When actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr. began his World War II military service, he yearned to do more. British Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, a longtime friend of the family, gave him this opportunity.
As Chief of Combined Operations overseeing British Commando Warfare, Mountbatten ran an officer exchange program where they learned about explosives, deceptive tactics and the art of misdirection. Originally commissioned at a junior lieutenant rank in the U.S. Naval Reserve, Fairbanks was invited to participate and was captivated.
After returning to the United States, Fairbanks floated the idea of a similar program for the United States military. The suggestion was endorsed by Admiral H. Kent Hewitt and the powers that be in Washington, leading to a letter soliciting 180 officers and 300 enlisted men for a new program posted at naval bases and some U.S. college campuses in 1943.
“Navy requests volunteers for extended, dangerous and remote service for a secret project”, the ad said.
While Fairbanks has appeared in around 100 films — including “The Prisoner of Zenda,” “Gunga Din” and “The Corsican Brothers” — his role in creating the Beach Jumpers was probably the most impactful he’s ever had. Considered a precursor to the Navy SEALs, the Beach Jumpers used tactical cover and deceptive practices in military operations. They would make it look like an amphibious landing was happening in one place, when the actual target site was somewhere else. In the process, the enemy’s attention and resources were diverted, costing him valuable time and leading to confusion.
To do this, the Beach Jumpers used tools to facilitate their deception, including:
- Smoke generators
- Roman candles that could be thrown in water to mimic firearm flashes
- Radar jamming equipment
- 25-foot-long metal-covered balloons to thwart radar operators
- Delayed explosives
The BJs were also playing recorded noises that simulated an invasion.
“I created the [invasion sound] effects by recording boat engines, bos’n [boatswain] whistles, tank engines from a nearby army training site, [and even] anchor chain noises pulling a chain over the edge of an old bucket,” said Navy radioman Bob Rainie.
The Beach Jumpers, who trained on Ocracoke Island in North Carolina, were assigned air-sea rescue (ASR) boats that can carry one officer and six sailors. However, they weren’t big enough to carry much ammunition, which made the need for deception all the more vital.
Because his rank was not high enough, Fairbanks could not command the Beach Jumpers. Instead, he was made a special operations officer and tasked with coordinating all plans with the British.
The Beach Jumpers were first deployed during Operation Husky, the Allied invasion of Sicily which began in July 1943. The Beach Jumper-1 (BJU-1) unit was tasked with creating a diversion off Cape San Marco, 100 miles west of the planned landing. Region. Although the mission was delayed a day due to dangerous seas, it was successful and was credited with distract an entire German reserve division.
A year later, three BJ units received the Presidential Unit Citation for their involvement in Operation Dragoon, the invasion of southern France. Their mission was to make it look like the landings could happen anywhere from Marseille, France to Genoa, Italy, about 250 miles away. Seventy officers and 400 sailors were assigned to a task force of 40 ships divided equally into two diversion groups.
Operation Dragoon, often referred to as D-Day 2, began on August 15, 1944.
“The day before the dragoon invasion, Fairbanks, stationed aboard the British gunboat Aphis, conducted diversions against targets on the east coast between Genoa and Cannes,” according to a 2018 article in World War II magazine. “Four of his PT boats simultaneously landed Free French commandos at Deux Frères, a coastal promontory near Cannes. At 2:00 a.m., with the commandos ashore, Fairbanks’ flotilla swung west to join the other diversionary party.
Even though the Allies disagreed on Operation Dragoon — British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was against – the four-week mission liberated most of the region, opened key ports and inflicted heavy casualties on German troops.
Eleven Beach Jumper units were deployed around the world during World War II. Shortly after the war, all BJUs were deactivated, although they were involved later in the Korean and Vietnam Wars, as well as the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Cold War. The public was not made aware of the existence of the Beach Jumpers until John Barry Dwyer’s 1992 book, “Seaborne Deception: The History of U.S. Navy Beach Jumpers”.
None of the Beach Jumpers who participated in World War II are alive today, according to the US Navy Beach Jumpers Association.
Fairbanks, who returned to the Naval Reserve after World War II and retired as a captain in 1954, became a highly decorated service member and was known as the “father of beach jumpers”. While Fairbanks lived an eclectic life before he died in 2000 at the age of 90, he had a particular fondness for his time in the military.
“I would put it very high, very high indeed,” Fairbanks told the American Naval Institute in 1993.
— Stephen Ruiz can be reached at [email protected].
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