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10-18-04, 08:19 AM #1
OSS Marine Operational Group, Union II
OSS Marine Operational Group, Union II
By Dick Camp
Marine Platoon Sergeant Jack Risler pushed his equipment bag out the small rear hatch of the B-17 Flying Fortress and followed it into the turbulent slipstream. The bomber was going too fast—more than 150 knots—but he didn't notice it in the adrenaline rush of the jump. His static line stretched tight, yanked the canopy from his British-made parachute, and he experienced the satisfying opening shock as it fully deployed. The chute slowed his descent, but at a jump altitude of only 400 feet the ground rushed up at him with alarming speed.
Risler estimated that he spent less than 30 seconds in the air before hitting the ground. He 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 Résistance fighter grabbed him in a viselike bear hug and, before the flabbergasted Marine could react, sloppily planted a kiss on both cheeks. "Hell of a reception on a combat jump," Risler allowed, "but, all in all, better than a German bayonet."
Jack R. Risler, 287888, U.S. Marine Corps, enlisted in July 1940. After graduating from the Recruit Depot at San Diego, he was assigned to the guard force at Bremerton Navy Yard, Wash., followed by duty at the Naval Air Station, Sand Point, Wash. Shortly after Pearl Harbor, Risler volunteered for parachute training since "guard duty was boring" and was assigned immediately to the West Coast jump school at Santee (later Camp Gillespie), Calif.
He soon found himself engaged in the toughening-up exercises that seem to be so relished by elite units: stomach-churning runs, torturous calisthenics, upper body strengthening, push-ups and pull-ups. The trainees also were introduced to the "PLF" (parachute landing fall), leaping off low platforms from fuselage mock-ups, rolling and tumbling off mats and graduating to their first "leap of faith" from a Douglas DC-7. The two-engine plane had large cargo doors in the side of the aircraft, which made it easy for the jumpers. The training was hard, but it was not without its high jinks.
Gunnery Sergeant Larry Elder, one of the instructors, said, "An inspiring young starlet from Hollywood was chuted up and photographed at various stations in the training sequence. On her name tag across the left breast of her uniform was her title, 'The Cutest Chutist!' "
Following this training, Risler was assigned to the U.S. Naval Air Station Parachute Riggers School at Lakehurst, N.J., where the Marine Corps had leased the jump towers from the 1939 World's Fair. The towers had been relocated from New York City. While there, Risler made his first free fall from a K-type blimp at 2,000 feet.
Early in 1943, he was transferred to New River, N.C., as a parachute instructor under the command of Major Bruce Cheever, Chief Instructor. Among the early trainees was a former lawyer and Marine reservist, Lieutenant Walter Mansfield, who had been seconded to the nascent OSS (Office of Strategic Services). Under the command of the legendary World War I hero, William J. "Wild Bill" Donovan, the OSS ventured into the shadowy world of espionage, sabotage and guerrilla warfare. Mansfield returned to Washington and talked Donovan into establishing a joint British-American parachute school in England with Maj Cheever in charge.
Initially rebuffed by the Corps for the loan of Maj Cheever, Donovan had lunch with his WW I friend, Lieutenant General Thomas Holcomb, the Commandant. Shortly afterward, Cheever had orders to select eight noncommissioned officer instructors and report to OSS headquarters in Washington, D.C. Risler was singled out. "Would you like to do something different?" Cheever asked the wary NCO.
"Never volunteer," Risler thought, but what the hell; in for a penny, in for a pound. "Yes sir," he replied, wondering for what he had just volunteered. Cheever later told him and the others that they were headed to Washington and then to England to train agents who were going to be parachuted into occupied Europe.
Within days Risler and seven other Marines—GySgt Robert LaSalle, PltSgt Larry Elder, Sergeants Homer Mantooth, Fritz Brunner, Charles Perry, Don Roberts and John P. Bodnar—found themselves at the Congressional Country Club, Area F in OSS parlance, near Potomac, Md.
Under the tutelage of Maj W. E. Fairbairn, hand-to-hand combat training replaced golf as the primary sport at the estate. The former Assistant Commissioner of the Shanghai Municipal Police, co-developer of the Fairbairn-Sykes commando knife and author of "Get Tough: How to Win in Hand-to-Hand Fighting," taught them the rudiments of knife fighting and special uses of the .45-caliber pistol—the hard way. During the training he encouraged them to "come at me." Risler's turn came, and he remembered thinking, "I don't want to hurt this old man," just before Fairbairn knocked him on his duff!
The estate was turned quickly into a school for unconventional training: fairways became obstacle courses and small-arms ranges, sand traps turned into demolition beds, the club house provided office and work spaces. The site was supposed to be top secret, but when one newly assigned man paid for his cab ride, the driver said, "Oh, you're one of those guerrillas." Every cab driver in Washington knew what was going on. It was there that Risler first came into contact with OSS Operational Groups—Americans of foreign ancestry who were being parachuted into Europe to fight the Germans.
In November 1943, the team was transferred to STS (secret training school) 33—an old brick-walled estate named Dunham House, several miles southwest of Manchester, England. Cheever and Elder were the first to arrive; the rest followed several days later. Risler knocked on the door of the mansion and was surprised when a casual Maj Cheever opened it, wearing uniform pants, shirt and a silk scarf. "Come on in, we've been expecting you," he said and walked over to a massive fireplace. He pulled a cord, and almost immediately a batman (enlisted aide) appeared to take drink orders—"great place, this Dunham House." It was there that the British SOE (Special Operations Executive) trained agents to jump into German-occupied Europe. Most were French, although almost every European nationality was represented at one time or another.
The students were known as "Joes" or "Josephines"; no one used his or her real name. Security was vital for survival. Everyone wore a uniform, even civilians, who were usually given a plain British uniform. The training was condensed to one action-packed week—five to six jumps, often using the harrowing "balloon" drop. Four students and a dispatcher—jumpmaster—were crammed into a wicker basket that hung below a large rubber barrage balloon, tethered by a cable to a truck. On a signal the balloon was released and, after reaching an altitude of 700 feet, the truck moved slowly forward, keeping the cable at an angle, out of the jumpers' way. At altitude, the jumpers dropped one by one through a 36-inch hole in the bottom of the basket, often without seeing the ground because of England's perennial fog. Risler remembered falling a couple of hundred feet before even seeing the ground.
If the jumper pushed off too hard or looked down when dropping through the hole, he would invariably hit his head or nose on the opposite side. This was known as "ringing the bell," to the great amusement of his fellow jumpers. One wag asked the instructor what to do if the parachute failed to open—they jumped without a reserve. "Do a proper PLF," the jumpmaster breezily replied. "Roll up your chute, take it back to the lass who packed it and see if you can get a date!"
After completion of training, Risler and the others 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 little more than hand-to-hand combat in the garden. As luck would have it, they ran into Marine Maj Peter J. Ortiz, who had been their student at New River.
Ortiz had just returned from a very successful mission to France and was looking for volunteers to return. His reputation for madcap adventure was well known to the three noncommissioned officers. Ortiz casually asked them what they were doing in London and followed up with, "Want to do something exciting?"
Risler reflected, "Where have I heard this before?"
Within days they were back in London at the headquarters of the SOE on Baker Street, planning for Union II—Marine Operational Group. OGs were heavily armed contingents whose mission was direct action against the Germans. The team consisted of Ortiz, Army Air Corps Captain Frank Coolidge (who served with Ortiz in the French Foreign Legion), LaSalle, Perry, Bodnar, Brunner, Risler and a Free French officer, Joseph Arcelin (code name Jo-Jo).
The Frenchman assumed the identity of a French-Canadian Marine named George Andrews, even though he didn't speak English. Their objective was the Vercors Plateau in the Haute Savoie region of southeastern France, where there was a large force of Maquis—French Résistance fighters. It was a natural fortress, 3,000 feet above sea level, 30 miles long and 12 miles wide, broken up by deep gorges and a series of long, high ridges. Few roads traversed the mastiff, making it easier to defend against road-bound armor and mechanized infantry.
Union II included a large supply drop, using almost 80 B-17s of the 388th Heavy Bombardment Group. The Flying Fortresses carried approximately 900 Type C cargo containers packed with weapons, ammunition, explosives, medical supplies, clothing and rations.
The team drew equipment and weapons: .45-cal. pistol and a Winchester folding stock carbine, Fairbairn stiletto and maps of the objective area. 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 ($1,000) and a small hip flask of "medicinal" cognac. Ortiz carried 1 million in francs for the Résistance. On 1 Aug. 1944, they attended the aircrew briefing and then boarded the aircraft. Each man flew in a separate plane. The bombers took off at 60-second intervals, climbed to an altitude of 17,000 feet and formed into three formations: high, middle and low. North American P-51 Mustang fighters took station to escort them to the drop zone.
10-18-04, 08:19 AM #2
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.
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