10-18-04, 08:19 AM
Shadow Warrior <br />
OSS Marine Operational Group, Union II <br />
By Dick Camp <br />
Marine Platoon Sergeant Jack Risler pushed his equipment bag out the small rear hatch of the B-17 Flying Fortress and...
10-18-04, 08:19 AM
As the formations neared the coast, on-board Rebecca radar picked up the Eureka ground responder, guiding them closer to the objective. The bombers reduced altitude to 3,000 feet as the drop zone appeared. The lead pilot talked to a Maquis over the S-phone—a radiotelephone for ground-to-air communications—with specific directions while decreasing altitude to 500 feet for the drop. "The zone is clear, and the signal fires are burning," the Frenchman reported. The waist gunner got the word and slapped Risler on the shoulder, signaling they were over the drop zone. The Marine didn't hesitate and jumped headfirst through the hatch.
Le Grande Parachutage
(The Great Parachute Drop)
Risler freed himself from the jubilant Frenchman's embrace and scrambled to find his equipment bag. Several men who were gathered around a still form lying on the ground drew his attention. Sgt Perry's parachute failed, his steel static line snapped six inches from the drogue and, without a reserve, there was nothing he could do to save himself, even if there had been enough time to use it. "Gunny" LaSalle was also a casualty, barely mobile, after badly wrenching his back in the jump. The other team members were OK and spent the rest of the day assisting the Maquis in gathering the widely dispersed weapons and equipment.
The next morning, Sgt Perry was buried with full military honors. An altar of packing cylinders, decorated with red, white and blue parachutes, was erected as a bier for the coffin. Several dignitaries spoke of the "soldier who came from far way America to help us in the liberation of our country." Local women had painstakingly sewn a homemade American flag which was buried with him.
The next several days were spent instructing the Maquis on the functioning and maintenance of the weapons and planning attacks on the Germans. On the 14th, in the village of Montgirod, they were taken under heavy artillery fire and forced to withdraw. They hid in the thick brush until after dark and then escaped across the Isere River. The Germans took several villagers hostage and executed two wounded Maquis who they found in the parish church—and then burned it to the ground for harboring "terrorists."
Two days later, after successfully evading the searching force, Team Union passed through the small village of Centron. Just as they reached the main highway, a heavily armed convoy from the German 157th Alpine Mountain Division came around a blind curve and took the Americans under fire. Coolidge and Brunner, on the edge of the village, covered the team as it withdrew. Ortiz, Bodnar, Risler and Jo-Jo managed to withdraw into the southwest section of the village, but the other two couldn't make it, splitting the team.
Coolidge was wounded in the leg, but managed to escape with Brunner. Meanwhile, the other four retreated from house to house, keeping up a heavy fire, but were implored by the terrified villagers to give up before the Germans took retribution. Risler remembers trying to get a young mother with two children out of the line of fire. His pack was shot full of holes, but he escaped injury. Finally, completely surrounded by an overwhelming force, Ortiz decided to surrender in order to save the villagers and his men.
During a lull in the firing, he shouted a surrender proposal in German—he spoke five languages. His terms for sparing the village inhabitants were accepted. Risler recalled, "Before turning in our weapons, the major called us to attention and reminded us we were Marines, and to give only our name, rank and serial number. His short speech impressed the hell out of the Germans, but they got a little upset, as there were only three of us. They thought there was a battalion!"
Prisoners of War, Marlag Nord
The four men—Arcelin was also caught—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 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 they were transported to various locations, finally arriving at Marlag Nord, a permanent camp for naval POWs located outside the German city of Bremen. Although it was one of the best-run camps in Germany, the team was thrown into solitary confinement, where they were interrogated by an officer of the Kriegsmarine (German navy). Risler thought he looked like Hermann Goering. At first the interrogator was friendly, but soon showed his true colors when the Marines refused to "cut a record for the folks back home," an obvious propaganda ploy.
The camp held mostly British seamen and quite a few Royal Marines who had been captured at the raid on Dieppe and other commando raids. Relationships between the two nationalities were excellent—bound by their common dislike of the German guards. The prisoners outdid themselves in devising dirty tricks to play on their captors.
Risler remembered one particular nasty trick that 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 would have to make certain it had not been watered. The German fell for it and gave them the bottle, which they took into the barracks and emptied into a container. Then [they] peed in the bottle, sealed it and gave it back, saying the price was too high. Imagine the guard's surprise!"
On 10 April 1945, the Germans evacuated the prisoners ahead of the advancing British rescuers. Risler and Bodnar among others decided to hide in the camp and try to escape after the Germans left. 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 sprinkled pepper over their hiding place, which irritated the German guard dogs' sensitive noses, and they weren't discovered.
Ortiz was among those evacuated by the Germans in front of the advancing British. As the German convoy moved along the mountain highways, allied aircraft attacked. In the resulting confusion, Ortiz escaped from his captors. After some days of hiding, he returned to the camp to discover Risler and Bodnar waiting.
Several days later, they heard the unforgettable skirling of bagpipes. A piper, sitting on the turret of a Sherman tank, grandly announced the arrival of the 1st Scots Armoured Group—and freedom. True to form, Ortiz volunteered the team to join them and "bag a few more Germans." Their request was declined respectfully. Instead, they were flown to Brussels and then to the City of Light (Paris) for V-E Day.
Risler commented that their uniforms would have made a DI sob. "Marine overseas caps, black shirts, tie, Army O.D. pants and paratrooper boots." The team was given 30 days leave after returning to the States and was ordered to report to the West Coast. When the war ended, they were training for a mission to jump into Indo-China.
Risler, Bodnar and LaSalle were awarded the Silver Star for their exploits, while Ortiz received a second Navy Cross. In 1984, the team was invited back to France for the 40th anniversary of the Great Parachute Drop. Only Risler and Bodnar were able to make it. Ortiz was deathly ill with cancer that would eventually take his life. Risler and Bodnar returned to the area of Centron in July 2004 to receive the French Legion of Honor and to be wined, dined and honored by France and the former members of the Résistance—their comrades in arms.
Editor's note: Retired Col Dick Camp is a co-author with Eric Hammel of "Lima-6," a book about a Marine company commander in Vietnam, and he is a frequent contributor to Leatherneck.