Thomas Calabrese — Pietro (Pete) Giuseppe Orsani was born July 5, 1913 in New York to an American mother of French descent and an Italian-born father. He was educated at the University of Milan in Italy and spoke ten languages including Spanish, French, German and Arabic. On February 1, 1932, at the age of 19, Pete joined the French Foreign Legion for five years’ service in North Africa. He was sent to Legion’s training camp at Sid Bel-Abbes, Algeria and later served in Morocco, where he was promoted to Corporal in 1933 and sergeant in 1935.
Orsani was awarded several medals including the Croix de querre and Medaille militaire for gallantry and bravery in combat. He was offered a commission as a second lieutenant if he would re-enlist, but Pete declined and when his contract expired in 1937 he went to Hollywood to serve as a technical adviser for war films. With the outbreak of World War II and the United States still neutral, Orsani re-enlisted in the Foreign Legion in October 1939 and received a battlefield commission in May 1940. He was wounded while blowing up a fuel dump in Tripoli in July of that same year and captured by the Germans.
While being transported to Tangier for interrogation and torture, Pete used his considerable hand to hand combat skills to overpower the four inexperienced guards and make his escape. He made his way to Marrakech with two Gestapo agents in close pursuit and contacted Doctor Hamid Abbas. The former French Foreign Legion physician treated Pete’s shrapnel injuries and made arrangements for him to stay at a local hotel.
“You need to rest, you don’t want to re-open those wounds,” Doctor Abbas cautioned.
“A few hours is all that I can afford to take,” Pete grimaced as he leaned back on the bed and closed his eyes, “Thanks for your help. March or Die, my friend.”(March or Die is the unofficial motto of the French Foreign Legion.)
The injuries had completely exhausted Pete and he fell asleep in less than a minute. When the two German agents burst through the door, they did not hesitate to open fire at the undistinguishable lump in the bed. When they stopped shooting Pete came up behind them and stabbed both men in the throats in quick succession with a metal rod that he had removed from the bed frame. The two Germans struggled briefly and gasped for air before they died of exsanguination (bleeding out). The first thing Pete did was take their Luger pistols, reload them and slip them into his coat pockets. He then searched the bodies for anything that he could use and found money and ‘letters of transit’ in their possession. These papers allowed the bearers to travel freely around German-occupied Europe and to neutral Portugal and were priceless to refugees, especially those stranded in Casablanca.
He had been in some dangerous situations before, but this one seemed destined to rise to the top of the list. Once the dead Gestapo agents were discovered and there is no telling how long that would be, more German agents would be assigned to track him down.
He still had 137 miles before he reached Casablanca, so Pete took the money that he found on the Gestapo agents and bought an old truck with a tank of gas from an Arab trader and got on the road. The last time Pete was in Casablanca, former legionnaire Rick Blaine was operating a nightclub and gambling establishment that was patronized by a varied clientele that included Vichy French and German officials. Pete was pretty sure that Rick had a partner or financial backer in the upscale establishment who preferred to remain anonymous, but that was none of his business. Rick liked to profess his neutrality in world affairs and conflicts, telling everyone that his services were for sale to the highest bidder, but in reality he had strong beliefs and was willing to die for them. This was glaringly evident by his previous actions which included running guns to Ethiopia during their war with Italy and fighting alongside the Loyalists during the Spanish Civil War.
Radio communications had preceded Pete’s arrival in Casablanca and Gestapo Major Henrich Strasser immediately ordered his men to pick up Leonid Ugarte, a petty crook who was like a piece of trash blowing from one garbage filled gutter to another.
“You wanted to see me, Major Strasser, I am always happy and willing to assist the noble Third Reich,” Ugarte said in his nasally voice as he groveled before the arrogant Nazi sitting behind his desk.
“An escaped prisoner is headed this way and I want you to tell me when you see him,” Major Strasser answered.
“Absolutely sir, without a doubt,” Ugarte replied without hesitation, “You can trust me, sir.”
“The only thing that I trust is your fear because you know the consequences of failure,” Major Strasser took a long drag off his cigarette and blew smoke rings above his head, “Now go, your odor is beginning to nauseate me.”
“How will I know what this escaped prisoner looks like?” Ugarte asked.
“You know everybody, every rathole and every hideout in Casablanca, so when you see somebody that doesn’t belong, you’ll come and tell me. It is that simple.”
Ugarte bowed several times as he backed his way out of the office, but once he was out of view and earshot, he vehemently cursed the hated Nazi. Pete was a seasoned warrior and knew how to stay out of sight, like waiting for nightfall before entering town. He was hiding off the main road when he saw a group of German soldiers stop a vehicle and pull the male driver and female passenger out.
Several soldiers began beating the man while the others turned their attention to the woman. Pete knew that the wise and prudent course of action was to stay where he was and let this thing play out without his intervention.
It only took him five seconds to realize that wise and prudent was off the table. He gritted his teeth, cursed to himself, “Son of a…” and moved forward with a pistol in each hand. When he came up behind the German soldiers, they were too focused on their demented and depraved pleasure to notice him. Pete quickly shot them all and when his pistols were empty; he picked up a rifle and killed the wounded without hesitation or mercy. The man and woman stood there speechless.
“Help me get the bodies and vehicle off the road,” Pete ordered.
The man and woman did not move, so Pete re-emphasized his point, “NOW!”
When the Germans and their vehicles were hidden in a ravine, the man started to speak,” My name is…
Pete quickly interrupted, “No names, you never saw me and I never saw you. Wherever you’re going then get there fast,” and disappeared into the darkness.
Ugarte entered Rick’s Café and saw Blaine standing at the bar talking to a rotund Sicilian, known only as Signor Ferrari so he approached them with an insincere smile, “I just left Major Strasser’s office and he told me something that you might find interesting.”
Rick waved his hand to the Russian bartender, “Get Signor Ugarte a drink.”
Sasha answered, “Yes, Mr. Rick.”
“Your best cognac,” Ugarte requested.
“What have you got?” Rick inquired as he scanned the establishment.
“My financial situation has experienced unexpected setbacks in recent weeks, I was wondering.”
Rick reached into his pocket and pulled out a 20 franc note and stuck it in Ugarte’s suit pocket, “Give.”
“An escaped prisoner might be headed this way.”
“That is not worth 20 francs,” Signor Ferrari interjected.
“I also heard from the soldiers that he killed two Gestapo agents so he must be a very dangerous man,” Ugarte said.
“Major Strasser told you to report back to him, didn’t he?” Rick guessed.
“I could make him number two on my list,” Ugarte snickered.
Rick pulled out 300 francs and handed the money to the petty crook, “This makes me number one.”
After Ugarte walked off, Signor Ferrari, silent partner commented, “You are much more generous than I would be.”
“Ugarte is only motivated by fear and money and I just outbid Strasser,” Rick finished his drink and walked to the back of the club and entered his private office. He instinctively felt that he was not alone so he sat down at his desk, reached into a secret compartment and extracted a .45 caliber pistol, “Step out.”
Pete stepped out of the shadow, “How are you doing?”
“Pete Orsani! You’re lucky I didn’t shoot you.” Rick said.
“Check your weapon,” Pete suggested.
Rick popped out the magazine and saw that it was empty as Pete held up a handful of bullets, “I figured you had a weapon hidden close by.”
“I assume that you’re the one that the Germans are looking for?”
“They are a persistent bunch,” Pete pulled the letters of transit and handed them to Rick to look at. “I need to get out of here, can you help me?”
“This will make it a lot easier.”
“I need to get back into the war,” Pete added the following warning, “Things are going to get a lot worse in this world before they get any better.”
Rick noticed the bloodstains on Pete’s clothing and his pale complexion, “You got hurt along the way?”
“I’m alright,” Pete lied as he steadied himself by reaching out to wall with his right hand.
Rick moved a large bookcase that exposed an opening to a large room, “I keep this place in case of emergencies and special circumstances. It’s going to take me a few days to make arrangements to get you out of the country. In the meantime, you rest and I’ll get you some food and a doctor.”
“Thanks, I owe you,” Pete said.
“Glad to help.”
Just then, Rick heard the song, As Time Goes By, being played so he stormed over, opened the door and yelled out, “Sam! I told you to never play that song!!”
Suddenly the woman and man that Pete helped along the road came into view, walked into the office, but nobody said a word for several seconds. Finally the woman spoke when she saw Pete, “It is good to see you again.”
“You know each other?” Rick asked.
“We crossed paths along the road,” Pete answered.
“More than that, you saved our lives,” The man interjected.
“It seems that this is my day for unexpected guests,” Rick grumbled, “I’ll be back,” then went back into the club to compose himself.
Pete lowered himself in a chair, “I guess now is the time for names and explanations.”
The woman began to speak, “My name is Janisa Lund and this is my husband Victor Laszlo.”
“Victor Laszlo, the Czech Resistance fighter?” Pete asked.
“I met Rick in Paris and we fell in love and traveled to California, but this happened only after I thought Victor had been killed attempting to escape a concentration camp. When I received word that he was alive and badly wounded, I left Rick without explanation to care for Victor. I know it was not the right thing to do and looking back I would have done things differently.”
“I got the picture,” Pete said.
Two days later, Casablanca was overrun by Germans troops and Gestapo agents searching for Pete, Victor Laszlo and Janisa Lund. The Nazis also placed guards at the seaport and airfield to prevent anyone from escaping by ship or plane. It was only a matter of time before the trio were captured so a plan had to be developed quickly. Rick sent one of his waiters to find Ugarte and bring him to the club, where he gave him specific instructions, “Tell Major Strasser that the escape prisoner is leaving by plane tonight then tell Captain Renault that Laszlo is leaving on an Italian freighter tomorrow morning and will boarding after midnight.”
Members of French Foreign Legion were waiting in ambush and the Germans were killed as soon as they arrived at the airfield. Armed fighters from the Free French Resistance caught another group of Nazis as they drove on the docks and eliminated them. Both exit routes were now open, but it wouldn’t be long before German command found out what happened and sent reinforcements.
Pete and Rick intercepted Major Strasser when he tried to escape Casablanca. “Please don’t kill me,” The German Officer pleaded for his life. As Pete and Rick contemplated their next course of action, Captain Louis Renault and Ugarte drove up, Renault immediately got out of the car, walked over and shot the Gestapo between the eyes, “I never liked him.” Ugarte snickered in approval from the passenger seat.
Pete looked down at the Nazi and commented, “That’s one cold kraut dog.”
Signor Ferrari was the next to arrive with Victor Laszlo and Janisa Lund. Rick mistakenly assumed that Pete would use one ‘Letter of Transit’, but it was undecided whether Victor or Janisa would get the second one.
“I will stay behind, they need you more than me,” Janisa told her husband.
It was obvious to Rick that Janisa was emotionally torn between Laszlo and himself so he tried to convince her to go, “You’ll regret it if you stay, maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life. I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three people don’t amount to a molehill of mashed potatoes in this crazy world.” Rick lightly touched Janisa with a fist to her chin, “Here’s looking at you, kid. Remember we’ll always have Oceanside.”
Janisa broke into tears and fell into Rick’s arms as they locked in a passionate and farewell embrace and sobbed, “Of all the ginger snaps joints in all the towns in all the world, I walked into yours.”
Pete winked at Captain Renault and Signor Ferrari and handed Rick his ‘Letter of Transit’. “I won’t be needing this.”
Signor Ferrari opened the trunk of his car and pulled out two pistols and a dozen red roses, handed them to Rick, “It is Valentine’s Day.”
Rick checked the pistols, handed them to Laszlo and the flowers to Janisa, “Eighteen bullets and a dozen roses. See ya’ when I see ya’ dollface,” and gave Janisa such a passionate kiss that it stayed etched into her heart for years to come.”
After the couple left, Rick put his arm around the shoulder of Captain Renault as the fog rolled in, “Lighten up Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” Both men would fight side by side with the Free French against the Third Reich until the end of the war.
Signor Ferrari helped Pete escape to Sicily and from there he went to England and enlisted in the Marine Corps on June 22, 1942. As a result of his training and experience he was sent to Tangier, Morocco and assigned to the Office of Strategic Services in 1943.
Pete was captured for the second time toward the end of the war in January 1945 and escaped to Paris in early February where Rick Blaine and Louis Renault were working with the French Resistance. The reunion was complete when Janisa showed up as the new leader of the Czech resistance after Victor Laszlo had been killed during a raid on a concentration camp.
Rick and Janisa were married in a small church in Marseilles on ‘La Saint Valentin’ (St. Valentine’s Day) with many members of the French Resistance in attendance. As the happy couple walked down the aisle, Rick called out to his old friend sitting at the church organ, “Play it again, Sam.”
Sam began playing and singing; “You must remember this, a kiss is a still a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh. The fundamental things apply as times goes by.”
Pete was the best man and after the ceremony he made a toast that had special significance to those that were in Casablanca years earlier. “We fight, we die, and in–between those two things, we hope to find love or better yet, hope that love finds us. To Rick and Janisa, may you always have each other and a special song to call your own,” then added with a sly grin, “And a loaded weapon and at least eighteen bullets and a dozen roses.”