Dunham House loomed out of the English countryside that November evening in 1943, a dark shape in a dark setting. Marine Platoon Sergeant Jack Risler stepped up to the heavy front door, knocked and watched it swing open to reveal a colleague, Major Bruce Cheever, in Marine-issue trousers and shirt, a white silk scarf wrapped around his neck. Framed by a massive fireplace, Cheever pulled a cord dangling next to it, summoning an aide to take their drink orders. “Welcome, we’ve been expecting you,” he told the small group of men before him.
The air of mystery was fitting given the mission Risler was about to undertake, even if Cheever’s welcome seemed like something straight out of a B movie. Risler and seven other Marine paratroopers had arrived in England that night to report for duty with the Office of Strategic Services, the wartime precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency. The OSS was involved in a series of clandestine missions in support of resistance movements in occupied Europe, and Cheever had recruited the eight men to serve as instructors at a newly created British-American parachute school that was a key part of the effort.
“Would you like to do something different?” was howCheever had broached the topic with Risler earlier that year, when both men were parachute instructors at New River (now Camp Lejeune), N.C. “Never volunteer,” Risler knew the old saw went, but he thought: What the hell, in for a penny, in for a pound. “Yes sir,” he replied, wondering what he had volunteered for. As time went by, Risler would learn just how different “something different” could be: as different as being a Marine in Europe, in a war where most of the Corps battles were taking place in the Pacific; and as different as being one of the few leatherneck paratroopers to actually be airdropped into combat — a rare occurrence during World War II.
By July 1944, Risler had been training Special Operations agents for about eight months. Most of the agents were French, although nearly every European nationality was represented at one time or another. The students — men and women — were known as “Joes” or “Josephines,” since no one used their real names. Everyone wore a uniform, even civilians. The training, all condensed into one action-packed week, consisted of five or six jumps using planes from the nearby British airfield RAF Ringway and a drop zone at Tatton Park, a Cheshire estate with extensive grounds.
Following one typically busy week that July, Risler and two American compatriots were able to wrangle a 72-hour pass to the big city. Wartime London, with its blackouts and nightly air raids, was not exactly a tourist Mecca — but then again, it offered liberty-bound Marines a refreshing alternative to hand-to-hand combat in the garden. The men were near Marble Arch, in Hyde Park, when a familiar face came unexpectedly into view. “What are you guys doing here?” Marine Major Peter Ortiz wanted to know.
Tall, movie-star handsome, with an Oxford accent, Ortiz would have cut a remarkable figure under any circumstance. Moreover, there was his larger-than-life reputation to contend with. Ortiz had been a student of Risler’s at New River. Educated in France, he had begun his military service as a 19-year-old member of the French Foreign Legion, had fought the Germans early in the war, been wounded, captured, escaped and made his way to the United States. Ortiz enlisted in the Corps after recuperating from his wounds and, upon graduation from Parris Island, was commissioned in August 1942. Fluent in five languages, he was quickly recognized and recruited by the OSS.
Ortiz had recently returned from a successful OSS mission to France code-named “Union.” Its purpose was to contact, organize and arm groups of the Free French Resistance fighters called maquisards, or the Maquis, in the southeastern region of France known as the Haute Savoie. The Maquis was a vital part of the defense against the Germans, and it was important that its forces be strengthened before the impending Normandy invasion in June 1944. Parachuting into France on a moonless night in January 1944, Ortiz found the local freedom fighters willing — but terribly underequipped. Ortiz also conducted hit-and-run raids on enemy supply centers and developed particular notoriety for his expertise in stealing German staff cars, which he boldly drove back to his hideaways.
As one story making the rounds went, a civilian-dressed Ortiz had been in a nightclub in Lyons one fateful night as several German officers were letting off steam. One began damning President Franklin D. Roosevelt and then the United States — and ended the tirade by damning the U.S. Marine Corps. Ortiz quietly left, put on his uniform, donned a raincoat and returned. He ordered a round of drinks and, when they were served, threw off his raincoat and stood before the Germans brandishing a .45 automatic.
“A toast,” Ortiz declared, standing tall in full greens and decorations, “to the president of the United States!” He ordered another round and made the Germans drink a toast to the United States, and then to the Marine Corps. After the Germans drained their glasses, Ortiz backed out of the nightclub, his pistol covering the astonished hosts, and disappeared into the night.
In July 1944, Ortiz was looking for volunteers to return with him to France. “Want to do something exciting?” was how he put it to the three men standing before him in Hyde Park. Where have I heard this before? thought Risler.
Within days of their meeting, Risler and Ortiz were back in London at the Baker Street headquarters of the Special Operations Executive, the OSS’s British counterpart, planning for Ortiz’s next mission, code-named “Union II.” The remainder of the team of OSS volunteers consisted of fellow Marines Gunnery Sergeant Robert La Salle and Sergeants Charles Perry, John P. Bodnar and Frederick J. Brunner; Ortiz’s second-in-command, U.S. Army Air Forces Captain Frank Coolidge, who had served with Ortiz in the Foreign Legion in the 1930s; and a Free French officer, Joseph Arcelin. The Frenchman assumed the identity of a French-Canadian Marine named George Andrews, even though he did not speak English.
As with Ortiz’s first mission, the team’s destination would be the Vercors Plateau in the Haute Savoie region, and the large force of French Resistance fighters in hiding there. The Haute Savoie was a natural fortress, 3,000 feet above sea level, 30 miles long and 12 miles wide, broken by deep gorges and a series of long, high ridges. Few roads traversed the mastiff, making it easier to defend against roadbound armor and mechanized infantry.
A key part of the Union II mission was to be a large supply drop, using 78 Boeing B-17Gs of the Eighth Air Force’s 388th Bombardment Group (Heavy). The Flying Fortresses would carry approximately 900 Type C cargo containers — each a cylinder roughly 6 feet long and 3 feet in diameter — packed with weapons, ammunition, explosives, medical supplies, clothing and rations, making Union II one of the largest equipment drops of World War II.
Ortiz’s team drew equipment and weapons — a .45-caliber pistol and a Winchester folding stock carbine, a Fairbairn-Sykes stiletto and maps of the objective area for each man. Most of their personal equipment was packed in a wire-reinforced canvas bag that was attached to a cargo chute. Each man carried 50,000 French francs and a small hip flask of “medicinal” cognac. Ortiz also carried 1 million francs to hand over to the Maquis.
On August 1, the men attended the aircrew briefing at Knettershall Airfield and then boarded the aircraft — each in a separate plane. The bombers took off at 60-second intervals, climbed to an altitude of 17,000 feet and then moved into three formations staggered by altitude — high, middle and low — with the jumpers in the middle formation.
It was a beautiful day, with a clear blue sky, and as the team crossed the French coast and picked up its North American P-51D Mustang fighter escorts, Risler could see fighting — barrage balloons and some flak — in Normandy below. As the drop zone appeared, the bombers reduced altitude to 3,000 feet. On the ground, a French Resistance fighter was helping direct the lead pilot using an S-phone — a radiotelephone for ground-to-air communications — while signal fires marking the DZ were burning.
When they neared the DZ, Risler realized with a jolt that they were flying low enough for him to be able to see not only the cattle grazing beneath them but also the bells the bovines were wearing around their necks. Still, when the waist gunner got the word and slapped Risler on the shoulder, signaling they were over the drop zone, the Marine didn’t hesitate. He jumped headfirst through the small rear hatch and followed his equipment bag into the turbulent slipstream.
At a jump altitude of only about 400 feet, the ground rushed up at Risler with alarming speed. He spent less than 30 seconds in the air before hitting the ground — hard. Risler leaped to his feet, smacked the quick-release cylinder in the middle of his chest and rotated it a quarter of a turn. As he struggled to shed the harness, a scruffily dressed Resistance fighter grabbed him in a bear hug and, before the Marine could react, planted a kiss on both cheeks. Hell of a reception for a combat jump, Risler thought to himself, but all in all, better than a German bayonet!
Scrambling to find his equipment bag, Risler noticed several men about 50 feet away gathered around a still form lying on the ground. It was Sergeant Charles Perry, who had died on impact. His parachute had malfunctioned: His static line had snapped six inches from the transport steel cable. Without a reserve, there was nothing Perry could have done to save himself — even if there had been enough time to do it.
Gunny La Salle was also a casualty, barely mobile, after badly wrenching his back in the jump. But the other team members were fine and spent the rest of the day assisting the Maquis in gathering the widely dispersed weapons and equipment. The next morning, Sergeant Perry was buried with full military honors. An altar of cargo cylinders, decorated with red, white and blue parachutes, was erected as a bier for the coffin. Several local dignitaries spoke of the “soldier who came from faraway America to help us in the liberation of our country.” Some French women had painstakingly sewn an American flag, which was buried with Perry.
The next week was spent instructing the Maquis on the functioning and maintenance of the weapons and planning attacks on the Germans. Then the team began a series of patrols to contact other Resistance groups in the area. (La Salle, still in extreme pain, had been left with a priest in a mountain safe house.)
On August 14, the remaining men entered the town of Montgirod, where they had heard there was a large contingent of Germans. As soon as they entered the town, they found themselves under a heavy German attack, and by the end of the day the entire village had been destroyed and left burning. The Germans took several villagers hostage and executed two wounded maquisards they found in the parish church. Forced to withdraw, the Union II team hid in the thick brush until after dark and then escaped across the Isère River.
Two days later, having successfully evaded the searching force and feeling confident, the team members started out at first light. They crossed a river and came around a blind curve about 100 yards from the village of Centron — and found themselves face to face with a heavily armed enemy convoy of 12 to 15 trucks and about 200 troops. The Germans immediately started shooting, which forced the Union II men to run like hell, zigzagging for the village, the only cover available. Coolidge and Brunner, on the edge of the village, covered Ortiz, Bodnar, Arcelin and Risler as they withdrew into the southwest section of Centron, returning fire with their carbines.
Frightened civilians were running for cover. As Risler skittered through the streets, he came upon a young mother and two small children. The kids were crying, and Risler, unable to speak French, could only gesture desperately for them to get down.
Coolidge was wounded in the leg but managed to escape with Brunner. Arcelin had also managed to slip away. The remaining three men, meanwhile, retreated from house to house, providing covering fire. The Germans had encircled the village, however, and it appeared the Americans couldn’t hold them off until dark to make their escape. The villagers were terrified and implored Risler, Ortiz and Bodnar to give up before the Germans took retribution.
Finally, completely surrounded by an overwhelming force, Ortiz decided to surrender in order to save the villagers. He probably knew that he and his men, as members of an OSS team, would likely be executed. During a lull in the firing, he shouted a surrender proposal in German. The enemy commander agreed to his terms to spare the village. Ortiz then called his men to attention, reminded them that they were Marines and to give the enemy only their name, rank and serial number. Risler could see that the short speech had impressed the Germans — but that they were somewhat upset when they realized the surrendering force consisted of only three men. They thought they had captured a battalion.
The men — now including Arcelin, who had been captured in a nearby orchard — were taken to German headquarters for interrogation. Ortiz told them to claim they were paratroopers from the landings in Normandy — they wore U.S. Army–type jackets — because Adolf Hitler had issued orders to execute all OSS agents who were caught. It was not an idle threat. Risler remembered a junior officer who stalked by and pointed a pistol at them. “Kaput!” he exclaimed.
For several weeks the four men were transported to various locations, finally arriving on September 29 at Marlag/Milag Nord, a permanent camp for naval POWs outside the German city of Bremen. Although prisoners considered it one of the best-run camps in Germany, the Union II team members were thrown into solitary confinement there, with the men interrogated three or four times a day by an officer of the Kriegsmarine. Risler thought the officer looked a lot like Hermann Göring; they had the same beefy build. At first the interrogator was friendly, but he soon showed his true colors when the Marines refused to “cut a record for the folks back home” — well aware that any German invitation to send a message home was likely a propaganda ploy. A fellow prisoner, a U.S. Navy officer, got word to the International Red Cross of the Marines’ treatment, and in November 1944 the men were taken out of solitary confinement and transferred back to the facility’s main camp.
Most of the inmates at the camp were British sailors and Royal Marines who had been captured during commando raids, such as the one on the French port of Dieppe in August 1942. Relationships among the two nationalities were excellent — bound by their common dislike of their guards. Some of the British prisoners had created a homemade radio, which was kept in a Red Cross plywood box hidden under the floor beneath one of their bunks. The prisoners used it to listen to the BBC’s daily broadcast at 2100 hours, and one of them would then verbally deliver the latest news to the others. The Germans suspected there was a radio somewhere in the camp but never found it despite detailed searches.
The prisoners outdid themselves in devising dirty tricks to play on their captors. One particularly nasty prank had the prisoners chuckling for months. Several men bargained 200 cigarettes for a bottle of cognac that had already been opened. They told the guard they wanted to make certain it hadn’t been watered down. The German fell for it and gave them the bottle, which they took into the barracks and emptied into a container. Then they urinated in the bottle, sealed it and gave it back, saying the price was too high. Risler took some satisfaction from imagining the surprise of the next German guard to come across that bottle.
On April 10, 1945, the Allies were advancing into the area near the camp, and the Germans decided to evacuate the prisoners ahead of any would-be rescuers. Risler, Bodnar, Arcelin and a Navy gunner’s mate, Charles Mulchy, devised a plan to be left behind. With the help of a fellow prisoner, they cut a section from the wooden floorboards of a small storage building and hid in the crawl space. An accomplice then sprinkled pepper over their hideout to throw off the German guard dogs’ sensitive noses. The space was only about a foot high, not allowing the men to change position. But the uncomfortable gamble paid off, and they weren’t discovered.
About 10 days after the Germans had evacuated the other prisoners, a familiar face unexpectedly reappeared in camp. It was Ortiz. He had been housed in a separate part of the camp, along with other officers, and Risler had assumed he was long gone with the other prisoners. As it turned out, the column of departing men had come under attack from RAF Supermarine Spitfires, and Ortiz and three other prisoners had escaped. Bad water and a lack of food had left them sick and weak, however. They returned to the vicinity of the camp, conducted reconnaissance, and finding it virtually under the control of the prisoners, decided to take their chances with the camp again.
Less than a week later, German tanks retreated from the area. The following morning, April 28, 1945, the prisoners awoke to an unusual calm. Then a welcome sound gently parted the morning quiet: the unforgettable skirling of bagpipes. A piper, sitting on the turret of a Sherman tank, grandly announced the arrival of the 1st Scots Armored Division — and freedom.
Ever game, Ortiz volunteered himself and the rest of the Union II team to join them for the fight. The request was respectfully declined. Instead, the men were flown to Brussels and then to Paris for V-E Day. Risler thought with wry amusement that the uniforms they wore on the Champs d’Elysées that day would have made a drill instructor sob: Marine overseas caps, black shirts, tie, Army olive drab pants and paratrooper jump boots. The team was given 30 days’ leave after returning to the States and then ordered to report to the West Coast. When the war ended, they were training for a mission in French Indochina.
Risler, Bodnar and La Salle were awarded the Silver Star for the Union II mission, while Ortiz received a second Navy Cross. While their exploits are little known in the United States, they haven’t been forgotten in France. In 1984 the team was invited back to France for the 40th anniversary of its mission, and in 1994, for the mission’s 50th anniversary. Ortiz, ill with the cancer that would take his life in 1988, was unable to attend. Only Risler and Bodnar were able to make it both times. In tribute, they were wined, dined and honored by former members of the Resistance — their comrades in arms.