Updated: Oct 10, 2019
By Carlo D’Este, military historian and biographer
July 11, 1943, was one of the most unforgettable days of Jim Gavin’s life. It was on this, the second day of the Sicily Campaign, that he demonstrated the courage and leadership skills that would soon propel him to become, at age 37, the U.S. Army’s youngest major general and division commander of World War II. The airborne operation that preceded the invasion of Sicily had taken place the night of July 9 –10, 1943, with Colonel Gavin’s 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division as the spearhead unit. Their mission was to seize key sectors of the invasion front to prevent the Germans and Italians from launching counterattacks against Lieutenant General George S. Patton’s Seventh Army before it could secure a foothold along Sicily’s southern coast. The drop, however, was a complete fiasco due to high winds, poor navigation by inexperienced pilots, and badly designed aerial routes. Of the 3,400 paratroopers of the 505th who left Tunisia that July evening, scarcely 100 were dropped near their intended landing zones. Most of the regiment was scattered over 1,000 square miles of southern Sicily.
When Gavin first landed he knew he had missed the drop zone but feared even worse, until he saw the glow of bursting shells in the distance to the west, “since it meant that we were in Sicily,” Gavin would later write. “And we were ‘moving toward the sound of the guns,’ one of the first battle axioms I had learned as a cadet at West Point.” Although he didn’t know it at the time, he had landed near the town of Vittoria, some 20 miles east of his drop zone. He and a small band of men who had landed near him walked all night. At one point the next morning, July 10, they encountered an Italian patrol. An intense firefight broke out, and several American paratroopers were wounded before Gavin and his men were able to gradually disengage. Gavin was the last to withdraw. “We were sweaty, tired, and distressed at having to leave [our] wounded behind,” the regimental operations officer, Major Benjamin Vandervoort, recalled. “The colonel looked over his paltry six-man command and said, ‘This is a hell of a place for a regimental commander to be.’”
Had Gavin not been isolated from his men and uncertain of the situation he faced, he would have been far less apprehensive. The botched airdrop was actually working in the 505th’s favor, as his widespread paratroopers aggressively took on whatever enemy forces they encountered. Although they did not pose a real threat as a fighting force, their guerrilla tactics of cutting telephone lines and ambushing unsuspecting Italian and German patrols were highly effective. Reports began filtering in to the Italian Sixth Army’s headquarters of bands of parachute and glider troops roaming the hills and valleys in many times their actual number. The Germans were likewise fooled into believing that as many as two paratroop divisions had landed.
Early the next morning, July 11, as Gavin drove a commandeered jeep west in the direction of the town of Gela, he encountered some 250 of his regiment’s paratroopers resting in a tomato field. Angered by the inaction of their battalion commander, he ordered him to move out and seize his assigned objectives. Gavin retained a platoon of airborne engineers and continued on toward Gela until about 8:30 a.m., when he heard enemy fire coming from a nearby ridge overlooking the Acate River. He directed the engineers to storm the ridge and, under Gavin’s leadership, the platoon captured it. Without tanks and supporting artillery, Gavin and his men became pinned down along the crest of the ridge and immediately engulfed in a fight for their lives as the Germans began returning a hail of rifle and machine gun fire.
Gavin immediately surmised the importance of holding the high ground, known as Biazza Ridge, and thus began the most desperate battle he ever fought. His pitifully outgunned and overmatched platoon was the only Allied force between the Germans and the beachheads of the 1st and 45th Infantry Divisions. Eventually, paratroop reinforcements began arriving to augment his defenses against mounting German opposition.
Arrayed against him that day was the entire eastern task force of the Hermann Göring Division: at least 700 Luftwaffe infantrymen, backed by an armored artillery battalion and a company of Tiger tanks. The German objective was not just to counterattack, but also to drive the two American divisions back into the sea.
At first the Germans failed to act aggressively against Gavin’s outgunned and outmatched force. That afternoon, however, a panzer force furiously attacked Biazza Ridge, shelling it continuously throughout the afternoon. By the slimmest of margins Gavin’s force somehow held, despite steadily mounting casualties. Gavin himself was nicked in the leg by a fragment from a mortar shell, but did not leave to seek treatment. “We’re staying on this goddamned ridge—no matter what happens,” he told his men. Gavin even used two newly acquired 75mm pack howitzers as direct fire weapons against the vulnerable undersides of the Tiger tanks as they reared up to cross a stone wall that bisected the ridge.
By early evening the situation had turned decidedly grim when six M4 Sherman medium tanks suddenly appeared—to the accompaniment of loud cheers from the weary paratroopers—along with troops who had responded to a call for support, including some airborne engineers, infantry, clerks, cooks, and truck drivers. With this scratch force and the Shermans, Gavin counterattacked, deterring the Germans from pressing their considerable advantage. The battle ended on the evening of the 11th with the Hermann Göring Division retreating and the Americans firmly in control of Biazza Ridge. “I kept thinking of Shiloh, Bloody Shiloh,” Gavin later wrote. “General Grant, sheltered under the riverbank, his command overrun, refused to leave the field, counterattacked, and the battle was won.”
Thanks to the gallant stand by Gavin and his men on Biazza Ridge that day, along with heroic defense by infantrymen of the 1st Division, the beachheads were secured. Nevertheless Biazza Ridge would haunt Gavin for decades. The cost had been high, with some 50 men killed and more than 100 wounded. Graveside services were held right after the battle, and a somber Gavin stood with his head bowed in prayer and tears in his eyes as the chaplain prayed for their immortal souls. Shortly afterward, he wrote to his daughter that he longed to cloister himself in a monastery after the war, somewhere where there would be no death and destruction like what he had seen in Sicily. He cared deeply about his men, and their deaths were painful to a commander who believed so strongly in sharing their hardships.
The raw courage displayed on Biazza Ridge made it one of the greatest small unit actions of World War II. American historian Clay Blair called Gavin’s actions “one of the finest, most dogged displays of leadership in all of World War II.” For his valor that day Colonel Gavin was awarded the first of his two Distinguished Service Crosses, and earned a firm foothold in the ranks of legendary leaders—one he built on throughout the rest of the war.
James Maurice Gavin’s life and military career were classic American success stories. He emerged from a childhood of hardship and abuse to become one of the war’s most decorated and highly respected heroes. A pioneer of airborne warfare, Gavin made so many parachute jumps, some of them experimental, that he earned the nickname “Jumpin’ Jim.” In addition to commanding the U.S. Army’s first combat parachute operation—in Sicily—he made a total of four combat jumps, more than any American general of the war, and fought in virtually all the major battles in the Mediterranean and Northwest Europe: Sicily, Salerno, Normandy, Nijmegen, and the Battle of the Bulge. The capstone of his great exploits was accepting the surrender of an entire 150,000-man German army group in April 1945.
Gavin carried an M1 Garand rifle and, except for his colonel’s eagle and, later, the silver stars on his collar and helmet, could have—and often did—pass for an ordinary soldier. “I have always believed that it is important for a general with the infantry to look just like the infantry,” he once said. But Gavin was anything but ordinary. The youngest division commander since George Armstrong Custer in the Civil War, Gavin has been aptly described as magnetic, handsome, dynamic, literate, and ambitious—all qualities that would serve him well.
Born in Brooklyn in 1907 of uncertain parentage, he was given up for adoption at the age of 23 months. His adoptive parents were Martin and Mary Gavin of Mount Carmel, Pennsylvania, a mining community in the hardscrabble coalfields in the north of the state. By the age of 10 he was delivering newspapers, and later worked in a barbershop, as a clerk in a shoe store, and as the manager of a small oil company to help his family make ends meet. Faced with the prospect of following his adoptive father into the coal mines, Gavin—much like another poor young man named Dwight Eisenhower—yearned for a better future for himself. Stories told by the local miners fueled his fascination with the outside world. He began to read about the Civil War, and envisioned himself commanding soldiers in battle.
Possessing a boundless intellectual curiosity, Gavin devoured every book Mount Carmel had to offer. His inspirations were the great commanders of history: Napoleon, Julius Caesar, Alexander, Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson. “I was intrigued by the way that generals such as Grant, Lee, and Jackson moved many thousands of men about in an orderly planned way,” he said, and wanted to be like them.
Home life was difficult, though; Gavin was often the target of his alcoholic foster mother’s rages. On his 17th birthday he ran away from home to New York City. Although underage, Gavin managed to enlist in the U.S. Army and was posted to a field artillery unit in Panama. Despite being educated only up to the eighth grade, Gavin had a passion for reading and learning. Combined with his initiative and enthusiasm, Gavin soon caught the eye of his first sergeant, who made him his assistant and saw to it that he was promoted to corporal at a time, during the interwar years, when promotions were infrequent.
In 1924, Gavin passed the exams for West Point and was admitted the following year. The military academy was a challenge for the undereducated cadet, and Gavin compensated by rising early each day to study in the bathroom, the only place with enough light. His diligence paid off with graduation in 1929, and a commission in the infantry. By the summer of 1941, with war clouds looming, Gavin was among the first to undertake airborne training at Fort Benning, Georgia. He was singled out for greater responsibility and wrote the first manual to address the employment of airborne troops. In August 1942 he was already a full colonel, in command of the 505th.
A tough taskmaster and hands-on commander, Gavin told his officers that they should always be the first to jump out of an airplane and the last in the chow line, a practice that has continued in airborne units to this day. The regiment he led and trained became one of the finest ever produced by the army. The 505th embodied Gavin. “God, they were tough!” recalled one 82nd Airborne staffer. “Every man a clone of the CO, Gavin, not just in the field, but 24 hours a day.”
Two months after the infamous drop in Sicily, which had left the continuing use of airborne operations in question, Gavin had the opportunity to put his paratroopers to the test again during the Allied invasion of mainland Italy. On September 9, 1943, Lieutenant General Mark Clark’s Fifth Army invaded Salerno, on Italy’s southwest coast, and immediately got into serious trouble, with a tenuous hold on the beachhead and in desperate need of reinforcements.
Clark called for airborne support, and Gavin’s regiment was one of several units called upon to parachute into the beachhead. The night of September 14, on mere hours notice, Gavin and the 505th made a drop at Paestum, a town some 25 miles down the coast from Salerno. The risky drop helped secure not only Salerno, but the future of airborne operations.
In October Gavin was promoted to brigadier general, becoming the 82nd’s assistant division commander. The following month, Major General Matthew B. Ridgway— the commander of the 82nd, who had recommended Gavin for the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions in Sicily—handpicked him as the airborne advisor to the planners of Operation Overlord and sent him to England. There he applied the lessons of Sicily and Salerno to prepare the 82nd Airborne and two other divisions for airborne and glider landings during the invasion of Normandy in June 1944.
One of Gavin’s principal accomplishments during the run up to D-Day was to establish a special school for volunteer “pathfinders” who would jump ahead of the main assault force to mark the drop zones. His message to them was stark: “When you land in Normandy you will have only one friend: God.” In the early morning hours of June 6, 1944, Gavin parachuted with the 82nd Airborne from a C-47 transport plane and landed “with a pretty loud thud” among peacefully grazing cows on the Carentan Peninsula.
As in Sicily, the airborne and glider landings in Normandy went so awry, primarily due to a heavy cloud cover that disoriented the pilots, that paratroopers and their equipment were strewn for miles in the marshes of the Carentan. Gavin landed some two miles short of his intended drop zone and immediately began rounding up scattered paratroopers. Gavin’s trademark was leadership by example, and during the first anxious days of the invasion he repeatedly exposed himself to heavy fire in order to motivate young men who seemed satisfied merely to have survived their landings. During a particularly vicious battle for the causeway along the Merderet River, some paratroopers froze under the withering fire. Gavin joined them on the causeway, encouraging faltering men to go forward with a calm, “Son, you can do it.”
On this and numerous other occasions during the war Gavin’s practice of leading from the front, conducting reconnaissance in person, and going from foxhole to foxhole to check on his men nearly got him killed. Some of the risks he routinely took may have been foolhardy, but this was Gavin’s way and he never gave his own safety a second thought; he believed it was simply what a good commander did.
During one firefight, a paratrooper heard someone yelling at him to “get your ass down, soldier, before you get shot!” He searched for the speaker and spotted another paratrooper standing nearby, fully upright and completely exposed to enemy fire. He shouted back: “You better get your own ass down, too!” Later, he met the trooper he had yelled at—General Gavin, who merely smiled and moved on.
What Gavin learned in Sicily and perfected in Normandy was that by relentlessly utilizing fire and maneuver in close combat, he and his men would invariably overcome the German tendency to avoid fighting in close quarters. During one chaotic situation at a critically important bridge, when Gavin learned that a regimental commander was preparing to withdraw, he ordered the officer to prepare to counterattack with every resource he had. To ensure his orders were carried out and no one retreated across the bridge, he stationed a six-foot-four, 240-pound lieutenant colonel named Arthur Maloney, armed only with a large tree limb, to turn back anyone who tried to cross. “Maloney was an impressive sight,” Gavin later recalled—“a tough, burly trooper, wearing three days red beard streaked with dry blood from being hit earlier in the day. No one was going to get by him.” And no one did.
The next month, Gavin was given command of the 82nd Division. Two months after that, on September 17, the Allies launched the biggest airborne operation in history. Three divisions—the British 1st Airborne, and the American 82nd and 101st Airborne—landed by glider and parachute in Holland in Operation Market Garden, which was designed to capture a bridgehead over the Rhine at the Dutch city of Arnhem. The 82nd’s mission was to capture and hold an area near the German border that included the bridge over the River Waal at the city of Nijmegen, the bridge over the River Maas at the city of Grave, and several other bridges over the Maas-Waal Canal. Once secured, the British XXX Corps would hasten up the road held by the airborne divisions and link up with the British 1st Airborne at Arnhem, thus securing the intended bridgehead over the Rhine.
Gavin had injured his back landing on hard pavement and, despite what turned out to be two broken ribs, set off to organize his men. Seizing the vital Nijmegen Bridge was the key to the 82nd’s mission. To do so, Gavin assigned Colonel Reuben Tucker’s 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment the mission of making an exposed combat assault across the Waal in borrowed flimsy canvas engineer boats and seizing the northern end of the bridge. The daring gamble paid off. The river assault was carried out under exceptionally heavy enemy fire and, although at a high cost of 48 lives, succeeded brilliantly.
As crises erupted all over the 82nd’s sector, Gavin became like a one-man fire brigade, racing from place to place to assess the situation, issue orders, and raise morale. Despite his back injury, he rarely rested. When he did manage to sleep, it was on the ground with his men.
During the battles around Nijmegen, the commander of the British Second Army, Lieutenant General Miles Demp-sey, visited Gavin and said he was proud to meet the commander of “the finest division in the world today.” (Afterward, Dempsey sent a van for Gavin’s use. Gavin gave it to his staff. “Parachute officers,” he said, “had to set an example and learn to live like other troopers.”)
Gavin created a similar impression on the XXX Corps commander, Lieutenant General Brian Horrocks. “Whenever I rang up Jim Gavin to find out what was going on he gave me the same answer: ‘We’re just having a bit of a patrol,’” Horrocks later remarked. “I usually discovered that this ‘bit of a patrol’ had consisted of at least one hundred U.S. paratroopers carrying out a large-scale raid on the German positions.”
Although Operation Market Garden ultimately failed to achieve its goal when the Germans seized control of Arnhem Bridge, Horrocks called the performance of the 82nd Airborne during Market Garden “the best attack I ever saw carried out in the whole war.”
After Nijmegen, the war was far from over for the 82nd. In mid-December 1944, the Germans launched the last-ditch counteroffensive that became the Battle of the Bulge. One of Eisenhower’s first decisions was to rush his two airborne divisions into the breech in an effort to stem the German advance.
Thrust into the front lines, Gavin’s paratroopers played the role of ordinary infantrymen in the U.S. Army’s bloodiest battle of the war. As had been true of every battle his division fought in, the 82nd was severely tested at the Bulge. Along the Salm River, in the heavily contested Vielsalm-St. Vith sector, the 82nd fought valiantly in the frozen hell of the Ardennes Forest.
Gavin regularly turned up in the front lines during savage battles fought in Europe’s worst winter weather in a half century. Not a day passed that Gavin was not at the front and in harm’s way, to see and be seen and instill confidence. “The place for a general in battle is where he can see the battle and get the odor of it in his nostrils,” he said. “There is no substitute for the general being seen.”
With the German counteroffensive halted, in early February 1945 the badly battered 82nd was sent into the Hürtgen Forest near the end of the long and costly battle there. Gavin was appalled by the carnage he encountered while reconnoitering the forest on foot—and by what he deemed the utter folly of having fought there in the first place. Despite Gavin’s thorough familiarity with combat at this point, nothing could have prepared him for the horrors he encountered in the Hürtgen: disfigured American corpses emerging from the melting winter snow, smashed and abandoned vehicles, tanks, and weapons, and an aura of death that made this place a testament not only to the gruesomeness of war but to the futility of having engaged in battle there.
After the Battle of Hürtgen Forest, the 82nd advanced east, pursuing the retreating enemy to the Roer River before being withdrawn from the front lines. Never afraid to speak his mind, Gavin would later call the Hürtgen “a monster, an ice-coated moloch, with an insatiable capacity for humans.”
In this modern age we make heroes out of athletes and others with no claim whatsoever to the designation. Jim Gavin was the real deal: an authentic hero whose life was marked by exemplary public service, extraordinary courage, leadership, and great accomplishment. He was perhaps the finest example of the warrior ethos: an officer who mastered his profession like few others and in the process was instrumental in pioneering a new form of warfare.
During the postwar years, Gavin was among the first to champion the desegregation of the U.S. military and the development and employment of air mobility by the U.S. Army. He was also an outspoken and unapologetic critic of the Vietnam War.
As the CEO of the consulting firm of Arthur D. Little, John F. Kennedy’s ambassador to France in 1961 and 1962, the author of five books, and the recipient of two Distinguished Service Crosses, a Distinguished Service Medal, a Silver Star, a Purple Heart, and a British Distinguished Service Order pinned on him by Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, Jim Gavin was the embodiment of West Point’s creed of “Duty, Honor, Country.”
Felled by Parkinson’s disease—the one battle he could not win—Lieutenant General Jim Gavin died in 1990 and was buried at West Point. His name will live on among those of the courageous warriors Gavin as a boy had so admired.
Carlo D’Este, a military historian and biographer, is the author of seven books. D’Este first met Jim Gavin in 1979 when the general graciously agreed to be interviewed, even though D’Este was not yet a published writer. Over the years they became friends. “I found General Gavin not only open and exceptionally forthright, but also still possessing the great charisma that made him such an outstanding leader.”