James Maurice Gavin, born 113 years ago of yesterday, would rise to become the youngest Major General to command a division in World War II. He led the 82nd Airborne during the D-Day invasion, Operation Market-Garden and the Battle of the Bulge.
He was known “The Jumping General” or “Jumpin’ Jim,” as he would jump into combat with his men, carrying an M-1 rifle, just like the infantrymen did. He was the only officer to make four combat jumps during the war.
Early Years and Military Service
Gavin was born in Brooklyn, New York. Soon afterward he was placed in an orphanage by his birth mother, an Irish immigrant. He was adopted in 1909 by Martin and Mary Gavin from Mount Carmel, Pennsylvania and given the name James Maurice Gavin.
His father was a hard-working miner, but young James wanted no part of that. As a young man, he was fascinated by and read everything he could about the Civil War. He worked an assortment of odd jobs to help his family make ends meet, but due to a shortage of opportunities, he ran away from home to New York City at the age of 17.
After wiring his parents that he was fine, he enlisted in the Army, despite being underage, by telling the recruiter that he was an orphan. He was sworn in during early 1924 and was assigned to Panama, where he underwent his basic training with his unit on Ft. Sherman. (Ft. Sherman would later become home to the U.S. Army Jungle Warfare School.) He was assigned as a crew member of a 155mm Coastal Artillery Gun.
Gavin quickly impressed his First Sergeant with a boundless enthusiasm to learn. The first sergeant made him his assistant and promoted him to corporal. Because he had never graduated high school, his unit got him enrolled in a local army school, where the top graduates had an opportunity to attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
Gavin was taken under the wing of another mentor, Lieutenant Percy Black, who tutored him on algebra, geometry, English, and history. He passed the exams and was accepted into West Point.
Gavin arrived at West Point as a plebe in the summer of 1925. Because he had missed much of his basic education, he had to work harder than the other cadets, so he would arise at 4:30 every morning and read his books in the bathroom, the only place with enough light to read.
Gavin graduated in June 1929. In his West Point yearbook, the Howitzer, he was mentioned as a boxer and as the cadet who had already been a soldier. After his graduation and his commissioning as a second lieutenant, he married his first wife, Irma Baulsir on September 5, 1929.
His first assignment was to Camp Harry J. Jones near Douglas, Arizona on the U.S.-Mexican border. This camp housed the 25th Infantry Regiment, a black Buffalo Soldier regiment. He stayed in this posting for three years but his experience there would shape his career much later when he fought to end segregation in the military.
During a subsequent assignment at the U.S. Infantry School at Ft. Benning, Gavin would be profoundly influenced by two of the officers who would play a huge role in the United States’ war effort in WWII: George C. Marshall and Joseph Stillwell. He served under both and learned much in the art of leadership from them.
Birth of the Airborne Doctrine
Further assignments in Arizona and the Philippines were followed by another assignment to West Point where Gavin was tasked with studying the German Blitzkrieg and became extremely interested in airborne forces. He volunteered for and joined the Airborne forces in August 1941. One of the officers he grew close to and worked with was William Yarborough, who 21 years later would be the Commander of the Special Warfare Center at Ft. Bragg and would introduce President Kennedy to the capabilities of Army Green Berets and Unconventional Warfare.
Gavin wrote the first manual for the new experimental unit, “FM 31-30: Tactics and Technique of Air-Borne Troops.” When the 82nd Infantry Division was tasked to become the first Airborne Division, commanded by MG Matthew Ridgeway, Gavin was given command of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment in August 1942.
Only 35 years old, he was already a Colonel in command of a regiment. He trained his troops hard and led from the front. He instructed his officers to always be the first one out of the airplane during training jumps.
Operation Husky, Sicily
A year later in 1943, the 82nd Airborne would get its baptism of fire by jumping into Sicily as part of Operation Husky. During the jump, high winds scattered the paratroopers all over the island. Gavin landed and was accompanied by only about a dozen men, but they moved 20 miles to their objective and attacked enemy units wherever they encountered them.
He gradually gathered more troops and managed to hold an all-important landmark, Biazzo Ridge, where his small band of men held off over 700 armored troops of the elite Hermann Goering Panzer Division, keeping them from attacking the right flank of the 45th Division; thus the beachhead would be maintained open. For his leadership and valor, Gavin was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
The 82nd Airborne then moved to England to prepare for the invasion of France. In December 1943, Gavin, just 36-years old, became a Brigadier General and the Assistant Division Commander.
D-Day, the Invasion of France
The 82nd’s objective was to parachute into France on the night of June 5-6 and to secure an area of roughly 10 square miles on either side of the Merderet River. The paratroopers had to capture the town of Sainte-Mère-Église, which was a crucial crossroads behind Utah Beach, and to block the approaches into the area from the west and southwest.
They then were tasked to seize the causeways and bridges over the Merderet at La Fière and Chef-du-Pont, destroy the highway bridge over the Douve River at Pont l’Abbé (now Étienville), and secure the area west of Sainte-Mère-Église to establish a defensive line between Gourbesville and Renouf.
Despite being badly scattered, due to poor visibility, bad weather and green pilots, the men of the 82nd and their fellow paratroopers of the 101st Airborne accomplished all of their missions. One of the advantages of being so scattered is that this gave the Germans the impression that they were facing a much larger force.
In August 1944, Gavin was given command of the 82nd, and in October was promoted to Major General.
Holland, Operation Market-Garden
Gavin and the 82nd were part of Field Marshall Montgomery’s plan to end the war in 1944. His bold, ambitious plan was to lay an airborne carpet of troops in Holland, consisting of the 101st, 82nd, and the 1st British Airborne. Their goal was to capture vital bridges. Then British armored units, part of XXX Corps, were to race up the narrow highway to capture the all-important bridge at Arnhem and move into Germany.
Holland was expected to be lightly defended by old men and boys and it was thought that XXX Corps could reach the British 1st Airborne in Arnhem in three days. But the Germans had sent several SS Armored units to Holland to rest and resupply after the debacle and near collapse of the German army in France.
Resistance was much tougher than expected. By the time the 82nd took the last bridge between XXX Corps and Arnhem at Nijmegen, it was too late, as heavy German armored SS units had crushed the British troops holding one end of the bridge.
The 82nd was moved off the line in November and returned to France in reserve. It didn’t stay there for long. On December 16, the Germans launched a counterattack in the Ardennes, across a lightly defended stretch of green American troops.
Battle of the Bulge, Defeat of Germany
When the Germans attacked, it quickly became evident that the situation was dire. The 82nd, under Gavin, was thrown into the line on the northern edge of the bulge and held against elements of three different Panzer divisions, including the leading edge of the German attack by Kampfgruppe Peiper.
Once the Americans blunted the attack, they turned back onto the offensive, retaking all of the lost territory. Gavin led his division as they retook the ground lost during one of the coldest winters in modern history.
The 82nd took part in the taking of the Ruhr, Germany’s industrial heartland. Then, with the British 6th Airborne Division he crossed the Elbe River and took 100,000 prisoners. After the war ended, the 82nd was tasked with occupation duty in Berlin. The 82nd’s Honor Guard was so sharp that General George Patton remarked that “in all my years in the Army and all the honor guards I have ever seen, the 82nd’s honor guard is undoubtedly the best.”
One of Gavin’s biggest achievements was to fight the segregation of the U.S. military. He started with melding the all-black 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion into the 82nd Airborne Division. The 555th’s commander, Colonel Bradley Biggs, said of MG Gavin that he was the most “color-blind” Army officer in the entire service.
Gavin retired from the Army in 1958 as a Lieutenant General. He joined the industrial and research company Arthur D. Little and shortly thereafter became the President of the company. In 1961, President Kennedy asked him to serve as U.S. ambassador to France. It was a tumultuous time in French/U.S. relations, but due to his wartime service in France, he was able to smooth over the nearly fractured relationship with French President Charles de Gaulle. Gavin also served as a technical advisor for the war films “The Longest Day” and “A Bridge Too Far.”
LTG James Gavin died on February 23, 1990, and was buried with full military honors outside of the Old Chapel at the United States Military Academy Post Cemetery at West Point. He was survived by his second wife Jean, his five daughters, ten grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.