August 1, 1944, was one of the most significant dates of World War II. It was a tense and nerve-racking day for Marine Maj. Peter J. Ortiz, six Marines and an Army Air Corps, as they were tasked with the responsibility of aiding the Maquis (French Resistance fighters) in a crucial battle against the Germans.
The mission was called Operation Union II, but it didn’t start as smoothly as the American soldiers expected. Firstly, the Marines had to move away from the drop zone for fear of being seen and had to perform the jump at low altitudes.
“Because of the limitations, we had to make this jump at 400 feet,” Sgt. Maj. John Bodnar said in an interview. “As soon as we were out of the aircraft, our chutes opened, and the next thing I remember is I was on the ground.”
The brave Sgt. Charles Perry was among the Marines who jumped, but his parachute didn’t open—he perished on landing. And another Marine became too injured to continue, so the only Marines left were Ortiz, Sgt. Jack Risler, Sgt. Fred Brunner and Bodnar.
But despite the fact there were only four of them, they used their numbers very wisely. They were able to get their 864, supply crates of weapons and ammunition that were dropped from the plane before meeting with the Marquis to begin training them.
The Marines and the Marquis then attacked the Germans in an ambush and were so successful in such a short period of time that German intelligence couldn’t believe it was such a small group. They thought they were fighting an entire Allied battalion
The Germans decided to take extreme measures. They began public executions of Maquis resistance members to set examples to the others. The Germans even killed an entire town when they found injured, resistance members hiding in the church.
The four Marines saw the tragedy as they stood at a distance on a ridge.
“They burned the place down,” Bodnar added. “We just left there…they killed them all.”
When the Marines tried to change positions, the Germans surrounded them. They were in a small town, and Ortiz was fearful the Germans would have destroyed the town if the Marines vacated. Ortiz, therefore, decided to walk out and face the Germans to tell them he would surrender himself if the town was spared.
Because the German commander believed he was up against an Allied battalion, he agreed to Ortiz’s terms.
“Initially, the German officer was in disbelief,” Maj. Steven White, Marine Forces Europe Operations Intel Officer Major Steven White explained. White’s also a Marine Corps Liaison to the 60th Anniversary Commemoration. “He did not believe that only 4 Marines had held off his forces for this long. He insisted that Maj. Ortiz turn over the rest of his team members,” Major White added.