CAPT Douglas Fairbanks Jr., USN
December 9, 1909 – May 7, 2000
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.
10 December 2022 at 07:24
Still another Hollywood celebrity who showed their devotion and dedication to country.
Thank you, Mario, for this history lesson.
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12 December 2022 at 19:54
While doing research at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library in Hyde Park, New York, I found one of FDR’s files on Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. Unfortunately, due to the schedule my wife and I were trying to keep, we didn’t have the time to dig into that particular file, nor to photograph its contents.
My late mother was an admirer of Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.
By the way: Then Captain Henry Kent Hewitt was commanding officer of USS INDIANAPOLIS when she carried FDR on his “Good Neighbor” trip to South America, 18 November to 15 December 1936. Then Admiral H. Kent Hewitt headed the Navy’s Hewitt Inquiry into Pearl Harbor in early 1945. What I believe to be phony daily communications intelligence summaries, allegedly from Station HYPO in the 14th Naval District, were introduced into evidence, initially by the Hewitt Inquiry and also by its Army counterpart, the Clausen Investigation, headed by Lieutenant Colonel Henry C. Clausen for Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson. Photostatic copies of what purportedly are the original Com14 daily C.I. summaries were made Exhibit 115 of the Joint Congressional Committee’s investigation into Pearl Harbor, see PHA17, pp. 2601-2642. (For those interested, I can furnish the Pearl Harbor Attack Hearings part numbers for the volumes and also page numbers for these summaries from these 3 investigations. Those furnished to the JCC as Exhibit 115, are photostatic copies of the “original” documents.)
Interesting history here, Mario! Thanks for making this information available!
(P.S. Debbie and I returned to our home on Molokai about 2030, Hawaiian time, Saturday, 10 Dec. 2022. I will be sending Mario a copy of the Lankford/Rochefort statement previously mentioned via email later today, Monday, 12 December 2022.)
P.O. Box 166
Maunaloa (Molokai), Hawaii 96770