The following is a guest post authored by Matt F., who is from the greater Boston area. Matt has a B.S. in Criminal Justice, and has a passion for history and all things awesome. To read more you can find him on WordPress. Follow him on Twitter @TheAlbumWeb. Fru did some light editing and made some minor contributions.
July 10, 1943. A swift breeze whistles in the eerily quiet summer night as waves crash against the side of a speeding customized 63-foot Air-Sea Rescue (ASR) boat heading for the beach off of Cape San Marco, Italy. At 3,000 meters out, one boat advances as it begins to lay down smoke covering the approach and ultimately shielding the size of the small force.
A handful of boats are filled with seven men each, one officer and six enlisted sailors. They had one mission, to create as much noise as possible to grab the attention of the enemy troops stationed nearby. When the boats arrived in earshot of shore, they opened up with their weapons, firing rockets and .50 caliber machine guns, and setting off time-delay smoke pots floating beside the boats. They also blasted sounds from their loudspeakers that mimicked the chaos of a D-Day-style beach invasion.
The boats then turned around and headed back to sea while on the beach, alarms, spotlights, and German troops mobilized expecting a full-scale amphibious landing was kicking off before them. The diversionary mission was a success as Operation Husky, the real assault on Sicily, was commencing 100 miles west of their location.
As a result of this effort, an entire German reserve division remained on location as German commanders were unsure whether the mission was a probe to test the defenses, a diversion, or the start of the real thing.
The Beach Jumpers program was so secret that not even the man who would become to be known as “The Father of Naval Special Warfare” — Phil Bucklew — knew of them at the time of the operation, even though he was awarded a medal for valor in Operation Husky. Bucklew would later discover their exploits, however, when he was tasked with re-establishing the unit during the 1950s.
Over four days this past May 2017, the Beach Jumpers Association celebrated its 75th anniversary in Orlando, Florida. Beach Jumper Units (BJU’s) were highly classified special missions units designed to handle tactical cover and deception operations. They saw action during World War II, the Korean War, the Cuban missile crisis, parts of the Cold War, and during the Vietnam War.
The unit was formed under Admiral H. Kent Hewitt, the then-commander of amphibious forces and all U.S. naval forces in the western Mediterranean and northwest African waters. The unit was the brainchild of Lieutenant Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., a famous Hollywood actor turned naval officer. Fairbanks pitched the idea to Admiral Hewitt after the former spent some time with British commandos in an officer exchange program. Fairbanks was sold on the effectiveness of small unit deception tactics that he witnessed in the program.
Fairbanks’ job at the time was to oversee and observe the British commandos as a temporary duty officer on the HMS Tormentor and at the Commando Training School in Achnacarry, Scotland. He exceeded his mandate, however, and participated in planning, training, and executing raiding party exercises, and diversion and deception operations. When he returned to Little Creek, Virginia, Fairbanks set up the Beach Jumper program, drawing on his experiences with the British.
The unit consisted of 180 officers and 300 enlisted men, and because Fairbanks was only a Lieutenant at the time, he was unable to command the unit. Instead, he was assigned to coordinate all mission plans with British forces. Upon his return at a later date, he was designated as a Special Operations officer, and granted a security clearance. He then assumed the role of planning, supervising, training and supplying all Beach Jumper raids, special assault landings and other special operations.
Like the majority of special missions units existing throughout history, the Beach Jumper Units were made up of volunteers. They were tasked with carrying out the most daring of assignments, and requirements for joining included immunity to seasickness, experience in small boat handling, knowledge of electrical work to fix radios, and fundamental knowledge of celestial navigation.
Thus, on March 16th, 1943, Beach Jumper Unit ONE (BJU-1) was commissioned and assigned “To assist and support the operating forces in the conduct of Tactical Cover and Deception in Naval Warfare.”
Similar to their role in Operation Husky, the BJUs conducted deception operations that convinced the enemy that there were amphibious landings kicking off at their location. This would then divert them from actual landing zones sometimes hundreds of miles away. The ASR boats were equipped with two .50 caliber machine guns, 10 window rockets, smoke generators, and floating time-delay explosive packs. They were also outfitted with recorders, speakers, generators, jamming transmitters, and naval balloons, which were often towed behind the boats with radar reflective strips attached so their presence would be picked up on enemy radar and make them appear to be a much larger force than they actually were.
Throughout World War II, eleven BJUs deployed worldwide. The units lived up to their name by assaulting and raiding beaches and creating as much chaos as possible for enemy positions. They jumped from beach to beach, harassing and deceiving as they went.
Beach Jumpers from units ONE, THREE, and FIVE received the Presidential Unit Citation (PUC) for their involvement in Operation Bigot-Anvil, later renamed Operation Dragoon in 1944. Operation Dragoon was a codename for a major allied invasion of southern France. It lasted for a month and resulted in over 21,000 allied casualties and the capture of over 130,000 German soldiers.
As World War II came to a close, Fairbanks found himself planning British deception operations in the Pacific theatre, in Singapore. All of the BJUs were deactivated with the cessation of hostilities, and Fairbanks himself retired from the Navy in 1954 with the rank of Captain. He meanwhile had earned himself the nickname “Father of the Beach Jumpers,” as well a chest full of awards for valor from the French, U.K., Italian, and U.S. militaries.
Korean War and the Cold War
Following the end of the second Great War, the U.S. Navy eventually determined that they still needed the BJUs. They turned to Phil Bucklew to reestablish them. Bucklew, a former pro football player and the recognized “Father of Naval Special Warfare,” was twice awarded the Navy Cross as a Scout Raider for his actions in Operation Husky and the D-Day landings. He would be later nominated for a third when he conducted a 400-mile overland reconnaissance mission through Japanese-occupied territory. His mission then was to survey Chinese beaches for potential landing operations.
Bucklew had not even been aware of the BJUs that clandestinely operated in support of Operation Husky during the war. His initial reaction upon learning about the Beach Jumpers was, “What the hell is a Beach Jumper Unit?” He learned quickly as he was tasked with leading the re-established command and adopting and improving the tactics developed in the war.
On June 28, 1952, Beach Jumper Units ONE and TWO were reactivated to support the Navy’s Pacific and Atlantic Fleets. They were stationed at U.S. Naval Amphibious Base Coronado, California, and comprised of 10 officers and 18 enlisted men. Bucklew set the standard for how the commands would operate, and organized them into four sections each: plans, boats, electronics, and ordnance and demolition.
Bucklew had the BJUs trained in electronic warfare (EW), hand-to-hand-combat, amphibious reconnaissance, intelligence gathering, swimming, seamanship, demolitions, and physical training. The BJUs also worked closely with the CIA as they experimented with the “Cigar,” a small hydrofoil boat designed to carry two operators to specifically plan and execute sabotage operations. The vessel was deployed from a submarine, and often remained submerged in place as operators conducted their missions on land.
The Vietnam War
The BJUs also operated during the Vietnam War, and were organized as Detachments ALPHA through GOLF during that conflict. They were each assigned two Officers and 10 enlisted men, on average, operating in small teams similar to their organization in World War II. The units were responsible for supporting the Navy SEALs, Army Special Forces detachments, Special Landing Forces of Marines and Army paratroopers, and other forces.
Many of the Beach Jumper Units operated under the code name “Yankee Station Special Surveillance Unit.” They conducted psychological operations (PSYOPS) from River Patrol Boats, broadcasted propaganda messages on loudspeakers, dropped controlled message leaflets to influence public opinion, jammed Soviet Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) and Electrical Intelligence (ELINT), and helped set up a sensor program dubbed DUFFEL BAG.
In 1972, major changes came to the BJU’s, including a name change and a change of focus for future operations. The units were re-designated Fleet Composite Operational Readiness Group ONE (FLTCORGRU ONE) in the Pacific and FLTCORGRU TWO in the Atlantic. In 1986 these groups later became Fleet Tactical Deception Group Pacific (FLTDECGRUPAC) and Fleet Tactical Deception Group Atlantic (FLTDECGRUANT). They were also given a new mission statement: “Assisting Commanders in planning and conduct of tactical military deception operations.” Starting in 1992, a series of command mergers and name changes occurred that ultimately resulted in the creation of Fleet Information Warfare Center (FIWC) in 1995. On November 4, 2005, the Navy Information Command (NIOC) Norfolk was established, which integrated a number of Information Operations (IO) commands. The Beach Jumpers live on today within that command.
Surviving members of the Beach Jumper community can become members of the Beach Jumpers’ Association and associate members of the UDT-SEAL Association.
An excellent reference on the Beach Jumpers is the book Seaborne Deception – The History of US Navy Beach Jumpers by John B. Dwyer (Praegers Publishers, 1992). Information for this article was also drawn from The Beach Jumpers’ Association, and the website psywarrior.com.
Featured image of British HSL Boat courtesy of Wikipedia