortiz finally does retire and retires in Arizona. His son becomes a Marine, and that's no surprise.

These things run through family lines and intergenerational service. In 1988, Peter Ortiz died. He was 74. He was buried with full military honors in Arlington Cemetery.

He died an American and a French hero. The story of Peter Ortiz, a part of our Hollywood Goes to War series, here on Our American Stories. Football is back and NFL Plus has you covered. Get ready for the 2023 NFL season and get access to the NFL preseason. Watch live out of market preseason games on NFL Plus, including all 23 live NFL Network games across devices. Stream exclusive coverage of the top 100 players of 2023 and discover all access content from players, coaches, analysts, and more. Sign up today at Plus.NFL.com. Terms and conditions apply.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-08-08 14:45:17 / 2023-08-08 14:57:44 / 12

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