James M. Gavin: A Legend and a Leader
By Chad Stewart
For those born too late to remember World War II newsreels and others who don’t remember much about history, James Maurice Gavin’s name might not leap off the page. But “The Jumping General” known for leading his men into combat via parachute had no problem leaping from planes.
Army Lieutenant General James M. Gavin earned his nicknames—“Jumpin’ Jim” was another—by making four combat jumps during World War II, the most of any U.S. general officer. According to the “Air & Space Power Journal,” Gavin always jumped first from the lead aircraft. Once on the ground, he led his troops from the front.
Before the war, in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Gavin was instrumental in transforming the 82nd Division from a World War I relic into the famed airborne assault unit that helped liberate Europe. Unafraid of risk, he made hundreds of dangerous training jumps, often with untested, experimental parachutes.
By August 1942, after writing an Army field manual on airborne tactics and techniques, he took command of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment and was promoted to colonel. Less than a year later, Gavin and his men would find themselves going toe-to-toe with German and Italian forces after a bungled nighttime airdrop during the invasion of Sicily on July 9-10, 1943.
Landing nearly 30 miles from the intended drop zone—strong winds and pilot error were to blame—Gavin and his soldiers fought their way through the Sicilian countryside back to their assigned objective, a critical sliver of land known as Biazza Ridge, which the Allies eventually controlled.
But the invasion of Sicily was just the beginning of Gavin’s war. The 1929 West Point graduate went on to make combat jumps at Salerno, Italy, on D-Day in Normandy, France, and during Operation Market Garden, the largest airborne assault in history. After unknowingly fracturing two discs in his back, the newly minted major general fought on, leading the 82nd Airborne through The Battle of the Bulge and the war’s final months.
While busy leading thousands of American GIs through vicious winter warfare, Gavin still found time to write letters to his young daughter, Barbara. Writing a note home from the confines of a bombed-out building near the German-Belgian border, he mentioned the letters he wrote to others.
“I have always written to the family of every boy who has been a fatality, so by now I have an awful heap of letters to write,” he said. “It is a very deep tragedy and no doubt a lasting one to an American family to lose a son or brother. Their letters wring one’s heart, and unfortunately there is so little that one can say.”
As winter turned to spring in 1945, Gavin knew that the war was winding down. By May 2, six days before victory was declared in Europe, he accepted the surrender of the entire German 21st Army—150,000 troops in total— in Ludwigslust, Germany. The same day, Gavin, his men and soldiers from the 8th Infantry Division discovered the Wöbbelin concentration camp. Their grim discovery of nearly 1,000 dead prisoners—and thousands more dying of starvation—was a vile end to a bitter war.
Gavin’s immediate response was captured in a letter home.
“Even our hatred for the German, deep-seated and intense as it was, was to be added to when we found the concentration camp a few miles from here.” he wrote. “The first burgomeister (mayor) committed suicide with his family the night that I arrived. We couldn’t understand why until we found the camp.
“Those things must never be forgotten.”
As a small measure of justice, the Americans ordered the local citizens to visit the camp and bury the bodies. The 82nd held a service for 200 victims on May 7. Victory in Europe was declared the next day, but Gavin wouldn’t return home until the following January.
After the war, Gavin was promoted to lieutenant general and served in various high-level posts. He led the integration of the 82nd Airborne in the 1940s and, as the service’s chief of research and development in the 1950s, was credited with helping modernize the Army before retiring in 1958.
Parkinson’s disease was the only foe he could not conquer. While Gavin died from complications of the disease in 1990, his legacy lives on in many forms.
Aside from the streets named in his honor in the Netherlands and England, and the small memorials in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, the Gavin family and 82nd Airborne Division alumni gather each year to lay a wreath at his gravesite at West Point, his alma mater.
–Chad Stewart is the senior editor of On Patrol.
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