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STUTTGART, Germany — Movies can help bring heroic acts to life.

But for a few outnumbered Marines who held off a battalion of German soldiers and saved a French town, it wasn’t show biz and they weren’t actors.

“To be somewhere where Marines were actually on the ground, to see the place and talk to people who were actually there,” said Staff Sgt. Joseph Forbes, “there’s no substitute for that.”

Forbes was among a group of Marines from Marine Forces Europe Headquarters in Stuttgart that traveled last weekend to the French Alps to meet Sgt. Maj. John Bodnar, 82, and former Staff Sgt. Jack Risler, 83, and to watch the two veteran Marines be enrolled in the French Legion of Honor.

Bodnar and Risler were among seven Marines who 60 years ago parachuted into the region along with tons of supplies for French Resistance fighters. They then fought off German soldiers near the tiny village of Centron before cutting a deal: The U.S. Marines offered to surrender, and in exchange the Germans would spare the village.

The people of the Albertville-Annecy area are still showing their gratitude, hosting a party as they do every 10 years for the two surviving members of Operation Union II and for the family of the operation’s leader, the late Col. Peter Ortiz, whose life was immortalized in the movie “13 Rue Madeleine.”

The young Marines from Stuttgart said they were awed to spend time with their forebearers.

“It was an honor for us to meet the veterans who were there and hear their story,” said Forbes, 24, of Stockton, Calif., “but also to see we’re not the only ones who remember them.

“The town hall was named after Maj. Ortiz. It was definitely an honor for us to be there and see that.”

Remote Alpine villages such as Centron were strongholds of French Resistance at the time, but the Germans were nonetheless trying to control the larger, nearby cities, such as Albertville and Annecy.

On Aug. 1, 1944, the small team of Marines parachuted into Centron and were met by their French comrades. One of the Marines died when his parachute failed to open.

Two weeks later while on patrol, Ortiz, Bodnar and Risler were pinned down by the Germans. Knowing that the Germans had recently pillaged a nearby village, the Marines cut their deal with the enemy, and the village was spared.

The three Marines were rescued from a German prison camp eight months later.

“These Marines surrendered themselves at the mercy of the Germans in order to save a town,” said Staff Sgt. Rongalett Green, 32, of North Little Rock, Ark. “And this town is so thankful.

“It’s so easy to say you’ll sacrifice your life for someone, but when you’re put on the spot and have to do it, how many people would actually make the sacrifice and how many would run away.”

About 60 Marines and family members made the trip to France. Except for a few who were on orders for official business, they paid their own way to take part, according to Master Sgt. Phil Mehringer, an MFE spokesman.

The Stuttgart Marines said it was worth it.

“I’ll remember the amount of history that was standing right there in front of me,” said Sgt. John Cramer, 24, of Columbus, Ohio. “How many different experiences have they had that I can’t ever have?

“But I was able to share in it when they talked to me about it.”


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