Jim Gavin’s War – Part 2
Above: Men of the 82nd Airborne Division make a practice jump in North Africa. National Archives.
James Maurice Gavin’s life and military career were spectacular American success stories. He was one of the war’s most decorated and highly respected heroes. In Sicily he commanded the first U.S. Army combat parachute operation, made more combat jumps than any American general of the war, and fought in virtually all of the major battles in the Mediterranean and Northwest Europe theaters of World War II: Sicily, Salerno, Normandy, Nijmegen, and the Battle of the Bulge. The capstone of his great exploits was to accept the surrender of an entire 150,000-man German army group in April 1945.
Throughout the war Gavin carried an M-1 rifle and except for the two silver stars on his collar and helmet, could have, and often did, pass for an ordinary soldier. As the youngest division commander since Custer in the Civil War, Gavin was anything but ordinary. He has been aptly described as magnetic, handsome, dynamic, literate, and ambitious, all qualities which would serve him well.
He was one of the first graduates of the airborne school at Fort Benning and became a pioneer of airborne warfare. Gavin made so many parachute jumps, some of them experimental, that he earned the nickname “Jumpin’ Jim.”
Born in Brooklyn on March 22, 1907 of uncertain parentage, he was placed in a Catholic orphanage until 1909 when he was adopted by Martin and Mary Gavin of Mount Carmel, a mining community in the hardscrabble coalfields of northern Pennsylvania.
By the age of ten 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 in order to help his family make ends meet. Faced with the prospect of having to follow his adoptive father into the coalmines, Gavin, much like another poor young man from Abilene, Kansas named Dwight Eisenhower, yearned for a better future for himself. His fascination with the outside world was fueled by stories told by the local coal miners, and he began to read about the Civil War and envisioned himself commanding soldiers in battle.
Possessed of a boundless intellectual curiosity, Gavin devoured every book Mount Carmel had to offer. His inspirations were the great commanders of history: Napoleon, Caesar, Alexander, Lee and Stonewall Jackson. He wanted to be like them. Little did young Gavin know that one day he would carve out his own unique place in the annals of American military history and become a legendary commander in his own right.
On his seventeenth birthday he ran away from home to New York City in no small part due to the harsh treatment he received from his alcoholic foster mother. Although underage, Gavin managed to enlist in the U.S. Amy and was posted to a field artillery unit in Panama.
Despite being educated only up to the eighth grade, Gavin’s passion for reading and learning, combined with his initiative and enthusiasm, soon caught the eye of his first sergeant, who not only made him his assistant but saw to it that he was promoted to corporal at a time during the interwar years when promotions were extremely slow.
In 1924, Gavin passed the exams for West Point and was admitted the following year. The military academy was a challenge for under-educated cadey Gavin who arose in the early morning hours each day to study by the light of dawn in the bathroom. 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. 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 commanding the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR).
A tough taskmaster and “hands-on” commander, Gavin told his officers that they were always the first to jump out of an airplane and the very last in the chow line, a practice that has continued in airborne units to this day. The regiment he personally 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 twenty-four hours a day.”
On September 9, 1943, Lt. Gen. Mark Clark’s Fifth Army invaded Salerno and was immediately in serious trouble when the beachhead became tenuously held and the invasion force in desperate need of reinforcements. Clark called for airborne support and Gavin’s regiment was one of several units of the 82nd called upon to parachute into the beachhead.
In his memoir, On To Berlin, Gavin describes how a tired and begrimed young P-38 pilot who had flown from the Salerno beachhead landed in Licata on September 13 with an urgent message from Clark for the 82d Division commander’s eyes only. The beachhead, Clark wrote to Maj. Gen. Matthew Ridgway, needed immediate help from the 82d to plug a dangerous gap that had opened in the Sele River sector of VI Corps around Paestum, where the Germans threatened not only a counterattack but also of splitting the tenuously held Salerno beachhead in two.
The situation was so serious that Clark contemplated evacuating VI Corps from their beachhead and re-landing them in the British sector. Had this decision actually been carried out the results would more than likely have been catastrophic. Instead, Clark pinned his hopes on an airborne rescue.
Col. Reuben H. Tucker’s 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment was to parachute that night into the beachhead to reinforce the beleaguered 36th Infantry Division. So hasty were the final preparations that the briefing for the troop carrier pilots took place by “the light of a few flashlights and maps held against the side of a plane.”
In the wake of the disastrous airborne landings in Sicily in July, no one knew if the 82d could pull off another night airborne drop without similar results. This time, however, the airborne drop of the 504th went off without a hitch. The arrival of airborne reinforcements was just in time to repel a German attempt to crush the 36th Division that was launched the following day.
Gavin and the 505th made a second successful emergency night drop at Paestum on September 14. The risky but successful airborne drop not only helped save Salerno but also proved that airborne operations, even at night, were still viable after the fiasco in Sicily had called their future use into question.
After Sicily, there had been consideration by Eisenhower of calling off future employment of airborne troops. Salerno not only provided the impetus for future operations but also ensured that Jim Gavin would play a role as the war shifted to Europe.