by Barbara Gavin Fauntleroy
New Canaan, CT 06840


It has been suggested to me that perhaps you, or your children or grandchildren, as well as even a few strangers looking randomly through web sites might enjoy reading some of the stories that my father, Lt. Gen. Jim Gavin, told me about growing up in Mt. Carmel, PA, and of his life after Mt. Carmel, in the Army. He was a charismatic individual who attracted and related to an amazing variety of people. He certainly loved his family, but I believe his greatest love was for his paratrooper “sons” of the 505th RCT and the 82nd Airborne Division.

As a boy, his imagination was captured by the books he read telling about soldiers and battles and glorious victories. He was born in Brooklyn, NY and given up for adoption by his mother. When he was two, he was adopted by a coal-miner, Martin Gavin, and his wife and brought home to Mt. Carmel, PA. He told me that he thought that he was adopted in order to earn extra money to help support the family. After completing 8th grade he was compelled to leave school and start working. While he was still too young for the mines, it was clear to him that there were other possibilities for his life than following his father into the coal mines. He remembered that he had been visited once, in Mt. Carmel, by his birth mother and someone from Catholic Charities, the New York agency that had handled his adoption. He remembered the woman he thought was his mother as a beautiful lady who asked him if he was happy living with the Gavins. Because he had already suffered regularly from Mrs. Gavin’s discipline, he decided that answering with discretion would be best, and said, “Yes.”

The visitors from New York left Mt. Carmel, and my dad continued working and wondering about the world outside. He sold shoes and gasoline, but was most successful organizing the newsboys of Mt. Carmel into sales territories run by Jim Gavin. In March of 1924, just after his seventeenth birthday, he decided to run away to New York where he hoped he might find a job and a new life. After a few days in the city, he went into a recruiting station manned by a resourceful Sergeant who persuaded him that the Army was the life for him and provided a surrogate father to certify that he was eighteen.

He joined the Army and was sent to Panama, where another Sergeant (I have always thought that Sergeants make the Army go round) noticed the young private who could write and enjoyed reading. He persuaded my dad to apply for the tests that could lead to a place at a prep school that would prepare him to take the tests for an appointment to West Point.

Cadet Jim Gavin at West Point Military Academy

Through long days of studying, he managed to win an appointment to the Military Academy. I think it is indicative of his character that he was selected to be the honor representative for his company during all four years at West Point. He boxed, taught Sunday school and was a rifle and pistol marksman. The days weren’t long enough for all of the catching up he had to do. He told me that he had to study at night in the latrines, the only place that was lighted after “Lights out”. One day when I was in high school, I opened his old chemistry text book looking for help. Out fell some pieces of toilet paper with formulas written on them. I had to smile and work a bit harder myself.

He married my mother the summer after his graduation, in 1929. They had met two years earlier on a blind date. They went to his first post in San Antonio, TX, where he hoped to learn to fly and become a member of the Air Corps. That fall he was turned away by his instructors in one of the few rejections in his life. It was not a subject that he talked about other than saying that they had chosen not to take West Pointers into the Air Corps that year.

He was sent to Camp Harry J. Jones in Arizona, on the Mexican border, where he was given command of black troops who responded to the young Lieutenant, and made him proud by winning the post basketball championship under his coaching. While he was in Arizona he met a young man named Barry Goldwater, who became a regular tennis partner and lifelong friend. When he decided to run for President, Sen. Goldwater sent position papers to my dad for his comments. In the late 80’s, West Point gave its prestigious Sylvanus Thayer award to Sen. Goldwater and asked my Dad to make the presentation. It was the last time they saw each other. That evening we ate in the cadet dining hall with the cadets. One of our table mates was a young black cadet wearing paratrooper wings she had earned the previous summer. We were in awe of her accomplishments.

From Arizona my dad was sent to Ft. Benning and the Infantry School, then to Ft. Sill, OK. My mother became pregnant with me at Ft. Sill and decided to return to her family in Washington, DC for my birth. My grandparents drove us back to Oklahoma in January of 1934, where we lived until 1936. In the fall of 1936 we boarded the USS Grant in New York, sailed south, then through the Panama Canal and north to San Francisco. The ship stopped in San Francisco to load supplies, then embarked for Hawaii and the Philippine Islands. I have great old home movies of the Golden Gate Bridge under construction as we passed under it on our way.

After three years in the Philippines we returned to the 3rd Infantry Division at Vancouver Barracks, WA. From there my dad received orders to take part in the massive maneuvers taking place on the West Coast in and around Camp (now Fort) Ord, CA. He wrote in March of 1940, “I have had the opportunity to command the battalion and act as regimental S3. Unlike the spit and polish of garrison training, this has been rather exacting and for a complete period of six months, a good indication of what one can do. If the Army expands and we ultimately enter the war as now appears likely, I want an opportunity to command troops and I know I will go places with them……The crying need now is officers who know troops, and it is with troops that opportunity lies.”

Dick Powell and Col Gavin at 505th Headquarters

The end of April 1940, he received his orders to West Point. He wrote about his new assignment, “Everyone has been very nice about the detail, of course, a number accusing me of using various forms of influence. It is choice and I am fortunate to get it…..My greatest fear is that we will enter the war and I will be stuck there.” When we arrived in July, his classmate, Tony Costello, had drawn housing for us, and we moved into large colonel’s quarters. After eleven years as a lieutenant, my dad was now a captain. Soon a colonel arrived who wanted our house, so we moved, and moved, living in four different sets of quarters during our year at West Point.

While we were in the Philippines, my dad had formed a friendship with Col. Bill Ryder that would last as long as they lived. Col. Ryder had formed the first paratrooper Test Platoon, developing a unique way of going to war that required the best and the bravest young men for training. This was just the kind of new idea that my dad found exciting and wanted to be part of. He asked to be allowed to leave West Point and move to Ft. Benning for parachute training. The answer was a quick and firm, “No.” He called upon every friend who might influence the Army to transfer him and made many trips to the Pentagon. Finally, in July 1940, we moved to Barracks 23, Ft. Benning, GA.

I remember his parachute training as being exciting and physically demanding, but he assured me that his new sport was “perfectly safe if you know what you’re doing”. He was assigned to the job of Battalion executive officer of the 503rd Parachute Battalion and made a Major the end of 1941. In February 1942, he was sent to the Command and General Staff School at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, and in March he was promoted to Lt. Colonel.

Graduation was the end of April. My dad returned immediately to Ft. Benning, then, less than a month later, received orders to Ft. Bragg. He wrote, ”We have a tremendous job ahead of us and it finally appears as though the WD (War Department) is entirely sold on Airborne forces. Apparently we can have anything we want.” And later, “I am a parachutist, still jump, draw jump pay, am on a parachute staff and probably will continue to jump until I break my neck…..This is a very big thing, nothing has ever happened like it in our army before, and it is taking a lot of work and planning even before the real thing starts.”

In July 1942 the 505th Parachute Regiment was activated as part of the 82nd Airborne Division. My dad was formally given command of the regiment in August and made a Colonel. He knew that he wanted superb physical conditioning and great esprit de corps in his officers and soldiers. Good training would instill in the men the toughness, pride and confidence that they would need jumping into the darkness of the island of Sicily. The 505 was singled out by Gen. Matthew Ridgway to lead the American Army on this first invasion of the continent of Europe.

Sir Anthony Eden, Foreign Minister of Great Britain reviews troops of the 505th

Even before activation, in February 1942 the 505 was reviewed by Gen. Ridgway. They passed muster with flying colors, and in March, they were reviewed by Gen. George Marshall and Sir Anthony Eden, Foreign Minister of Great Britain.

The end of April 1943 the regiment sailed for Casablanca. My dad wrote, “This is our fifth day at sea….We are in dangerous waters and yesterday sighted our first sub. Fortunately it went right ahead minding its own business….so other than having to get up too early it caused no inconvenience….The 505 is going to give a good account of itself in any capacity anywhere, everyone is anxious and looking forward to what is coming, they have been outstanding in everything they have put their hands to since leaving Bragg.”

The regiment suffered from the terrible heat and lean rations while training in French Morocco. Just before taking off for Sicily they moved to Tunisia, where my dad wrote, “This is a bit different where I am now. Much hotter which I hardly believed could be. Besides the camels are vicious. They are big and mean, stand in the runways and won’t let the ships (airplanes) land, stand in the roads and won’t let cars by, bite anything including jeeps that come in reach of their long necks and generally make a nuisance of themselves. The arabs are much better than in the last place. There are none.”

Sicily was the invasion destination on July 9, 1943. On July 16th he wrote, “Well, it was a good fight but the censor will not let me tell you about it. I didn’t miss a minute of it – believe I got a purple heart – never felt better in my life – tell you more about it some other time.” On July 17th, “The 505 was wonderful and we are all extremely proud of its accomplishments. I do not know what if anything you hear back home but the 505 did things hardly short of miraculous.”

After almost 6 weeks in Sicily and a brief respite in Africa, the next jump was on Salerno, Italy. On Sept 21st he wrote, “Generally things are looking up after a rough start….They do not appear to have schools for children here, they all work on farms. At the moment though they spend a lot of time with their parents hiding in cellars. Artillery and air bombing know no distinction.”

On Oct 2nd, “After a very active two weeks the 505 had the privilege of capturing Naples. It is a lovely place although at the moment rather badly off. The Germans destroyed all water and lights, opened the prisons, destroyed all docks, food stores, etc. …I have just been transferred from the 505 to Division hqrs. Where I have the job of Assistant Div. Commander. For the first time since May 10th I slept in a bed last night. Really didn’t sleep well. It was too soft.”

By the middle of November, he was in England. Mail, as always, was slow to catch up with him. “I hope to hear from you soon at my new address. I like it here – it is wonderful to come to after where we have been – nevertheless I am looking forward to getting back to the boys…..I’ve had a bath everyday of the past four days – it’s wonderful. I sleep in a nice bed. I feel a bit ashamed of enjoying such luxuries, but everyone here seems to take them for granted. Don’t you do that Babe, people are dying so you can have them.”

His birthday and spring arrived in March. “The village church in a huddle of small dwellings sheltered by massive towering trees is beautiful…..The soldiers get around to see these thing regarding them with proper awe and respect, something that the average soldier would sooner not be caught dead with. As a birthday, so far, it does not appear to differ from any other day. I have a suspicion however that there is something cooking at the mess, and it isn’t brussel sprouts. I have been informed that I am not expected to let training interfere with my attendance at dinner this evening.”

With the end of May came a note that subtly signaled that the invasion jump into France was coming up soon. “There is little that I can write you and still conform to the standards of censorship imposed upon us, and of all people I should not be the one to violate the standards. Everyone is working very hard and in fine fettle. I am certain that I have a few bounces left in me and am looking forward with pleasure to any affairs that chance sends our way. If I survive this combat parachuting I will certainly have a storehouse of practical firsthand information. In a professional way it has been wonderfully informative and I have no doubt about surviving it of course….these are fine lads, they are the finest in soldiers and it is both a pleasure and an honor to take them in.”

On June 11th he found time to send a brief V-Mail saying, “A bit shot at but not shot, I am having a grand time. Everything is going fine. I am glad to have gotten this jump back of me. I was sweating it out a bit, it was rather rough.” And a month later he was back in England writing, “Last night I took a bath for the first time in five weeks, I have never worn my clothes that long before without taking them off. The bath was wonderful….It feels good to be back safe and sound.”

The beginning of September came and with it rain and fog. “I have never seen such weather as we have had for the past five days. History is being made, time marches on, and we wallow in the mud.” Then God smiled on the paratroopers, and they jumped into Holland, the first daytime combat jump, on September 17th. On Sept. 25th my dad wrote, “I understand that mail will get through today so I want to get this off. A week ago we landed, the softest yet for me but also the hottest. But we really cleaned the place out and all is going very well. The boys are doing a grand job.”

Two weeks later he wrote with some foresightedness, “I am not looking forward to the winter war we have ahead of us. Even now it is uncomfortably cold most of the time. I wear everything that I can get on but I feel as though I will never be warm again. It is not the passing temperature as much as the continuous exposure to it. Well I imagine that we will all get used to it after a bit.”

King George of England Awards Medals to the regimental commanders of the 82nd, from left to right Col. March of the Field Artillery, Col. Lindquist of the 508, Col. Tucker of the 504, Col. Ekman of the 505 and Col. Billingslea of the 325.

On August 16, 1944, Gen Ridgway had passed command of the 82nd Airborne on to my dad, and on October 21st, when the promotion became official, his staff pinned on the extra stars. He sent me a photograph that day of the King of England awarding medals to the 82nd unit commanders. “I am just back of the King, immediately back of me is a lineup of my commanders. Most of them you know, a wonderful group. Starting on the left: Col. March of the FA, Lindquist of the 508, Tucker of the 504, Ekman of the 505 and Billingslea of the 325. There are no finer regimental commanders in the army, rough, tough, and all of them good paratroopers and ready for anything.”

The Division was relieved of duty in Holland and moved to Suippes and Sissone from which they celebrated with the traditional wine, women, song and trips to Paris. Just before leaving Holland, “My fellow associate in the other outfit, Max Taylor, was clipped a bit yesterday, shrapnel in the leg, should be out okay in ten days. I have certainly been lucky. I was swanning about the front a day or so ago with Matt (Ridgway). We stopped to ask a few questions. When we started out again a shell burst a few yards ahead of us hitting no one. We decided that we were lucky to have stopped. We started to backtrack when one burst again just ahead of us. But we all slipped out OK. Keeps you on your toes, sort of, very interesting.”

Then came the Germans’ last ditch attempt in the Ardennes. With Gen. Ridgway in England and Gen. Taylor in Washington, Jim Gavin was acting commander of the XVIII Corps and received the news of the German attack on December 17th. The troopers of the 82nd climbed onto open trucks and moved through the snow and rain into Belgium, followed by the 101st. On December 27th my dad wrote, “Well this has been a most hectic ten days. Everything seems to be pretty much in hand now however. It is very cold, somewhere around zero, snowed quite a bit when we first arrived. Awful hard on the boys in the holes. Christmas day was one of the busiest although they have all been full. Don’t think I have ever had less sleep in a week.”

The young paratroopers had become veterans who knew how to dig foxholes and build dugouts and somehow survive the terrible weather, the coldest winter in 100 years, and the best that the German army could throw at them. Casualties were high. Daddy wrote on December 31st , ”My aide Capt Olsen was hit again, this time shrapnel in the legs. To make matters worse, my striker who has been with me for ages, Woods, was hit a day before that…..My greatest loss however was Ben Vandervoort who has been one of my most dependable people since the early days in Alabama. You probably remember that he fought through 33 days in Normandy with a broken leg wearing a walking cast. The day before yesterday he was hit in the head by some shrapnel and may lose the sight of one eye. It is all very sad. I don’t know how much you are told of what goes on but the division has done splendidly. I am enclosing a clipping from this morning’s S(tars) & S(tripes) which I believe should be the picture of the war typifying as it does their gallantry and determination and zest to close with and destroy the german wherever they can find him. Quite a crowd of boys. If there were enough of them the war would be over tomorrow.”

By the beginning of February 1945, the 505 had penetrated the Siegfried line. They were withdrawn to Theux and other small Belgian towns where the local families took them into their homes for a bit of R & R before the next battle. The families who shared their small supplies with the young paratroopers, were rewarded with chocolate, chewing gum and cigarettes that were part of the G.I.’s field rations. As the paratroopers left, the Belgians gave them the white sheets from their beds to be used over their jump suits as camouflage in the snow that covered everything that winter.

The division moved into the almost impenetrable Huertgen Forest, where the snow was beginning to melt. On February 14th my dad wrote that he was about to move his CP up a bit and into a cellar. Then from the cellar he said, “The walls are chewed up a bit and the ceiling scarred from shelling, but it still beats a tent.” He said that he didn’t spend much time there, only “at night when there is planning to be done and reports gotten out or letters written. I have always written to the family of every boy who has been a fatality so by now I have an awful heap of letters to write. It is a very deep tragedy and no doubt a lasting one to an American family to lose a son or brother. Their letters wring one’s heart, and unfortunately there is so little that one can say.”

On February 24th, from Suippes, he wrote, “The Ardennes was some place to spend the winter, wow. Sure glad to be out of there. I never knew that man could adapt himself so well to unbelievable discomforts, especially cold. After a while it just didn’t seem to make much difference. I always worried about the wounded more than anything else. The cold was bad for them, their survival rate was not too high. But the boys did wonderfully.”

The battle situation for the 82nd was much improved by March. My dad had a chance to fly to London. “I was over to the UK the other day and inquired about your kilts (ordered months before). Not ready yet, promised for next week. I explained about how you undoubtedly have grown some since I gave him the measurements, and he said I probably didn’t realize it but there was a war on. I am not sure what that has to do with it but sometimes they appear odd, the British.”

Late in April the war in Europe was winding down, but in my dad’s mind the possibility of entering the war in the Pacific was looming. “Since things are getting a bit more quiet here daily, there may be a chance for some of us to go to the Pacific. As a matter of fact the War. Dept. has announced that many of the troopers here would…..Things are getting far too quiet here, I feel like a fire horse with no fires to go to. What does a fire horse do when there are no more fires to go to? I hardly believe that there is a good fight left on the continent.”

On the second of May, 1945 in Ludwigslust, Germany, the 82nd Airborne and my dad accepted the surrender of a complete army group, more than 150,000 troops led by Gen. Von Tippelskirch. “A complete german army surrendered to me yesterday, The troopers were moving rather fast and had been for about a week and…before either side were fully appreciative of the extent of our penetrations we were completely into the german rear areas. The CG decided to surrender rather quickly. He had little choice…..We lost too, the fighting in places was heavy.”

The tragedy of Wobelein concentration camp was discovered by horrified young troopers as they explored the area around Ludwigslust. In a letter written May 22 he said, “It was here that I accepted the surrender of the 21st German Army. That was quite a day for all of us, really our VE day. We knew for certain that the German could never get off the flat of his back again. To many of us, all of us present who have survived since Casablanca, it was a fitting climax and we were deeply moved by the entire business. Even our hatred for the German, deep seated and intense as it was, was to be added to when we found the concentration camp a few miles from here. The first burgomeister committed suicide with his family the night that I arrived. We couldn’t understand why until we found the camp. Those things must never be forgotten.”

On May 8th, the war in Europe was declared ended with the surrender of Germany. Troopers were counting “points”, hoping for the 85 required to be sent home. The 505 was breaking up. He wrote, “I was just interrupted by a soldier who goes home tomorrow. He landed at Casablanca with me, jumped with me in Sicily and Salerno, was with me when I captured Naples with the 505, jumped with me in Normandy and Holland and fought all through the Ardennes, Belgium, and into Germany until we met the Russians. He feels badly about going but it is the thing for a man to do who is to be released. I am going to talk to a large group of them in the morning, our oldest and most decorated veterans, it will be a tear jerker and I would almost as soon skip it."

The middle of August the division moved to occupy the American sector of Berlin. The problems of maintaining law and order and providing food, water and fuel for the military and one million citizens of Berlin became my dad’s problems. Writing about this he said, “The troopers of the division have been doing a wonderful job. They are working very hard for me and really trying to do the job well. Thursday we had a review for Gen. Eisenhower and a group of congressmen. He was very complimentary. Friday we had another for Marshal Zukov and his staff. It turned out to be for about forty Russian generals who had heard about it and all came along. Bob Capa of “Life” moved into my house today, he will probably stay a week.”

And then, plans were being made to send the 82nd “home”. In a letter dated September 26th, “Practically all of our veterans have left. I will have about 3,000-5,000 82nd men and the remaining 10,000 will be from other outfits. The heartbreaking thing to all of us is that the division is to be demobilized. There will be some airborne divisions left in the post-war army but not the 82nd. Our problem has been that we have too many high point men and the simplest staff procedure has been to demobilize the division. For the veterans it is very hard to take. Gen. Eisenhower is all for us and has recommended that we remain but the WD (War Dept.) says no. We are not licked yet.”

Lt James Gavin and his daughter Barbara

The campaign was on to save the 82nd. On Oct. 11th he wrote, “We have some wonderful friends in the press in the ETO and they are getting all excited about it. They have formed what they call a crusade and at their own expense they have wired their papers and press friends in the states protesting our demobilization. You will hear more about this. I am trying to stay out of it as much as I can. But we do have some fine friends, the division is exceptionally well liked by every newspaper man in the business over here and they insist that they will not sit around and see the War Dept. end the 82nd Abn…..The division will probably end up being kept alive but I will end up in jail.”

Finally, on November 11th, returning to Berlin from a trip to England, fog prevented the plane from landing in Berlin, so they continued on to land in Austria. He called headquarters, “and they told me that the division had just been notified that it had been changed to category II which means that it will not be disbanded but will remain in the post war army. It is wonderful.” The 82nd’s last battle of World War II was won.

The 505 returned, via Camp Oklahoma City at Rheims, France to Southampton, England. They boarded the HMS Queen Mary for the trip home to the United States, arriving at New York on January 3, 1946. My dad flew on ahead to prepare for the victory parade. My last WWII communications from him are telegrams sent to my mother and me on December 20th saying, “Will arrive Washington December 21 about”. Then a few hours later, “Flight delayed will arrive in afternoon flight number A sixteen.” He arrived home safely, after almost three years away. We went home and decorated the Christmas tree. Life was normal and wonderful again.


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