The motion picture legend talked recently to the Naval Institute’s History Division Director Paul Stillwell and Naval History Editors Fred L. Schultz and Linda O’Doughda about his new book, A Hell of a War (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993). Still sporting his familiar thinly trimmed moustache and red carnation, he sat behind the desk of his Madison Avenue office immersed in a vast collection of memorabilia. Among the treasures he displayed—mostly autographed photos of Hollywood and political notables—were the helmet he wore in combat, his Navy cover and lieutenant commander’s shoulder boards, and a life ring off the battleship Washington (BB-56) inscribed “Lieut. D. Fairbanks, Jr., USNR, to a sailor good enough to be a Marine,” from then-Marine Corps Captain Donald Hittle, later Brigadier General Hittle, who is now a writer and the President of the Army-Navy Club in Washington, D.C.
In keeping with the low-key style he used so effectively in his new book—which is the sequel to his Hollywood memoir The Salad Days (New York: Doubleday, 1988)—Fairbanks recalled his experiences as a Naval Reserve officer in the Atlantic and Mediterranean theaters of World War II. As it turned out, the veteran of more than 80 movies knew of the Naval Institute, too.
Fairbanks: I still take the Proceedings, you know.
Naval History: Now, that’s the way to start an interview.
Naval History: You took great pains not to be recognized or treated specially during your naval service. How do you feel about participating in interviews and getting attention now?
Fairbanks: Frankly, being in the theatrical world, and also the governmental, diplomatic, and political worlds, I’ve been at the other end of interviews since I was a boy. So there’s really nothing novel about it. I try to make sense out of it, to give the right answers, and to be as honest as I can.
Naval History: To put things in perspective, where would you place your naval service in the overall context of your life?
Fairbanks: That’s a good question, isn’t it? It’s one I shouldn’t answer quickly. [Pauses.] I’d put it very high up, very high up indeed. But it had to be. I wasn’t a boy when I went in. In fact, I was beyond draft age. I went in 1940, when I was already 30 years old. My theatrical career was fairly flourishing at the time. But I wanted to get into the Reserves and take on Adolf Hitler. Actor Robert Montgomery and I went in at the same time and did our training together. I had a difficult time getting a commission in the first place, because I didn’t have a university education. I finally got one through a correspondence course in California. Franklin Roosevelt, Jr. went with me the day I signed on to go to sea in Boston.
Naval History: You’ve probably heard the various theories espoused about how in the world we could have been taken by such complete surprise at Pearl Harbor. At least one even implicates President Franklin D. Roosevelt in a conspiracy. What do you think about all of that?
Fairbanks: Nonsense. I don’t believe that President Roosevelt would have been involved in any conspiracy. If that were true, evidence of it surely would have come out much earlier than this. People suspect anything they don’t like or don’t want to digest. It’s libel and slander on the President to suggest a conspiracy. All sorts of things could have happened. Nearly everything is possible. The senior admirals and generals, I’m sure, considered it a possibility—but not a probability. And they likely gave it no more credence than a dozen other options.
Naval History: We realize that you had a close relationship with President Roosevelt and his family before the war. Has your opinion of him changed since then?
Fairbanks: Not at all, except that I have even more admiration for him now. I thought he was a wonderful man, and still do.
Naval History: In the book you say that, after you received an AlNav bulletin that Pearl Harbor had been attacked, you threw it in the wastebasket. Having been the first and only one on board to have seen it, what made you pull it back out?
Fairbanks: I was not certain what it meant—“Air Raid Pearl Harbor, this is no drill.” What the hell was Pearl Harbor? Where was it? And what did they mean, “This is no drill?” That part made me think it might be serious and that maybe I should tell somebody about it. I was an Atlantic sailor at the time, not a Pacific one. Nobody in the Atlantic knew much about Pearl Harbor.
Naval History: You acknowledge that you were luckier than most, especially those in the Navy. How would you rate your general relationship with your shipmates?
Fairbanks: Pretty good. I didn’t have any special advantages. I was just lucky that the things I did came off all right and that I didn’t get hurt. And I didn’t break any rules, or at least I didn’t get caught breaking any.
Naval History: So you made a specific effort not to trade on your celebrity status?
Fairbanks: Oh, absolutely, yes. That would have been stupid—suicidal. There were always some who tried to put me in my place. “We’ll teach this guy,” they’d say. When I didn’t pay them any attention, that sort of annoyed them. They got no fun out of it and eventually just gave up.
Naval History: What do you remember about your relationships with the enlisted men?
Fairbanks: I suppose it was just the same as any other junior officer—a very junior officer. I must have been a curiosity to many of them for the first few weeks. Then the curiosity just melted into the ship’s company.
Naval History: Which is exactly the way you wanted it to go.
Fairbanks: Oh, of course, that’s the way I tried to guide it. It would have been impossible to do the job otherwise.
Naval History: When would you say you turned from being a green officer into a veteran?
Fairbanks: I suppose that happened during the first engagement we had with a German U-boat on the destroyer—the Ludlow (DD-438) it was—when we crossed the Atlantic. It doesn’t take very long once you get a good scare. You get scared once, and you’re part of the team.
Naval History: You obviously had a varied Navy career, at least as far as ship types go. By our account, the only ships in which you did not serve were submarines. If you could have served in only one of those ship types, which would it have been and why?
Fairbanks: I enjoyed amphibious work best of all, because it had a little bit of everything. It had land, sea, and air, a combination that was sort of off the beaten track, not straight down the line. It was sort of special operations, and so it was more fun. It wasn’t so conventional. A battleship is too big, and a destroyer in a bad sea rolls around and rocks too much. A lot of people liked the tin cans best. But I’d take cruisers. They’re sort of in between. I enjoyed my time in the battleships—the Washington and the Mississippi—but they were so enormous.
Naval History: If you could have done anything differently in the war, what would it have been?
Fairbanks: Stayed out. No, seriously, I’ve always been interested in the diplomatic and political side. I would have liked to be in the State Department or to serve in some diplomatic capacity. I enjoyed my Navy experience, but I think I would have enjoyed doing the same sorts of things I did before the war for FDR down in South America and in Europe, particularly in England and France. I found it all very interesting. I was on a much higher level than people would have imagined from somebody like me. Nobody would have suspected that I was dealing directly with the President and the Secretary of State. So it was all very interesting and fascinating from my point of view.
Naval History: What impressions do you retain of [Allied Combined Forces Commander] Admiral [H. Kent] Hewitt pictured there on your wall?
Fairbanks: Very fond ones, very fond. He was a gentle, nice man. When Admiral [Ernest] King gave him hell in front of the lot of us, the old man almost wept with embarrassment and humiliation. We hated Admiral King for doing that to him, because we had such affection and respect for Admiral Hewitt.
Naval History: You described the frustration you felt in the beach jumpers when you had a skipper who was not very knowledgeable or supportive. Did that situation improve once he was replaced?
Fairbanks: The man was a madman. He was absolutely impossible. He tried to conspire with me, saying, “You must get more recognition. You must arrange to have somebody killed on the next operation. We haven’t had enough casualties yet.” That’s when I got around to reporting it. I was on friendly terms with some senior officers. I didn’t want to go through proper channels. This was too dangerous. He was widely disliked, widely hated, widely feared, and finally sent out to the Pacific.
Naval History: How did the term “beach jumper” come about?
Fairbanks: It was a code name given by Mountbatten, I think. We had training up in Inverary, Scotland. The idea was for it to be a cover name—partly descriptive—and a code name at the same time.
Naval History: Do you feel that the beach jumpers really fulfilled their potential?
Fairbanks: I thought we could have done even more. Today, this type of operation is an integral part of the force.
Naval History: In the book, why did you spotlight operations in the south of France over Normandy, which usually gets most of the attention?
Fairbanks: They didn’t do too much of my sort of fighting at Normandy. At Normandy we were experimenting with new things, like the Dieppe operation. Normandy was pretty much all power, not much deception. And we were later involved in strategic planning. It was called London Control—just a cover name. That was an interesting group. They had supervision over that sort of operation all around the world.
Naval History: From the looks of your walls, it’s almost as if people were standing in line to give you medals.
Fairbanks: A lot of them don’t mean a thing. They’re just routine. Two or three of them mean something, and I received them gratefully. The others are all just automatic.
Naval History: Well, six campaign stars on your Middle East/European/African medal is impressive indeed.
Fairbanks: We’re going to a dinner tomorrow night at an ambassador’s house. On the invitation it says that decorations will be worn. I don’t know where all mine are at the moment. My wife thinks she knows.
Naval History: Some of the action summaries that you wrote during the war and then quoted in the book certainly display a flair for writing. Do you enjoy writing?
Fairbanks: Yes. I probably should have done more. I’ve always enjoyed writing, and I still do. That is the art I most respect.
Naval History: What type of writing do you prefer—newspapers? Or novels? Or what you’re doing now?
Fairbanks: Different kinds. I wrote articles and poetry when I was 16 and 17. Two poems of mine were published in Vanity Fair, and I had some short stories printed in Esquire. I’ve been scribbling a long time. I didn’t win any prizes, but I did get published.
Naval History: What are you working on now? Is it a follow-on to A Hell of a War?
Fairbanks: Oh, yes. I’m not working very hard on it, though. There’s no rush.
Naval History: Are you going to bring us up to the present in your next book?
Fairbanks: I won’t really know until it happens. I’ll see what the publisher wants. You might say I just scribble for the sake of the family now.
Naval History: How much did you rely on memory, how much on notes, and how much on research?
Fairbanks: It’s a little mélange of everything. I found some diaries and notes, and letters to the family.
Naval History: The research is the fun part, and the writing is the hard part.
Fairbanks: You’re absolutely right. It is fun to get it all assembled. Then you find one bit of research that upsets everything else before it, and it contradicts what you’ve already concluded.
Naval History: As historians, we wish everyone had as keen a sense of history as you obviously do. What does history mean to you? How important is it?
Fairbanks: I’ve always enjoyed it—the stories, the excitement, how things developed, the origin of everything. I’m not only fascinated with natural history—the sun and the stars—but also political history, language, and culture. I’ve been interested in how things began ever since I was a boy.
Naval History: Today’s history teachers try to instill this interest in young people, but it’s become more and more challenging.
Fairbanks: My children aren’t in the least interested in history, so I understand the situation.
Naval History: In your opinion, how has World War II been depicted in films? How would you rate it?
Fairbanks: Do you know, I haven’t seen very many of them. I’m trying to think of one. The Longest Day is one. I remember seeing the play, The Caine Mutiny, but I didn’t see the movie. In Which We Serve, with Noel Coward, I thought was great. That was all about Mountbatten, of course.
Naval History: What we are driving at here is that one of the big criticisms of movies, at least these days—and you must have heard it before—is that historical accuracy often suffers in favor of romanticism.
Fairbanks: Sure! And why shouldn’t it? Films and theatrical productions are not meant to be documentaries. Shakespeare wrote a lot of history, but I doubt if much of it was historically accurate. He made Richard III a famous hunchback villain. But there’s no evidence at all in any history showing that Richard III was deformed, that his right shoulder was higher than the left. Somebody else wrote that his left shoulder was higher than his right. This was the only contemporary mention that Richard III was crippled at all. Yet Shakespeare made Richard III famous as a hunchback villain.
Naval History: Do you have any stories or anecdotes that you’d like to share with our readers but didn’t include in the book?
Fairbanks: I doubt it. Nothing that I could say out loud, anyway.
- Assigned by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, and Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles to official and semi-official government duties with various public, foreign, philanthropic, and educational organizations.
- Helped organize the William Allen White Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies and served as National Co-Vice President with Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt.
- Helped organize Franco-British War Relief, Inc. (later, British War Relief).
- Headed and financed Douglas Voluntary Hospitals in the United Kingdom, later absorbed by St. John’s Ambulance Brigade and the British Red Cross.
- Committee member of The Fight for Freedom Committee
- Commissioned a lieutenant (junior grade), U.S. Naval Reserve.
- Appointed by President Roosevelt as presidential envoy to Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Peru, and Panama.
- Assigned temporary duty in the Office of Naval Intelligence, Navy Department, Washington, D.C.
- Ordered to USS Ludlow, serving as assistant gunnery officer, assistant communication officer, and watch officer in the destroyer, which was part of a convoy escort in the North Atlantic. Saw first action against German U-boats in November.
- Transferred as assistant gunnery and watch officer to USS Mississippi, flagship of U.S. Task Force 99, U.S. Atlantic Fleet (attached to British Home Fleet) based in Reykjavik, Iceland, and Scapa Flow, Scotland.
- January, served in Office of Naval Intelligence, at headquarters of Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Fleet, U.S. Navy Department, Washington, D.C.
- February, served as executive officer with minesweeper patrol in U.S. Atlantic coastal waters.
- March, assigned to staff of Commander, U.S. Task Force 99 in the battleship Washington as flag lieutenant and aide to the task force commander.
- June, assigned temporary duty as assistant gunnery officer and “staff observer” on board the USS Wasp on convoys from Scapa Flow and Glasgow to Malta.
- July, assigned same duties on board the heavy cruiser USS Wichita as part of close covering escort of Convoy PQ-17, from Scapa Flow, via the Arctic Ocean, to Murmansk, U.S.S.R.
- End of July through September, assigned to Rear Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten’s Combined Operations Commando Headquarters, London. Participated in planning section, special weapons and camouflage sections, and attended the Commando Training Centre, Inverary, Scotland. Later assigned by Mountbatten to command a flotilla of amphibious raiding craft (only U.S. officer assigned), with bases in Warsash, and Isle of Wight. Operated with Royal Marine Commandos in raids across the English Channel.
Late 1942 to 1944
- Assigned various special operational and staff duties, including planning staff for Special Operations Commander, Amphibious Force, U.S. Atlantic Fleet, and Commander, U.S. Naval Forces, Northwest African Waters. Served as Chief Staff Officer for Special Operations Task Group 80.4 (the “Beach Jumpers”) in the Mediterranean.
- After invasion of France in 1944, transferred to Strategic Plans Division and later to Post War Plans Division, Officer of the Chief of Naval Operations, and Headquarters of the Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Fleet, Washington, D.C., serving as liaison between the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the State Department. Returned to inactive duty, February 1946.