Before WWII, Hollywood actor Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. was famous for his big screen heroics. But none of his celluloid adventures could match those he had as a WWII U.S. Navy commando.
Leading a team of maritime deception specialists called the Beach Jumpers, Fairbanks and his men were charged with raising hell with German coastal defenses throughout the Mediterranean Theater, and keep them off balance while the Allies planned the invasions of Sicily, Italy, and southern France.
When the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor launched the United States into the war, Fairbanks was already a seasoned covert operator. A close friend of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the actor often undertook sensitive diplomatic missions abroad for the Commander-in-Chief.
In 1940, Fairbanks was commissioned a lieutenant in the Naval Reserve. In 1942, after serving sea tours on everything from minesweepers to battleships, he was attached to British Admiral Lord Mountbatten’s Combined Operations (Commandos) Command in 1942.
Though attached to Mountbatten’s command as an observer, Fairbanks – already in his thirties – chose to undergo the physically rigorous British commando training.
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He also took part in several small, cross-channel raids. On one raid, he was allowed to command a British flotilla of amphibious landing craft used by the commandos. It was during these commando assaults that Fairbanks developed an interest in military deception operations.
Douglas Fairbanks: A Brash Officer with Brash Ideas
Reassigned to the United States in late 1942, Fairbanks – as brash a junior naval officer as he was a brash onscreen hero – pitched his idea for a U.S. Navy unit specializing in tactical cover, diversion, and deception operations to Admiral H. Kent Hewitt, commander of all U.S. amphibious forces and all American naval forces in North African and Mediterranean waters.
Hewitt loved the idea and took it to the Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. Ernest King. In March 1943, King issued a secret order to establish a force of 180 officers and 300 enlisted men for “prolonged, hazardous, distant duty for a secret project.”
Within weeks, Beach Jumper Unit 1 was stood up. The origins of the name Beach Jumper is unclear. One story maintains the moniker came from the unit’s mission to “scare the be-jesus out of the enemy,” and BJ led to the name Beach Jumpers. In a 1993 interview with the U.S. Naval Institute’s journal Proceedings, Fairbanks provided a much more mundane answer.
“It was a codename given by Mountbatten,” he said. “The idea was for it to be a cover name – partly descriptive – and a code name at the same time.”
Unfortunately, Fairbanks was too junior to command such a large unit. However, he was later appointed the Special Operations Officer to Captain Charles L. Andrews, commander of all Beach Jumper units, a position which made Fairbanks responsible for planning, training and supervising all Beach Jumper missions.
Intensive Commando Training: From Hollywood to Hero
The training Fairbanks organized for the Beach Jumpers included seamanship and small boat handling, gunnery, ordinance, demolitions and pyrotechnics. The Beach Jumpers were assigned 63-foot Air Sea Rescue (ASR) boats, lightly armed plywood vessels similar to the torpedo boats of the time. In addition to two twin-mounted .50 caliber machine guns, the Beach Jumper ASRs carried 3.5-inch rockets, smoke generators, and time-delayed floating explosive packets, as well as specialized deception equipment.
The latter consisted of a wire-recorder (precursor to the tape recorder), a 5-phase amplifier, 12-horn speakers, power generators, and ZKM and MK-6 naval balloons. The sound equipment was used to project the noise created by a large amphibious force—anchors dropping, landing craft engines revving up, even orders being shouted.
With radar reflecting material attached, the balloons would be dragged along by the boats. To enemy radar operators, the balloons looked like much larger naval ships. Later on in the war, the ASRs would also carry radar jamming equipment.
In theory, with such deception equipment, the Beach Jumpers could dupe the enemy into believing an amphibious landing was taking place in one location while, in reality, it was taking place in an entirely different location.
It wouldn’t be long before Beach Jumper Unit 1 would learn whether the theory held up in combat. Their first test would come in July 1943 as part of Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily.
Operation Husky: The First Combat
On July 11, one night after the initial invasion, Beach Jumper Unit 1 was ordered to conduct a diversion off of Sicily’s Cape San Marco, about 100 miles west of the landing beaches. The idea was to make the Germans believe a second landing was taking place. The Beach Jumper ASRs closed to 3,000 yards offshore and fired up their smoke generators and sound equipment. Search lights from Cape San Marco began probing the offshore waters, followed by machine gun and artillery fire. The ASRs fired back with their twin .50s and rockets. At 2:30 in the morning, they returned to their operating base with no casualties.
The next night, the Beach Jumpers did it again. This time the Germans were fully expecting an amphibious landing, and opened up with everything they had. The Beach Jumpers returned to base, again without a single casualty. The two night raids convinced the Germans a second Sicilian landing would take place, and they kept an entire reserve division in place, preventing it from attacking the real Husky beach head.
That was the first Beach Jumper action, but it wouldn’t be the last.
Fairbanks and the Beach Jumpers took part in diversionary missions for the invasion of Italy. Fairbanks earn a Silver Star, one of the country’s highest awards for gallantry, by leading a raiding party onto the Island of Ventotene and setting up picket position under heavy enemy fire.
Operation Dragoon: The Invasion of Southern France
Fairbanks took part in planning the diversionary tactics used in Operation Dragoon, the invasion of southern France, and was given command of one of the Beach Jumpers detachments taking part in the operation.
Again, the idea was to convince the Germans the landing would come somewhere other than the beaches of French Riviera surrounding St. Tropez. One Beach Jumper unit would simulate a large landing force approaching Marseilles; the other, commanded by Fairbanks, would do the same in the Nice-Cannes area. A portion of Fairbanks’ unit would break off and land a group of Free French commandos at Theoule to cut German communication lines.
The deception tactics worked as well for the invasion of southern France as it did for Operation Husky. However, what started as a deception ended as the largest naval engagement of the that invasion, when one of Fairbank’s ASR boats ran head-long into two much larger, and better armed German corvettes.
An Unexpected Battle at Sea
Fairbanks led his remaining boats straight into the enemy, guns and rockets firing, and generating smoke screens.
According to a citation for the Legion of Merit with a bronze V for valor, Fairbanks “courageously led the ships of his unit into action and, aggressively directing the combat operations with expert seamanship against heavy odds, greatly aided in the ultimate sinking of the two (German) vessels.”
As soon as the corvettes were sunk, Fairbanks organized the rescue of the German survivors.
For their action during the invasion of southern France, the Beach Jumpers earned a Presidential Unit Citation.
Beach Jumper units also served in the Pacific Theater of the war. Fairbanks, in fact, was working on deception tactics to use in the planned British retaking of Singapore when the war ended.
Beach Jumpers: Later Missions
With the war’s end, the Beach Jumpers were deactivated. They were reactivated, however, for the Korean War and also saw action in Vietnam. In 1986, the Beach Jumpers were renamed Fleet Tactical Deception Groups, and continue the work first envisioned by Fairbanks.
Douglas Fairbanks Jr. finished World War II as a lieutenant commander. He returned to Hollywood and continued his big screen and stage career. Fairbanks has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He eventually retired from the Naval Reserve as a captain, and died in May 2000 at the age of 90.
Naval History Magazine. “Hell of a War”: An Interview with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. (1993). U.S. Naval Institute. Accessed September 2, 2013.
U.S. Navy Beach Jumpers Association. Beach Jumpers: The Inception. (2005). Accessed September 2, 2013.
Naval History & Heritage. Biographies In Naval History: Commander Douglas Elton Fairbanks, Jr.USNR. Accessed September 2, 2013.
Dwyer, J. B. Seaborne Deception: The History of U.S. Navy Beach Jumpers. (1992). Greenwood Publishing Group.
Psywarrior. U.S. Navy Beach Jumpers. Accessed September 2, 2013.