General James M. Gavin
Image Source: National Archives, Washington
Gavin treated each man under his command with the same love a father has for his own son. The men adored him for it. He believed strongly in leading by example in every situation. In battle he could always be found at the very front, sharing fox holes and taking fire just like any other enlisted 82nd Airborne soldier.
The literature is replete with examples of General Gavin’s unique and effective style of leadership. There are two stories that have always stuck in my mind and give meaningful context to Bill’s jeep encounter with Gavin.
This one took place in Normandy the day after the 82nd Airborne jumped:
“One of the parachute officers who accompanied Jim Gavin was Thomas Graham, who recalled an incident that typified the young general’s style of command:
A paratrooper came stumbling and running toward us, shouting, ‘They’re coming! They’re coming!’ He was nearly hysterical. As he approached, we could see that he was one of our younger troopers, probably only 18 years old.
Suddenly the boy halted – I’m sure he recognized General Gavin. In a soft voice Slim Jim asked, ‘What is the matter, son?’
The trooper burst into tears and answered: ‘I thought they were coming!’
Despite his countless burdens, Slim Jim spent a few minutes talking to the boy and assured him he would get some rest. Then the general told his orderly, Cpl. Walker Wood, to accompany the distraught boy back to his unit and relay his rest orders to the trooper’s company commander.” Source: William B. Breuer “Geronimo! American Paratroopers in World War II” 1992 p. 249
This next story took place in Sicily, during the pivotal and desperate battle of Biazza Ridge.
“[Harold] Eatman spotted the head and shoulders of a man in a shallow hole scraped into the stubborn shale. He shouted his unit, hoping that the GIs on the line hadn’t been so spooked that they’d just open up on him. He ran to the man and was surprised to find it was Jim Gavin, out in front. Eatman slid to the ground next to him. He was drenched in sweat, and his canteen was empty.
‘Is there any water here?” Eatman gasped.
Gavin reached around for his own canteen.
‘Here, son, take some of mine.’
Eatman, tired and hot and dusty as he was, thought that he shouldn’t be drinking the colonel’s water. He was a paratrooper and he was supposed to practice water discipline. He put the canteen to his lips but did not drink. He handed it back and thanked Gavin, then took his place on the line.” Source: Ed Ruggero “Combat Jump: The Young Men Who Led the Assault into Fortress Europe, July 1943” 2003 p. 294
Encounters like these and Bill’s hitch hiking story spread like wild fire through the ranks of Gavin’s commands. With each one Gavin gained increasing and lasting adoration from all of his men.
This quote from a trooper before the upcoming Sicily invasion sums up well how the men felt about their beloved leader:
“We’d follow him straight to Hell, if he asked us, and plant our color over Satan’s C. P. ahead of schedule.” Source: H. L. Covington “A Fighting Heart: An Unofficial Story of the 82nd Airborne Division” 1949 p. 31
Gavin equally reciprocated the respect and loyalty the men had for him. In his 1978 book, “On to Berlin”, Gavin writes:
“…Not long after this I received a complaint from the Office of the Post Commander. The Regimental Adjutant of the 505th came into my office and told me that one of our troopers had been arrested for having sexual intercourse with a young lady on the lawn of the courthouse in Phenix City. The Regimental Adjutant was asked by Post Headquarters, ‘What is he going to do about it?’ – meaning me. ‘Well,’ I replied, ‘in view of the fact that that young man will be asked to give his life for his country in the next few months, I suggest we give him a medal.’ I heard nothing further of it.” Source: James M. Gavin “On to Berlin: Battles of an Airborne Commander 1943 - 1946” 1978 p. 8
Gavin expected the highest sacrifices from his “boys” as he fondly referred to them. His daughter in quoting Gavin’s personal diary before the invasion of Sicily, writes:
“Gavin expected every paratrooper to jump and ‘fight to the last man and last round of ammunition’ to achieve victory” Source: Barbara Gavin – Fauntleroy “The General & His Daughter” 2007, p. 33
In Normandy Gavin had this to say:
“About Noon on D-Day plus 1, I met with Matt Ridgeway at the point where the Sainte Mere Eglise road crosses the railroad just east of the Merderet [river]. As far as we knew we were on our own. Matt and I decided right then that if the seaborne assault had been called off or beaten back, then we would continue to fight to the end.” William B. Breuer “Geronimo!” 1992, p. 249.
The Fighting 505
Bill used to tell another story about Gavin that I cannot find in the history books.
Gavin often used to speak of how paratroopers loved to fight. Indeed Bill often told stories of the fights he had during the War. In one case he picked a fight at a London pub with a burly British paratrooper, who Bill said “beat the absolute tar out of me.” When Bill returned from WWII while readjusting to civilian life he used to pick fights in bars just for the hell of it.
Gavin often commented on his boys’ apparent obsession with fighting. This quote from a letter Gavin wrote home while at Oujda is particularly illuminating:
“The troops are getting along fine. Of course they have the usual parachutist difficulties with drinking and fighting. The wine occasionally leaves them mesmerized. I think that is the word, it sounds good anyway. If it isn’t that, it raises them in their own esteem to stratospheric heights of self-appreciation. Any sign on the part of anyone encountered during this inflation that may be considered derogatory is the sign to fight and they are off. MPs also have the same effect on them. I hope they fight as well in combat as they fight around the barrios. I believe they will.”
Source: Barbara Gavin – Fauntleroy “The General & His Daughter” 2007, p. 34
The story Bill used to tell was about a fight incident that happened while the 505 was based in North Africa. He didn’t mention if it happened in Oujda or in Kairouan. I have scanned the history books exhaustively, but have not found a single mention of it. It will be shocking and unbelievable to some, but Bill was adamant that it happened. It’s shocking, because it’s a story about a fight involving an enlisted 505 paratrooper and Colonel Gavin himself.
Bill said the incident happened like this. An enlisted paratrooper walked up to Gavin and challenged him to a fight saying something like he could beat Gavin up. He didn’t say how the situation escalated, but it got to the point where Gavin said “Okay, we’re going outside of the camp to settle this.” Bill said he took off his rank insignia and some of the guys including Bill went out to watch the fight. The two fought each other using a combination of Judo and boxing. According to Bill, the trooper gave a good account of himself, but Gavin was clearly the superior man in unarmed hand-to-hand combat and ultimately won the fight.
Bill said there were only a few troopers present, so the story suggests that Bill was in close proximity to Gavin at the time. The identity of the trooper who picked the fight is unknown and Bill would never divulge his name. Bill’s silence is understandable and admirable. If the story was leaked, the ramifications on Gavin could have been serious especially in light of what was to later happen to General Patton for slapping the soldier in Sicily. Both Gavin and the trooper could have been severely disciplined.
Aggression isn’t something typically associated with General Gavin especially in light of the stories recorded in relation to the way he treated his men.
In writing Ridgeway’s Paratroopers, author Clay Blair incorporated part of an interview he had with Ralph (“Doc”) Eaton. As the 82nd Airborne Division Headquarters Chief of Staff from December 12, 1942 until August 15, 1944, Doc Eaton knew the 505 and Gavin very well.
“The 505 may well have been one of the best trained and highly motivated regiments the Army ever fielded. ‘They were awesome,’ an 82nd Airborne Division staffer [Doc Eaton] recalled: ‘Every man a clone of the CO, Gavin. Tough? God they were tough! Not just in the field, but twenty-four hours a day. Off-duty they’d move into a bar in little groups and if everyone there didn’t get down on their knees in adoration, they’d simply tear the place up. Destroy it. And God help the straight legs they came across.” Doc Eaton thought he had never seen such killers. They reminded him ‘of a pack of jackals’.” Source: Clay Blair “Ridgeway’s Paratroopers: The American Airborne in World War II” 1985 p. 51.
‘Straight legs’ was the Airborne term for the regular GIs. It’s a reference to the fact that they wore straight leg trousers. In contrast, the paratroopers were permitted to tuck pant legs into their jump boots giving them a distinguished and instantly recognizable non-regulation ‘baggy pants’ look.
What is interesting about Doc Eaton’s quote is his observation that every man was a clone of Gavin. Does this extend to the 505ers love of fighting? One cannot tell for sure. Even Gavin seemed a little surprised by the men’s apparent proclivity for their aggressive past time:
“Early in July 1942 the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment was activated at Fort Benning Georgia. I was assigned as its first commanding officer. Its training program was just about as tough and demanding as we could make it. The troopers responded well. However, despite the rigors of training, they always seemed to have enough energy left to get into fights in Phenix City, Alabama and its environs during time off.” Source: James M. Gavin, “On to Berlin”, 1978, p. 4.
None of this analysis is meant to prove anything. I leave it up to the reader to reach his or her own conclusions on Bill’s Gavin fight story. For me at least, I believe it happened. Everything else Bill told of the war has been revealed by the test of time to be truthful, unvarnished and without regard for his or anyone else’s ego.