Stars in the Sicilian campaign: Douglas Fairbanks Jr

The transition of Douglas Fairbanks Jr from Hollywood action hero to combat veteran was completed off the coast of Sicily near Gela in the early hours of 10 July 1943.

Among those on the deck of Admiral Henry Hewitt‘s flagship USS Monrovia in the darkness before dawn, Fairbanks had spent the previous evening coaching Seventh Army commander General George Patton how to deliver an inspiring speech to men preparing for what might be their final act in life.

His real job was to direct the operations of Beach Jumpers, teams in fast-boats that were to mount diversionary landings while the real attacks were taking place.

There was to be a double frustration for Fairbanks.

He was told that he wouldn’t be part of the operation itself and would have to stay on the Monrovia while it was happening. The second was that the planned diversions were eventually postponed because of bad weather.

Fairbanks still wanted to play a part and came ashore after the landings had taken place. He arrived with the British liaison officer Gerald Butler on a deserted beach that they later learned had been mined.

Born in New York in 1909, Fairbanks was the only child of Douglas Fairbanks, then an unknown theatre actor, and his first wife Anna Sully. Fairbanks Sr and his family moved to Los Angeles in 1915 to work in Hollywood. By 1918, he was a popular movie actor due to his athleticism and exciting leading roles. After divorcing Sully, Fairbanks Sr married Mary Pickford in 1920 and the couple became Hollywood legends.

Fairbanks Jr was raised by his mother in New York, Paris and Los Angeles where he got his first movie contract aged 14 in 1923. He managed the transition from child star to leading man and the introduction of sound. By the end of the 1930s, Fairbanks was one of Hollywood’s biggest stars.

Less well-remembered is his work promoting the US in Latin American, France and the UK for President Roosevelt with whom he was a lasting friend. Later in his life, Fairbanks said he wished he had been a diplomat.

Believing America had to confront Hitler, Fairbanks volunteered for the US Navy Reserve in 1940 and was made an officer despite his lack of university education. He served in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean until July 1942 when he was assigned for three months to the Combined Operations Commando Headquarters in London where met met Lord Louis Mountbatten, forging a bond that was to last for the rest of Mountbatten’s life.  After training in Scotland, Fairbanks was appointed to command amphibious raiding craft in raids across the English Channel.

Inspired by his experiences with British special forces, Fairbanks presented his idea for a unit to conduct diversionary and deception missions to US commander-in-chief Admiral Ernest King who approved it. Admiral Hewitt, commander of amphibious forces and US Naval Forces in the Mediterranean, was put in charge.

Beach Jumper unit 1 was assembled at the amphibious training Base at Camp Bradford, Virginia on 16 March. It was assigned 10 double-hulled air-sea rescue (ASR) boats. They were equipped with machine guns, window rockets, smoke-making equipment and floating time-delay explosive packs. They also carried electronic radar deception equipment and later acquired jamming transmitters.

BJ1’s first operation was off Cape San Marco 100 miles west of the Husky landing area. Despite the aborted operation on the morning of 10 July, the formation continued to work in the Mediterranean including in the invasion of southern France in August 1944.

Fairbanks returned to the US and finally served as liaison between the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the State Department.  His naval service ended in February 1946 but he remained in the reserve until 1954. Fairbanks’ decorations for wartime service included the US Silver Star and the British Distinguished Service Cross.

Fairbanks initially struggled to revive his career but continued to get theatre work and star in and make films until the 1980s. An Anglophile and knighted, he lived in the UK from the early 1950s until 1973 when he moved to Palm Beach in Florida. Fairbanks died in Hollywood in 2000 aged 90.

This article is part of a series about the 80th anniversary of the landings in Sicily in 1943.


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