Service Info
Historical History...Continued

Specialist in Diversion | Part 1 2 Image
"The Evening Visit" by naval artist Albert K. Murray. A U.S. landing force comes under enemy air attack off Saint-Tropez during the August 1944 landings in southern France. Fairbanks' noisy little naval unit kept much of the Germans' attention elsewhere. Credit: U.S. Naval Photographic Center

WWII: Was any of this inspired by your film experience?

Fairbanks: Very likely. Early European movies had done many camera tricks, among them having midgets in the background to give the illusion of greater distance. I wasn't aware of it at the time, but I may have subconsciously recalled those techniques for playing with perspective.

WWII: While you engaged in this diversion, I think you got a surprise of your own, didn't you?

Fairbanks: That's right. At 5:40 a.m., we were just retiring when one of our air-sea rescue craft, ASRC-21, reported an enemy hull on the horizon, and that she herself was under fire. I sent a PT-boat ahead and rushed to her aid as fast as those gunboats could go--only about 10 knots--while reporting the situation to Admiral Hewitt's headquarters ship, Catoctin, and radioing Endicott to come to our assistance. At 6:10, we opened fire on the enemy ships, which turned out to be two corvettes: Unterseebootjäger-6083, which had formerly been the Italian Capriolo, and Kemid Allah, a former Egyptian khedivial yacht that had been purchased by the Germans and converted to a warship with two radar-controlled 88mm guns. Commanded by Lt. Cmdr. Hermann Pollenz, they had just left Toulon and were en route to Marseille when they ran into us.

WWII: What did you do?

Fairbanks: Not much. Besides learning very quickly that we were outclassed by the enemy, I learned from my gunnery officer that our guns were overheated and would need a few minutes before they'd be fit to fire again. I ordered our MLs to screen us as best as they could, and we circled around in the smoke while the enemy's accurate gunfire straddled us ever closer. The radar of both gunboats was shot away, but we fired back with our small anti-aircraft guns.

WWII: In the heat of the action, I suppose your fear had been overcome by the need to fight and to survive?

Fairbanks: No. Indeed, I was still terrified. I had a way of disguising it--somewhat--with a forced show of good spirits. Usually, only I knew that my lighthearted banter was my own private form of hysteria. I'd also deliberately drop my helmet, my binoculars and whatever other objects I could on the deck in order to have an excuse for ducking the next salvo of flying metal. Fortunately, Aphis' skipper was as calm as if he were on a peaceful exercise. Although damaged, the two gunboats had not taken any casualties thus far. At last the gunnery officer announced that our 6-inch guns were cool enough to use again. Then, when we emerged through a thin spot in the smoke screen, we found ourselves at right angles across the bows of the oncoming Germans--"crossing the enemy's T." It was a classic maneuver accomplished through sheer luck. I don't recall whether or not I gave the order, but in any case, Aphis fired a point-blank salvo without the benefit of any targeting device, and by golly, we scored a direct hit on the Uj-6083, while Scarab scored a damaging near-miss. Uj-6083 began to list, while Kemid Allah seemed to hesitate.

WWII: Didn't the destroyer Endicott arrive to help you out?

Fairbanks: Yes, but it was really all over by that time. Admiral Bulkeley and I didn't always agree on what happened. But as I recall, Endicott arrived in time to strike Kemid Allah a mortal blow. Kemid Allah's ammunition began to explode, and she went down at 7:09. After launching two torpedoes at Endicott, which missed, Uj-6083 finally sank at 8:30. Endicott rescued 169 German survivors, while Aphis and Scarab picked up another 41.

WWII: Did the Germans have anything to say about the action?

Fairbanks: They were too scared to talk. They were mostly kids, who had been taught by their propaganda that we were going to torture them and pull their fingernails out...all sorts of things. They were just scared to death. I witnessed one exceptional incident during the rescue. As you may know, when an officer is coming aboard a naval ship he is supposed to salute the quarterdeck first thing. Well, as a German lieutenant commander was being pulled aboard, he gave a "Heil Hitler" to the quarterdeck. So our chief petty officer (CPO) stuck his foot in the German's middle and pushed him overboard. The CPO then called down in his richest cockney: "Naow, none of that there 'ere! You come back up and do it proper-like--or back in you bloody well go agayn!"

WWII: The German obeyed?

Fairbanks: Yes, he did. He was furious, but he gave the proper naval salute.

WWII: Were you ever decorated for that action?

Fairbanks: For that and other related actions. The Navy awarded me the Combat Legion of Merit with a gold V "for valor" attached to the ribbon. In July 1945, General Charles de Gaulle, on behalf of the French, made me a Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur and also awarded me the Croix de Guerre avec Palme for my role in landing the first Free French troops to return to French soil. I also received the British Distinguished Service Cross, a high "combat only" decoration unusual for any foreigner to get. Soon after that, I got a telegram that read: "Just heard about your British decoration. Well done, dear chap. Suggest that it is enough. This can be overdone...David Niven."

WWII: What happened after Operation Dragoon?

Fairbanks: I was called back to Washington before taking up my next assignment, which was to join Mountbatten in India for the invasion of Singapore and to take part in two or three special operations out there. From there, I was supposed to join in the invasion of Japan.

WWII: What were you doing on the day the Japanese finally surrendered?

Fairbanks: I was still in Washington, just on my way out to India. After V-J Day, I took part in some conferences on postwar planning, deciding what sort of governments the Germans and the Japanese should have--helping to draft outlines for new constitutions and so forth. The chairman of the committee for formulating surrender policies, Eugene S. Dooman of the State Department, gave me some credit while recounting his activities for the Senate Judiciary Committee in September 1951. He said, in part: "...I would like to put on record here that the preamble for the Potsdam Declaration was taken from a document prepared by Douglas Fairbanks, who was then in the Navy Department in the Psychological Warfare Department." "Who?" chimed up someone on the committee. "You mean that actor?" Once Dooman had established my identity to the skeptical committee members, one senator was overheard to say, "Good God!"

WWII: How much longer did you remain in the fulltime Navy?

Fairbanks: I stayed in until the first of the year 1946, not sure what I was going to do. When you're away from the public eye for more than three years, whether it's politics, theater, movies or television, you depend on public support for your job. I was willing to consider staying in the Navy or the State Department--if I could!

WWII: So what made you change your mind and decide to return to films?

Fairbanks: Economics, plain and simple. And an offer out of the blue that I didn't think I'd ever get. I'd given up--I hadn't made a movie since The Corsican Brothers in mid-1941. Then, suddenly, an offer came to do Sinbad the Sailor, and I thought, "They must be out of their damned minds!" So I decided to make it tough for them. I said, "I'm less interested in the money; I'm interested up to a point, but I'd like to have a certain amount of production power, to share in and determine production decisions, and have a say about the script, and so forth." And they said yes to everything! I got to be a sort of co-producer (without the title), and I had a say on the script. The picture went on to be a big, whopping success, which I didn't really expect.

WWII: So you went from being a sailor in the U.S. Naval Reserve to Sinbad the Sailor in the movies?

Fairbanks: Yes, and I do recall a few jokes being made of it at the time. I never left the USNR, though. I just serve symbolically now in the Inactive Reserve. Once every two years I put on the uniform and appear somewhere, lay a wreath or something.

WWII: How were you received by your acting colleagues upon your return from the service?

Fairbanks: When I went back to California, I was reminded that you should never be out of the public eye for more than three years and that if you haven't been up on all the news in Hollywood, you've been away too long. Nobody wanted to know anything about what I'd been doing, except for a couple of old friends and members of my family. A few days before I was demobilized, my wife, Mary Lee, and I attended a dance being given by skating star Sonja Henie. It was my first party since my return, and I was still obliged to wear my uniform for a few more days. Suddenly, I spotted an old friend, at the far end of the dance floor...and she saw me. I hadn't seen her in years. She came clattering up, embraced me warmly, and then said: "Darling! I suppose you haven't heard--you don't know--I'm no longer with MGM. I'm with Warner Brothers now!" It was amusing to me--made me smile--to see that so many out there were only interested in what was going on in Hollywood.

For further reading on Douglas Fairbanks' wartime career, senior editor Jon Guttman recommends Fairbanks' new autobiography, A Hell of a War, published by St. Martin's Press.'s History Archive

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