Lieutenant General James Gavin in World War II

Major General James M. Gavin

National Archives & Records Administration

James Maurice Gavin was born March 22, 1907, in Brooklyn, NY as James Nally Ryan. The son of Katherine and Thomas Ryan, he was placed in the Convent of Mercy orphanage at age two. After a brief stay, he was adopted by Martin and Mary Gavin from Mount Carmel, PA. A coal miner, Martin barely earned enough to make ends meet and James went to work at age twelve to help the family. Wishing to avoid a life as a miner, Gavin ran away to New York in March 1924. Contacting the Gavins to inform them that he was safe, he began looking for work in the city.

Enlisted Career

Late that month, Gavin met with a recruiter from the US Army. Underage, Gavin was unable to enlist without parental consent. Knowing this would not be forthcoming, he told the recruiter he was an orphan. Formally entering the army on April 1, 1924, Gavin was assigned to Panama where he would receive his basic training in his unit. Posted to the US Coastal Artillery at Fort Sherman, Gavin was an avid reader and an exemplary soldier. Encouraged by his first sergeant to attend a military school in Belize, Gavin received outstanding grades and was selected to test for West Point.

Rising in the Ranks

Entering West Point in the fall of 1925, Gavin found that he lacked the basic education of most of his peers. To compensate, he rose early each morning and studied to make up the deficiency. Graduating in 1929, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant and posted to Camp Harry J. Jones in Arizona. Proving to be a gifted officer, Gavin was selected to attend the Infantry School at Fort Benning, GA. There he trained under the guidance of Colonels George C. Marshall and Joseph Stillwell.

Key among the lessons he learned there was not to give long written orders but rather to provide subordinates with guidelines to execute as the situation warranted. Working to develop his personal style of command, Gavin was happy in the school's educational environment. Graduating, he wished to avoid a training assignment and was sent to the 28th & 29th Infantry at Fort Sill, OK in 1933. Continuing his studies on his own, he was particularly interested in the work of British World War I veteran Major General J.F.C. Fuller. 

Three years later, in 1936, Gavin was sent to the Philippines. During his tour in the islands, he became increasingly concerned about the US Army's ability to withstand Japanese aggression in the region and commented on his men's poor equipment. Returning in 1938, he was promoted to captain and moved through several peacetime assignments before being posted to teach at West Point. In this role, he studied the early campaigns of World War II, most notably the German Blitzkrieg. He also became increasingly interested in airborne operations, believing them to be the wave of the future. Acting on this, he volunteered for the Airborne in May 1941.

A New Style of War

Graduating from the Airborne School in August 1941, Gavin was sent to an experimental unit before being given command of C Company, 503rd Parachute Infantry Battalion. In this role, Gavin's friends convinced Major General William C. Lee, commander of the school, to allow the young officer to develop the tactics of airborne warfare. Lee agreed and made Gavin his Operations and Training Officer. This was accompanied by a promotion to major that October. Studying other nations' airborne operations and adding his own thoughts, Gavin soon produced FM 31-30: Tactics and Technique of Air-Borne Troops.

World War II

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor and US entry into the conflict, Gavin was sent through the condensed course at the Command and General Staff College. Returning to the Provisional Airborne Group, he was soon dispatched to aid in converting the 82nd Infantry Division into the US Army's first airborne force. In August 1942, he was given command of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment and promoted to colonel. A "hands-on" officer, Gavin personally oversaw the training of his men and endured the same hardships. Selected to take part in the invasion of Sicily, the 82nd shipped out for North Africa in April 1943.

Dropping with his men on the night of July 9/10, Gavin found himself 30 miles from his drop zone due to high winds and pilot error. Gathering up elements of his command, he went without sleep for 60 hours and made a successful stand on Biazza Ridge against German forces. For his action, the 82nd's commander, ​​Major General Matthew Ridgway, recommended him for the Distinguished Service Cross. With the island secured, Gavin's regiment aided in holding the Allied perimeter at Salerno that September. Always willing to fight beside his men, Gavin became known as the "Jumping General" and for his trademark M1 Garand.

The following month, Gavin was promoted to brigadier general and made assistant division commander. In this role, he aided in planning the airborne component of Operation Overlord. Again jumping with his men, he landed in France on June 6, 1944, near St. Mére Église. Over the next 33 days, he saw action as the division fought for the bridges over the Merderet River. In the wake of the D-Day operations, the Allied airborne divisions were reorganized into the First Allied Airborne Army. In this new organization, Ridgway was given command of the XVIII Airborne Corps, while Gavin was promoted to command the 82nd.

That September, Gavin's division took part in Operation Market-Garden. Landing near Nijmegen, Netherlands, they seized bridges in that town and Grave. In the course of the fighting, he oversaw an amphibious assault to secure the Nijmegen bridge. Promoted to major general, Gavin became the youngest man to hold that rank and command a division during the war. That December, Gavin was in temporary command of the XVIII Airborne Corps during the opening days of the Battle of the Bulge. Rushing the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions to the front, he deployed the former in the Staveloet-St. Vith salient and the latter at Bastogne. Upon Ridgway's return from England, Gavin returned to the 82nd and led the division through the war's final months.

Later Career

An opponent of segregation in the US Army, Gavin oversaw the integration of the all-Black 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion into the 82nd after the war. He remained with the division until March 1948. Moving through several high-level postings, he served as assistant chief of staff for operations and Chief of Research and Development with the rank of lieutenant general. In these positions, he contributed to the discussions which led to the Pentomic Division as well as advocated for a strong military force that was adapted to mobile warfare. This "cavalry" concept ultimately led to the Howze Board and influenced the US Army's development of helicopter-borne forces.

While comfortable on the battlefield, Gavin disliked the politics of Washington and was critical of his former commander—now president—Dwight D. Eisenhower, who wished to scale back conventional forces in favor of nuclear weapons. He likewise butted heads with the Joint Chiefs of Staff regarding their role in directing operations. Though approved for promotion to General with the assignment to command the Seventh Army in Europe, Gavin retired in 1958 stating, "I won't compromise my principles, and I won't go along with the Pentagon system." Taking a position with the consulting firm Arthur D. Little, Inc., Gavin remained in the private sector until serving as President John F. Kennedy's ambassador to France from 1961-1962. Sent to Vietnam in 1967, he returned believing the war to be a mistake that distracted the US from the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Retiring in 1977, Gavin died on February 23, 1990, and was buried at West Point.

Selected Sources

PA History: James Gavin

New York Times: James Gavin Obituary

World War II Database: James Gavin

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Hickman, Kennedy. "Lieutenant General James Gavin in World War II." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). Lieutenant General James Gavin in World War II. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "Lieutenant General James Gavin in World War II." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 6, 2023).