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Navy Legend: Navy Capt. Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

Off screen, dashing film star contributed talent for naval deception to WWII effort

By Bethanne Kelly Patrick
Military.com Columnist
Military.com Image
Fairbanks receives the Legion of Merit for his World War II service. (U.S. Navy Beach Jumpers)

Dashing, 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.

Fairbanks 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.

Fairbanks' 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.

Under 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 II.

At the 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."

However, 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."

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. died on May 7, 2000, at the age of 90.

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