01 November 2010

Real Life Heroes: Gen. James M. Gavin

By Carrie Lofty

Born in New York to poor Irish parents, possibly illegitimately, in 1907, James Gavin was adopted by a coal mining family in 1909. Knowing his parents would want him to go into coal mining too, he ran away from home at age 17 and convinced an army recruiter to let him volunteer as an orphan. His first assignment was in Panama, where he showed great promise as a young enlistee with a thirst for knowledge. A sergeant and mentor suggested that he apply to the local Army school in Belize, where top graduates could merit the opportunity to study at West Point.

Despite only a 7th grade education and his many duties as a soldier, Gavin's dedication and daily hours of tutoring earned his acceptance to West Point. He graduated, barely 22 at the time, after having spent each morning in the bathroom to study. (The bathroom was the only place with enough light at 4:30am.) After his commissioning as a second lieutenant, he married Irma Baulsir in 1929.

Following postings in Arizona, Georgia, and Oklahoma, he wound up in the Philippines in 1936 and saw first-hand the Japanese build-up of troops, whereas the US military in the region consisted of 20,000 men still equipped with WWI-era technology. He was promoted to captain 18 months later and was put in charge of his own company in Vancouver. By this time his marriage was seriously damaged, no matter the birth of his daughter, Barbara.

All of this might seem like a rather determined up-by-your-bootstraps story, if somewhat ordinary.

But then came WWII.

Gavin once again returned to West Point, this time as a tactical instructor. He became fascinated with German blitzkrieg operations, Stonewall Jackson's movement tactics, and the German use of paratroop infantry. Eventually these threads would coalesce as he volunteered for a brand new US airborne unit in spring of 1941.

He did so well at the airborne school that he was made head tactician to institute a unified code of rules and procedures for the new unit, which went along with his promotion to major. He literally wrote the book on airborne strategy for the US Army, called FM 31-30: Tactics and Technique of Air-Borne Troops. The war accelerated his positions of leadership as general after general realized his potential. Upon the creation of the 82nd Airborne division--the "All Americans"--Gavin was given command of the 505th PIR (Parachute Infantry Regiment) and was promoted to colonel.

Gavin continued to be instrumental in utilizing airborne techniques in combat. He learned from the mistakes of Operation Husky, battled the fierce conditions in North Africa, and prepared the 82nd for D-Day in 1944, where he was brigadier general in charge of parachute troops. At the time he only expected three out of every ten men who jumped would survive, a frank estimate that was among his most difficult to bear. He jumped with his men on June 6, becoming the youngest general to participate in D-Day operations. He was 37.

After leading the 82nd into combat during the failed Operation Market Garden drop into the Netherlands, Gavin and his men survived the horrors of that dreadful 1944-45 winter. He became very close to Marlene Dietrich. She was a tremendous force in the USO, and some argued that she stayed with Gavin because many assumed his men would be the first to enter Berlin. Wanted by Hitler because of her decision to become an American, Dietrich was in search of her mother and sister, who had been held for years in a concentration camp. (Dietrich was reunited with her mother month's before the woman's death. Her sister, however, had not been held against her will, but had married a camp guard. Dietrich never spoke to her again.) This relationship between Gavin and Dietrich ended his turbulent marriage.

Despite his troublesome home life, Gavin's post-war career remained ground-breaking. He worked throughout his remaining thirteen years in the army to desegregate the military, and many claimed Gavin to be the most "color-blind" commander in the US. His continued fascination with swift, safe deployment and extraction of troops led to a heavy reliance on helicopters during Vietnam, as well as early strategies involving mechanized troops and automated planes.

Upon retiring as a lieutenant general with the Distinguished Service Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal, the Silver Star, and the Purple Heart, he transformed industrial consulting firm Arthur D. Little from a $10 million domestic enterprise to a $70 million international powerhouse. He served as president and CEO for 17 years before his retirement in 1977. He also served as Kennedy's ambassador to France because of close post-war ties to Charles De Gaulle, and authored or co-authored five books on history and military tactics.

He even managed to turn himself into a real-life hero on the personal front. After his difficult first marriage, Gavin married Jean Emert Duncan in 1948. They were husband and wife for 42 years until his death in 1990, survived by five daughters, ten grandkids, and three great-grandkids. Not bad for an Irish orphan from Brooklyn who began his military career as a barely-literate 17-year-old private.

Carrie Lofty's latest historical romances, SCOUNDREL'S KISS and SONG OF SEDUCTION, are available now. In 2011 watch for Carrie's new Victorian series from Pocket, as well as her "Dark Age Dawning" romance trilogy from Berkley, co-written with Ann Aguirre under the name Ellen Connor. "Historical romance needs more risk-takers like Lofty." ~ Wendy the Super Librarian