handsome, and connected, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. had a well-established
movie career in 1939. He could easily have spent the war
years starring in light-hearted entertainments. Instead,
he combined political activism with active-duty military
service in the U.S. Navy, and was instrumental in bringing
special tactical deception methods to U.S. naval operations.
came from Hollywood royalty and had friends in high places,
including President Franklin Roosevelt, who in 1941 appointed
Fairbanks as special envoy to South America, where he
gathered intelligence. In the late 1930s, at the height
of American isolationism, he helped Adlai Stevenson organize
the William Allen White Committee that lobbied for U.S.
entry into the war. Six months before Pearl Harbor, he
obtained a commission in the Naval Reserve.
support of intervention was doubtless strengthened by
his lifelong Anglophile sympathies. He was a great favorite
of several British royals, and King George VI was to give
him an honorary knighthood for "furthering Anglo-American
amity." His ties to England were knotted tight when he
was assigned to an officer exchange program under British
Adm. Lord Louis Mountbatten. Lt. Fairbanks trained with
the Royal Navy at the HMS Tormentor Advanced Training
and Amphibious Operations Base and at the Commando Training
School at Ancharry Castle, Scotland. He learned the art
of naval deception and brought its skills and philosophy
with him to his next assignment at Virginia Beach.
the command of Adm. Kent Hewitt, Fairbanks suggested that
a unit of specialists such as those he had trained with
might aid in the deployment of U.S. Naval forces in North
Africa and the Mediterranean. The suave Fairbanks helped
Hewitt sell the idea in Washington, and in 1943 the Beach
Jumper program was begun. Although Fairbanks was not senior
enough to command the unit, he was assigned to develop,
supervise, and coordinate all plans with the British.
The Beach Jumpers created and sustained the illusion that
a military landing was happening at one beach -- when
in reality, that landing was taking place at a completely
different location. These units had great success at Sicily,
Salerno, Southern France, and the Philippines during World
war's end, Fairbanks was working on schemes to support
the scheduled British landings at Singapore. He retired
from the reserve as a captain in 1954. He wrote an enormously
entertaining book about his wartime experience, "A Hell
of A War."
his truest feelings about his patriotic service may be
best expressed in his words to a journalist in 1990. After
forming the White Committee, he and his family received
several death threats. "Why did I do it," said Fairbanks.
"I can only describe it with words that are considered
rather corny these days: conviction, conscience, doing
what I thought was right, the hell with the results."
Fairbanks Jr. died on May 7, 2000, at the age of 90.
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