“General Gavin was a very brave man who had great faith in his men. The battle or the weather never stopped him from going to check the troops. He would go in the rain or snow. If the battle was severe, he would crawl from foxhole to foxhole to talk to his men to let them know he was with them. Words cannot explain the love and pride I had for General Gavin.”—Walter Woods, World War II aide to General Gavin
Gavin at War: The World War II Diary of Lieutenant General James M. Gavin, edited and annotated by Lewis Sorley (Casemate Publishers, 2022, 240 p)
Much of the history of World War II has already been written and analyzed, but researchers and historians continue to find new angles for readers. Previously classified documents continue to surface, providing new insights into the events that shaped the Greatest Generation. One such document is the recently published diary of Lieutenant General James M. “Jumpin Jim” Gavin. Gavin wrote his diary without thought of being published, which some enthusiasts will find interesting since Gavin wrote five books between 1947 and 1976.
One would think that a war diary covering the time from April 8th, 1943 through September 1st, 1945, by the commander of the 82nd Airborne Division would have gone to print shortly after the last entry. And yet, it did not. Some will argue that Gavin’s book, On to Berlin, is his historical account of that period. However, Gavin’s innermost thoughts on the progress and preparation for jumps, his opinions of his peers, subordinates, and superiors, and his personal feelings about his marriage and other liaisons are detailed in Gavin at War. It reads like an abbreviated stream of consciousness in parts, and in others, like a well-edited short story.
Gavin was the youngest major general to command an American division during World War II. He pinned his second star on at the tender age of 37, though at times he feels like an ‘old man.’ Gavin brought his own typewriter with him and never hand-wrote his entries. There are stretches between battles and other big events where there is no account. He is critical of both himself and others, and prided himself on striving for perfection.
Gavin didn’t suffer those around him unprepared for the rigors of war. He over-prepared his men and ensured they had equipment and training necessary for his assigned tasks. His contemporaries rarely went to the lengths he did, and as a result, his men loved him. Gavin’s marriage was not strong when the war started. His mid-war entries speak of this and he matter-of-factly mentions that he and his wife Irma would divorce when he returned. This may have given him the interpersonal license to see others during his overseas service.
After the war, Gavin would earn a third star, marry again, and finish a distinguished career. His service would include an ambassadorship to France, when De Gaulle was the French president. The book notes how Gavin conceived the idea of the Peace Corps to help JFK’s presidential campaign. Kennedy endorsed the concept and rewarded Gavin with the Paris assignment. Gavin would also be associated with the global consulting firm Arthur D. Little for decades, both as its leader and as a consultant. Gavin lost his final battle with Parkinson’s disease in 1990.
Among the clearest takeaways we get from this diary is his devotion to his biggest mentor, General Matthew Ridgway. His respect is clear in multiple entries. Gavin also clearly had fond feelings for the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR), as they were called. Of the roughly thousand men of the 505th PIR that Gavin would make combat jumps with during the war, only 23 in the division would survive through the war. A photograph in the book commemorates those survivors of jumps into Sicily, Salerno, Normandy (on D-Day), and the Netherlands. Gavin holds the distinction of having made more combat jumps than any other general in history. His gravestone at the West Point Cemetery displays his master parachutist badge, with four stars signifying those jumps.
Gavin’s career encompassed all the great battles of the war, including Operation Husky, Market Garen, D-Day, and the Battle of the Bulge. Yet his diary never comes off with the pomposity one might expect. This is likely because his brief writings on those events lacked the context one might have in looking back at them all. Gavin’s military decorations would astonish many. He earned two Distinguished Service Crosses and two Silver Stars, among others. His diary notes he was “very proud” that he also earned the Purple Heart.
This book is perfect for World War II enthusiasts, military fans, and particularly, for those who revere Gavin as the Father of Airborne.