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“First out of the airplane door and last in the chow line”

James M. Gavin, the “Jumping General”

Major General Gavin (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

James Maurice Gavin (1907-1990), a child of probably Irish immigrant parents, was adopted from an orphanage in Brooklyn, New York by a coal miner and his wife, Martin and Mary Gavin from Pennsylvania in 1909. His name at birth was James Nally Ryan. Despite his efforts in his later life, he failed to find his birth parents. His new family was always in a difficult financial situation and, on top of that, his hardworking father did not focus too much on expressing love towards his adopted son while his mother was an alcoholic. He left school after the eighth grade and started working. For instance, he delivered newspapers, then worked in a barbershop, and became a clerk in a shoe store later. Inspired by his readings on the American Civil War and World War I, Gavin decided to seek a better future by joining the army instead of becoming a miner. On his 17th birthday, he left home unexpectedly and went to New York City to find a job. He sent a telegram from New York to his family to inform them about his whereabouts and his decision to leave home and find a proper job. He enlisted as a private, but had to lie about his age as he knew his parents wouldn’t approve of his decision. The recruiting officer took him and a couple of other underage orphans to a lawyer who declared himself their guardian and signed the parental consent declaration.
 
He started his military career in Panama with the U.S. Coast Artillery, where an American Indian first sergeant, "Chief" Williams, took him under his wings and made him his assistant. Gavin’s basic education was sorely lacking as he had to work as a child to help support his family but his mentor persuaded him to join a local army school. He graduated as one of the best, which earned him the chance to attend West Point, where he studied hard. His lack of education was a great disadvantage and every day he got up before dawn to take his school books to the bathroom which was the only place where he had enough light to read in the morning.

Gavin’s jump jacket at the West Point Museum (Photo: Facebook, West Point Museum)
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After graduating from West Point, he was posted at the Mexican border for three years, then attended the U.S. Army Infantry School at Fort Benning. The school’s manager, then-Colonel George C. Marshall, and Joseph Stilwell, head of the Tactics Department, taught him lessons that went against accepted American military thinking of the time. He adopted their philosophy of avoiding micromanaging subordinates and giving them rough guidelines and the freedom to make tactical decisions on their own.
 
Gavin also became fascinated by the writings of British officer J.F.C. Fuller, one of the early theoreticians of armored warfare. A 1936 posting to the Philippines also made him wary of Japanese military might and aware of how the U.S. was falling behind other countries in weapons development.

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Adolf Hitler with the German paratroopers decorated for taking the Belgian Fort Eben Emael (Photo: Süddeutsche Zeitung)

When World War II broke out, Gavin returned to West Point as a highly popular instructor and researcher in German and Russian tactics and equipment. For example, he analyzed the German airborne assault on the strategic Fort Eben-Emael in Belgium in May 1940, where well-equipped and well-trained German paratroopers dropped in at night and captured the fort from a much greater Belgian force of defenders. He became a proponent of airborne forces and wrote the U.S. Army’s field manual on airborne tactics: Tactics and Technique of Air-Borne Troops. You can read the document here: https://www.ablecompany502pir.org/files/FM_31-30_MAY_1942.pdf

Insignia of the 82nd Airborne Division (Photo: Wikipedia)

He helped transform the 82nd Infantry Division, led by Major General Omar Bradley, into the 82nd “All American” Airborne Division, led by Major General Matthew Ridgway, and became commander of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR), leading training marches in person, and telling his officers to always be "the first out of the airplane door and last in the chow line", a tradition preserved by the airborne to this day. Gavin's hands-on leadership style made him the only American general in the war to make four combat jumps with his troops.

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The 82nd Airborne Division on an exercise in North Africa (Photo: warfarehistorynetwork.com)

During the Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943, the 505th PIR became the first ever American unit to perform a regiment-sized airborne landing. Strong winds scattered the group and Gavin landed far away from his zone, spraining his ankle during landing. His small group started making their way back towards their objective in the dark, harassing the much larger Axis forces with guerilla tactics. After one particular skirmish, he had to leave the wounded behind, going on with his last six men. “This is a hell of a place for a regimental commander to be” – he exclaimed.

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Then-Colonel Gavin giving his troops a safety briefing before jumping into Sicily (Photo: Reddit)

After having gathered scattered troops and non-combat personnel such as drivers, clerks and cooks, he captured and held the vital Biazza Ridge against an overwhelming German force of the 1st Hermann Göring Paratroop Panzer Division which threatened to attack the exposed flanks of two divisions. Turning two pack howitzers into direct-fire weapons, the group managed to repel the attack of a company of Tiger tanks and hold the ridge until relief arrived.
 
Gavin jumped again with his troops the night before D-Day in Normandy in Mission Boston. The jumps were scattered over a wide area and he was willing to put himself at risk in the chaotic fighting of the first couple of days. During the final push for the La Fière causeway, which was said to be “probably the bloodiest small unit struggle in the experience of American arms”, both he and his superior, General Matthew Ridgway, participated in a charge down an exposed path into heavy enemy resistance, stopping in the killing zone to remove an obstacle.

Gavin preparing to jump into the Netherlands during Operation Market Garden (Photo: americanrifleman.org)

Gavin assumed command of the 82nd Airborne Division on August 8, 1944, and was promoted to major general in October thus becoming the youngest (37) major general to command an American division in World War II. On September 17, 1944, Gavin’s next jump was during the ill-fated Operation Market Garden in the Netherlands, suffering another injury on landing. A few days later a doctor told him he was fine but a more thorough check-up five years later revealed he fractured two spinal disks. Not much later, the 82nd was deployed to the Ardennes to defend against Hitler’s last major counterattack in the West during the Battle of the Bulge which started on December 16, 1944. The division fought as ordinary infantry in the northern sector of the battle, facing Kampfgruppe Peiper, the German unit which earned infamy with its massacres committed against captured U.S. soldiers and local civilians.

Gavin during the Battle of the Bulge with an M1 Garand rifle, he preferred it over the M1 Carbine (Photo: USIS)

One of his last great feats during WWII was to cross the Elbe river in Germany and to accept the surrender of the entire German 21st Army, around 150,000 troops, from Lieutenant General Kurt von Tippelskirch in Ludwigslust. After the overall German capitulation in May 1945, the 82nd was assigned to occupation and honor guard duty in Berlin until December 1945, to the great satisfaction of General Patton.

Patton and Gavin inspecting the 82nd Airborne Division in Berlin (Photo: sofrep.com)

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After the war, Gavin became one of the early actors in the racial integration of the U.S. military, when he oversaw the incorporation of the all-black 555th PIR into the 82nd Airborne. He assisted his fellow airborne general, Maxwell Taylor, in the creation of the so-called Pentomic Divisions, a response to the threat of nuclear weapons in the Cold War-era warfare. As Army Chief of Research and Development he pushed for the use of airborne mechanized infantry as a modern cavalry (known as the “airmobile concept”), his intention eventually culminating in the heavy use of helicopter-borne troops during the Vietnam War. The latter of which he became a strong and outspoken critic and wrote a book about, titled Crisis Now, with Arthur Hadley later in 1968. In his book he analyzed the domestic problems of the U.S. and world problems alike. Gavin unexpectedly retired from the U.S. Army in 1958. He explained the reasons for leaving in his book titled War and Peace in the Space Age. One of the main reasons being the imbalance between the development of strategic nuclear retaliatory power at the expense of conventional forces, which could lead to the inability of the U.S to win limited wars in his view.
 
Just to mention some of his decorations he was awarded with during his military career: The Distinguished Service Cross with the Oak Leaf Cluster, the Distinguished Service Medal, the Silver Star, the Purple Heart, the British Distinguished Service Order (received from Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery himself) and the French Croix de guerre, etc.

The cover of Gavin’s book, War and Peace in the Space Age, published in 1958 (Photo: Amazon)

The same year he left the army he became the vice president of Arthur D. Little Inc., an industrial research and consulting concern, where he still kept his ties with the military and politics. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy asked him to serve as U.S. ambassador to France in a hope that Gavin would be able to improve the deteriorating relations with France due to his experiences with the French during World War II and his good relationship with the French President, General Charles de Gaulle. He accepted the offer and served as ambassador to France in 1961 and 1962. After his short diplomatic assignment, he returned to Arthur D. Little Inc. and worked as president and chairman of the board until his retirement in 1977.
 
Gavin’s military career was portrayed in several films. First, in the 1962 classic war movie, The Longest Day, where he was played by Robert Ryan, then in A Bridge Too Far from 1977, where he was impersonated by actor Ryan O'Neal. Gavin was an advisor on both films. In 1974, a coal-fired power plant in the village of Cheshire, Ohio, was named General James M. Gavin Power Plant. It is capable of providing 2.6-gigawatts of electricity, powering around 780,000 homes. Several streets were also named after him in the United Kingdom and in the Netherlands.

Gavin played by Robert Ryan in The Longest Day movie (Photo: 20th Century Fox)

Gavin died from complications of Parkinson’s disease on February 23, 1990 at the age of 82. He was buried with full military honors at the United States Military Academy Post Cemetery in West Point, New York. His jump jacket is on display at the West Point Museum.

Gavin’s tombstone at West Point (Photo: waymarking.com)

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