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The six-man OSS force, (left to right) John Bodnar, Pete Ortiz, Robert LaSalle, Fritz Brunner, Frank Coolidge (Army) and Jack Risler, who survived the jump into France for Operation Union II, gathered near Savoie in August 1944. (Photo courtesy of Jack Risler)
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.