From film to real-life hero


Naval officer: While many knew Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as dashing silent screen star, fewer know his wartime role.

May 27, 2000|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Most audiences know Douglas Fairbanks Jr. only as the suave 1930s movie star with chiseled good looks and pencil-thin mustache, dressed in elegantly cut double-breasted Savile Row lounge suits, rather than his career during World War II as a U.S. Navy officer who commanded two British gunboats during the invasion of southern France in 1944.

Fairbanks, who died earlier this month, was born into Hollywood royalty as the son of the legendary swashbuckler, Douglas Fairbanks Sr., who thrilled silent screen audiences with his heroic roles and dashing good looks.

He was also the stepson of Mary Pickford -- "America's Sweetheart" to her legions of fans -- whose Hollywood home, Pickfair, was a mecca for the film colony's stars, producers, directors and studio moguls.

During the war, the younger Fairbanks served in both the Atlantic and the Mediterranean under his old friend, Adm. Lord Louis Mountbatten, and was the first American officer to command a British flotilla of raiding craft.

The tactical goal of the amphibious invasion of southern France, code name Anvil, was to relieve pressure on Allied forces fighting in Normandy and to capture German forces in a sweeping assault.

The naval craft assigned for the assault included two ancient gunboats, the Aphis and Scarab, under Fairbanks' command, four motor gunboats, 12 U.S. Navy PT boats and the American destroyer Endicott under the command of John D. Bulkeley the Medal of Honor winner who earlier in the war had spirited Gen. Douglas MacArthur to safety in a high-speed PT boat maneuver through Japanese lines.

Positioning his gunboats along the coastline between Cannes and Nice in advance of the main task force in the pre-dawn hours of Aug. 14, 1944, Fairbanks' objective was to trick the Germans in an elaborate "feint," as he described the mission, of an invasion fleet steaming toward Genoa.

The attack begins

However, the tension of the moment did have a somewhat comic element.

"Early on I had located the exact targets of our two gunboats' bombardment and I took care -- disgraceful care -- to avoid hitting the houses of people I knew," Fairbanks wrote in his 1988 memoir, "A Hell of a War."

On the day of the invasion, Aug. 15, Fairbanks' craft moved in to bomb their designated land targets, risking mines and enemy fire determined to sink them.

Two German warships began making for the Aphis and the Scarab, which had managed to hide under a smoke screen. With their radar shot away and electric power gone, Fairbanks made a desperate call to Bulkeley for assistance.

"For Christ's sake, hurry up! We're in a bloody pickle," he said.

"With shrapnel bursting around us like confetti, we continued to lead our little pack of moving targets in greater figure-eights. Some of our ships sustained damage but, thank God, none of our people did.

"Continuing to disguise my terror while still on the Aphis' bridge, and supposedly in command of our task unit, I deliberately kept dropping things on the deck -- my helmet, my binoculars, for example -- behind the ship's uncanny captain. This meant, of course, that I would have to bend down and pick up whatever it was in the shameful hope that the next bit of flying metal would hit something or someone besides me," he wrote.

Rescue arrives

Steaming out of the smoke screen, Fairbanks gave an order to shoot and the Aphis made a direct hit on an enemy destroyer while the Scarab managed to damage the plates on another destroyer.

"Stunned by our accidental success, we saw great flashes and explosions all around on first one, then the other, enemy ship. By God, again like the old stories of the cavalry to the rescue, our fast guarding `tin can,' Endicott, came pounding in, her several 5-inch guns blazing. Once more, good old dashing John Bulkeley, the `sailor's sailor,' did the spectacular thing. First, he finished off our own already near-mortally wounded victim and then proceeded to blast the second one out of the water," he wrote.

Landing later in the day aboard the Endicott, Fairbanks, wearing a helmet with a .45-caliber pistol hanging from his side, went to the bridge to meet Bulkeley.

Sitting at a desk on the bridge, Fairbanks began writing from memory from Shakespeare's "King Henry V."

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.

For he today that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother; be ne'er so vile,

This day shall gentle his condition.

And gentleman now in England abed

Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,

And hold their manhoods cheap while any speaks

That fought with us upon St. Crispin's Day.

Mutual respect

"I thought it was terrific and kept the original that he wrote out. I was genuinely impressed that the man could come up with such stirring words off the top of his head," said Bulkeley to Paul Stilwell, editor of "Assault on Normandy: First-Person Accounts From The Sea Services," published in 1994 by the Naval Institute Press.

Several months later, Fairbanks wrote to Bulkeley, recalling the battle.

"He ... said that if it hadn't been for the Endicott, he and his men would have been goners that day," Bulkeley remembered. "I'm convinced they would have been," he said.

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