This was in the Daily Media Report that goes out to people that work for the Marine Corps. I have family the work at Quantico, and was lucky enough to get this in an email today. It’s a hell of a story.
France gives a U.S. Marine a top honor
John Bodnar, who trained the French Resistance during WWII, received the Legion of Honor award.
By Cynthia J. McGroarty
In the middle of a bright afternoon in August 1944, Sgt. John Bodnar found himself perched at the door of a B-17 bomber, staring down at a patch of hard alpine earth. Within seconds, he would fly out into the mountain air and plummet to a spot 400 feet below.
Surviving the jump would be tough enough – it was an absurdly low altitude for parachuting out of a plane – but the mission ahead would be downright perilous. Bodnar and six other Americans were to work behind enemy lines to arm and train local pockets of the French Resistance, or Maquis, in territory crawling with almost 4,000 German troops.
Bodnar would live to tell his gripping tale – one with all the elements of a cinematic war story – and would be heavily decorated for his service. This month, 60 years after his participation in the military operation known as Union II, he received the Legion of Honor award in France.
“The top honor; it’s hard to believe,” Bodnar, a retired sergeant major and resident of Collegeville, said last week about receiving the prestigious medal, the highest French military and civilian award.
Bodnar, 81, and his wife, Margaretta, traveled to the area of Col des Saisies for the ceremony. There, they were greeted by a ceremonial parachute jump and a gaggle of adoring residents, they said, some of whom were alive in 1944 when Bodnar and his companions, and more than 150 tons of weapons and ammunition, dropped out of the sky.
The reception that day long ago was less conspicuous but equally jubilant, Bodnar recalled. As soon as he smacked the ground, a young female Resistance fighter ran up, helped him out of his parachute, and gave him a sturdy hug and kiss.
“I thought to myself, ‘Oh my god, I’m gonna like this,’ ” he quipped.
But already the mission had begun to go wrong. As Bodnar was about to find out, one of the seven men who had jumped from the B-17s, Sgt. Charles Perry, died on impact when his parachute did not open. Another, Sgt. Robert La Salle, was too badly injured to carry on.
Bodnar’s story really goes back to his days in Coatesville, where he grew up. When he was 10, his father died, leaving a wife and three sons. While Bodnar’s two brothers went off to work in the steel mill, Bodnar had other plans after graduation from Coatesville High School.
“I wanted to go to college really bad,” he said.
Money was short, so when a Marine neighbor on leave suggested that he enlist and save up his military wages, Bodnar assented.
He was stationed in Bermuda until the attack on Pearl Harbor, and was then transferred to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, where he attended parachute school and became a parachute instructor.
In 1943, he met Maj. Peter Ortiz, a Marine enrolled in his parachute class. Ortiz had been raised and educated in France. He had already seen combat, being wounded and captured during service in the French Foreign Legion.
When Ortiz asked him whether he would like to go to France, Bodnar said, “I was so happy. I thought this was a great thing.
“Of course, I had no idea what was going to take place.” He was 22.
Union II was an Office of Strategic Services operation designed mainly to help eradicate Nazi troops from the Alpine region of France, said Maj. Steve White, a Marine Forces Europe officer stationed in Germany who is writing a biography of Ortiz.
Allies were poised to land in Normandy and push down from the north. With help from the French Resistance, they intended to force the Germans from other areas of the country as well, White said.
Ortiz had already spent months in France and determined the plan was viable.
“It was one of the largest daylight drops that happened at that time,” White said, noting that the planes dropped 864 containers of weapons and other supplies into the area.
Each of the seven mission members flew in a separate plane. The jump altitude was so low that it rendered a reserve chute useless, White said.
It also made impact more treacherous, Bodnar said: “I knew I had to land on my feet so I wouldn’t break any bones.”
Bodnar and his teammates spent the next few weeks moving through the region, arming and training the Maquis. But their presence soon became known to the Germans through a French spy, and a number of armed engagements ensued. One such firefight around the town of Montgirod resulted in casualties for several Resistance fighters, who were given sanctuary by the townspeople in a church.
The Americans escaped, Bodnar said, and later that night, from a location across the river, they watched the Nazis burn the town and kill many of its residents. “They even killed the animals,” he said.
While moving through the town of Centron a few days later, the Americans and their French liaison, Jo Jo Arcelin, were taken by surprise by German troops. Two Americans escaped by jumping in the river, while Arcelin ran into an orchard, Bodnar said.
The three remaining Marines fought off about 100 Germans for 90 minutes, he said. With little ammunition left and no hope for escape, Ortiz decided to bargain with the enemy, but not before offering Bodnar and Sgt. Jack Risler the chance to escape the area.
“We said, ‘Major, we’re Marines, and whatever you decide is all right with us. We’re not going to run away and leave you,’ ” Bodnar recalled.
Ortiz, who spoke German, told the Nazi commander that he and his men would give up if the town were spared the same fate as Montgirod. At the time, Bodnar said, the Nazis believed the Americans numbered many more than three and were somewhat surprised and annoyed to find out otherwise.
Bodnar and the others were transported through Italy and Austria and finally incarcerated in a POW camp near Bremen, Germany, where they met up with Arcelin. They were liberated by British troops the following April.
Bodnar stayed in the Marines until 1972, fighting again in Korea and Vietnam, where he served two tours.
“John thinks, eats and sleeps Marine Corps. If he could join again tomorrow, he would go in,” Margaretta Bodnar said.