On a Military Ruse

The Beach Jumpers were a talented group of allied soldiers during World War 2 that excelled at diversionary tactics.  Their job was to harass the enemy and cause them to become confused, often tricking the enemy into moving and committing troops that opened up zones of vulnerability in other places.  Take, for instance, the attack the Beach Jumpers made on the Mediterranean island of Ventotene.

The idea was that the group wanted the German and Italian military garrison on Ventotene to think that they were a much larger attacking force that they were and thus help the allies as they were taking the Italian island of Salerno as part of Operation Avalanche.  As they often did, the Beach Jumpers came ashore  with spotlights, fireworks, and as much noise as they could possibly make in an effort to convince the defenders of the island that they were a much larger force than they actually were. The ruse worked. The Italians, of course, gave up almost instantly, but the German detachment needed some coaxing from one of the large guns on one of the ships that was part of the group. Finally, the Germans also capitulated.

As the victorious deception experts were wrapping up their operations on the beach, a shell landed near a group of some of them, lobbed in their midst by a die-hard German mortar crew that had held out after their comrades had surrendered.   No one was directly injured—except for a war correspondent who had been assigned to cover the exploits of the Beach Jumpers.  The reporter had become concussed by the explosion; he appeared dazed, and he staggered about.

“Are. You. OK?“ the commander of the Beach Jumpers asked the reporter excitedly. “I think so,“ the reporter answered. The commander made sure that the man had proper medical care, and the commander and his outfit then left Ventotene and prepared for their next grand adventure.

Why, you might be asking yourself, would a group that practiced the art of deception want to have their exploits documented by a war correspondent? Wouldn’t that give the enemy secret information?  The answer to that question lies with the identity of the commander of the group. The commander’s father had been a very famous man. He had been a pirate, a thief, a king, a hero, and a villain all within the previous 20 years. And the commander himself had followed in his father’s famous footsteps. The commander, you see, was Douglas Fairbanks, Junior, the son of the famous movie star and, by the 1940s, a famous movie star in his own right.

The public thrilled to hear of the exploits of the Hollywood elite during the war, so war correspondents almost always followed famous servicemen into battle. It was great for morale, and it helped sell War Bonds. That’s why Fairbanks and his diversion experts had the tagalong correspondent who had the near miss from the German shell.

Oh, and the correspondent?  He was actually a friend of Fairbanks’s from back in Hollywood, a successful writer for the movies.  He wasn’t too bad at writing novels, either.

His name was John Steinbeck.

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