View Full Version : Operation Union II: Marines land in France 60 years ago

08-23-04, 05:50 AM
Operation Union II: Marines land in France 60 years ago
Submitted by: Marine Forces Europe
Story Identification #: 200482275520
Story by Master Sgt. Phil Mehringer

CENTRON, France (Aug. 1, 2004) -- The Allies met with success in the summer of 1944. The invasion of Normandy established a foothold in Europe and Marines were island hopping in the Pacific. The islands of Tinian, Saipan and Guam were secured during the months of July and August as Marines continued to move closer to the mainland of Japan.

The active duty strength of the Marine Corps near the end of June 1944, according to the Marine Corps Historical Division, was around 476,000. While the majority of those Marines served in the Pacific, a select few were about to enter the war against the Germans in the European Theater.

During the early months of 1944 a tall, slender Marine Corps Captain was gathering vital information about German forces occupying southern France. Captain Peter J. Ortiz parachuted into occupied France with a British Intelligence agent and a French radio operator in January 1944. Their mission was to contact French Resistance fighters known as the Maquis and evaluate their capability to fight the Nazis.

Allied forces were not quite sure of the strength and how well equipped the Maquis were, however, if the Maquis proved to be organized and equipped they would become a powerful asset during the summer of 1944 when invasions of western and southern France were scheduled. The Maquis would come out of the high lands and strike the rear of the German forces and harass German troop movement as Allied forces conducted beach landings and moved inward.

Throughout the next several months the three moved over the winter snow lands of the French Alps meeting with resistance fighters and analyzing their fighting ability. The name of the mission was called Operation Union.

The information gained by the three agents, working for the Office of Strategic Services and British Intelligence, would be used to provide the Maquis with weapons, equipment and ammunition later that summer to harass the Nazis operating in the Heute Savoie region of the French Alps. The agents quickly realized that although the resistance fighters had sufficient numbers, they lacked tactical instruction and they needed an extensive supply of equipment to effectively fight the Nazi forces.

Winter turned to spring and prior to returning to England in May of 1944, the three agents encouraged the Maquis to reorganize and prepare to receive a supply of equipment.

On August 1, 1944, two months after the invasion of Normandy, newly promoted Maj. Ortiz and a select few dropped into the French Alps approximately 30 kilometers from the town of Albertville, landing above German forces on a plateau named Col.d. Saisies. Operation Union II was underway. That same day 87 B-17s dropped tons of equipment consisting mainly of weapons and ammunition for the Maquis.

Maj. Ortiz's team consisted of six Marines and John Coolidge, a captain with the Army Air Corps. Once on the ground the team would meet up with Joseph Arcelin, a French Resistance fighter who would act as their liaison officer. Other members of the team were Sergeants Jack Risler, John Bodnar, Fred Brunner and GySgt. Robert La Salle.

Because of the difficulties involved in the jump, the team incurred complications. "We normally would jump at about one thousand feet," said retired SgtMaj. John Bodnar, one of the two remaining team members still alive to tell the story of Operation Union II. Sgt. Jack Risler is the second; both were present at the 60th Anniversary commemoration recently held at the location they dropped into France 60 years ago.

Missing the drop zone for the team meant that they could drift from the high plateau into enemy territory and be immediately captured and probably executed. In addition, to keep the German's from counting parachutes, the drop had to be made at the lowest height possible. Each team member was loaded into separate aircraft with only a main parachute; a reserve chute would not have time to deploy.

"Because of the limitations, we had to make this jump at 400 feet," said Bodnar. "As soon as we were out of the aircraft our chutes opened and the next thing I remember is I was on the ground."

"Boom!" he said. "It happened that fast."

Tragically, the parachute belonging to Sgt. Charles Perry did not open and he died at the landing zone. GySgt. La Salle was also injured on the jump and couldn't participate in the mission. Team members and Maquis from the Jean Bulle Battalion immediately buried Perry. Bulle was the leader of the local resistance fighters.

The mission now was to organize resistance efforts and take the fight to the Nazi's. Maj. Ortiz and his team spent the next several days training the Maquis on the new weapons and equipment. Additional training such as ambush and harassing techniques were also presented.

After about a week of training, Union II members and the Maquis conducted observation patrols on the German forces in the area, selecting the best ambush sites. Throughout the next days several ambushes were conducted. The Maquis took several casualties, treating most immediately, however, several required advanced medical attention and could no longer travel.

The newly equipped Maquis proved to be an effective force against the Germans and the Nazi's were forced to become more aggressive in dealing with them. If found to be a resistance fighter, the penalty provided by the Germans was swift and severe. You would be shot on site often in public viewing to deter others. A town found supporting the Maquis received punishment on the same scale.

On August 14, injured Maquis fighters found sanctuary in the town of Montgirod. With injuries to severe to move on, the fighters were offered sanctuary in the town church. Union II members and Maquis were forced to separate and narrowly escapeded as the town was surrounded by a German patrol. Maj. Ortiz led his team from one side of a valley ridge to the other, passing through the heart of the valley, the town of Centron, crossing a river, and finally resting on the ridgeline opposite of Montgirod, resting approximately 8 kilometers away in the distance.

There wasn't anything that Union II members could do that evening as German forces destroyed the entire town, killing many of the villager's accused of assisting the resistance efforts.

"They burned the place down," said SgtMaj. Bodnar. "We just left there...they killed them all."

German forces were not traveling lightly, having heard through local intelligence that an entire battalion of Allied troops with supplies recently parachuted into the region, the Germans were ready to fight a significant force. After the war was over German records recorded their strength in the area to be at 3,800 compared to the six Allied service members combined with several hundred Maquis fighters.

On August 15th Union II members remained just below the ridgeline, observing the German patrols in the area were slowing. The next day Maj. Ortiz decided the team should move out back towards the direction of Montgirod. The team moved across the fast moving river and through the town of Centron. Traveling in a single-file line, the team was well spread out, ready to disperse at a moment's notice. The terrain of the area, rugged and mountainous, prevented Maj. Ortiz and several of the Marines near the front of the column from spotting the German patrol traveling from the direction of Montgirod to Centron.

Marines in the rear of the column shouted about the same time the first rounds were fired. The Marines quickly dispersed, moving away from the Germans and back through the town of Centron in an attempt to cross the river again, seeking cover in the higher elevation. The mobility of the German armored patrol allowed them to quickly surround the small village of several hundred people.

Brunner, Coolidge and Arcelin escaped by jumping in the river before the Germans could cover the area with machine gun fire. The other three Marines were not so lucky. Ortiz, Risler and Bodnar were trapped in the town. They moved in and around the buildings, attracting heavier fire every time they moved. Taking heavy machine gun and small arms fire from all directions, the three were eventually unable to move. German infantry closed in.

Maj. Ortiz realized what this meant, not only to himself and his Marines, but also to the town of Centron. Because his Marines were seen in and around the town, he new the German's would associate the town with supporting the resistance efforts and most likely, the town would be treated to the same punishment as did Montgirod.

"Maj. Ortiz said that he was going talk with the Germans and that we should try and sneak out while he did," said Bodnar. The reply quickly came back from Bodnar, "Major, we are Marines. We work together, we stay together."

The decision was made and with a white flag waving, Maj. Ortiz moved from his location to the German line. Ortiz spoke fluent German, French, English and Arabic. He communicated with the German officer and negotiated the exchange of his Marines for the safety of the town. Ortiz expressed that the town had no knowledge of the Marines arrival and that his team was just passing through the area.

The German officer agreed and Ortiz made the motion for Risler and Bodnar to come forth. About this same time German forces, sweeping the area, captured Arcelin who was wearing the Marine Corps uniform of Sgt. Perry who died during the jump. Had Arcelin not had on a uniform he would have been shot on the spot. Arcelin would continue to pose as a U.S. Marine until being liberated from a POW camp a year later.

"Initially, the German officer was in disbelief," said Maj. Steven White, Marine Forces Europe Operations Intel Officer and 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."

Eventually, Maj. Ortiz was able to convince the German officer that this was his entire team.

The Germans would hold the four members of Union II until the end of the war in a POW camp near Bremen, Germany.

The town of Centron, to commemorate the event, named the town hall in honor of Maj. Peter J. Ortiz and at the original drop zone there is a monument dedicated to the members of Union II and the French Resistance fighters of the Jean Bulle Battalion.

More information concerning the exploits of Maj. Peter J. Ortiz and the Union and Union II missions can be found at: http://www.militarymuseum.org/Ortiz.html.


Sergeant Major (Ret.) John Bodnar and former Marine Staff Sergeant Jack Risler, the only surviving members of Operation Union II, were awarded the French Legion of Honor in a lengthy ceremony in the French Alps near the town of
Albertville July 30th. The Marines, originally a team of 7, parachuted into the region August 1, 1944 along with tons of equipment to assist the French Resistance from the occupying German forces. Bodnar, 82, and Risler, 83, were present to celebrate the 60th anniversary of their drop that energized the Resistance movement in the area.
Photo by: Master Sgt. Phil Mehringer