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Posted on Feb 4, 2015 in Carlo D'Este

A Reminiscence of General James M. Gavin

A Reminiscence of General James M. Gavin

By Carlo D'Este

My first association with Lt. Gen. Jim Gavin occurred in 1979 when, as a fledgling researcher in the early stages of a PhD dissertation (which instead became my book Decision in Normandy four years later), I wrote to him to request an interview, mentioning that I was doing graduate work at King’s College, London, on World War II in Europe.

After his retirement from the Army in 1958, Gavin was recruited by the consulting firm Arthur D. Little, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he rapidly rose to become president and chairman of the board. Even though he had retired from his full-time role at Arthur D. Little, and was now a consultant, my letter was hardly a reason for him to take time out to be interviewed by an unknown like myself. Hence, I was more than a little astonished when he promptly replied to my letter and agreed that I should come and see him at his office.

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Upon arrival I was ushered into a small conference room to meet the general who said he said he could only give me about forty minutes because he had to attend a meeting. Wow! I thought forty minutes was pretty darned generous. The time went all too quickly and as he got up to leave, Gavin said if I wouldn’t mind sticking around he’d come back for more discussion.

And he did! Throughout my time with him there was no doubt that he was deeply interested in discussing World War II. Nevertheless, I never anticipated that someone of his stature would give so generously of his valuable time to a fledgling researcher who probably asked more than a few inane questions of him. But that was Jim Gavin.

James M. Gavin

During the time I spent with him that day he gave me his full attention and responded candidly to my questions. It was an awesome experience, the first of others that occurred in subsequent years.

Just before it was published in 1983, my publisher sent Gen. Gavin a copy of my first book, Decision in Normandy, and asked for an endorsement for the dust jacket, which, to our surprise and delight, he duly provided, calling it “Splendid … a must book about Normandy,” praise that meant the world to a first-time author.

When I was researching my second book about the Sicily campaign (Bitter Victory: The Battle for Sicily, 1943) that Gavin played such a key role in, I again wrote and asked for another interview. He had retired from his second career at Arthur D. Little and had a summer home not far from mine on Cape Cod. Before long I had an invitation to visit him.

Taking no chance of being late (or lost!) on the appointed day, I made a reconnaissance several days in advance to be certain of the location of his home in Osterville, Massachusetts that turned out to be difficult to locate behind a grove of trees along the oceanfront. My first thought upon seeing the house and its great view was that no one I’ve ever met worked harder or was more deserving of such a fine summer home than Jim Gavin.

During this and subsequent discussions, as he had during my first interview, Gen. Gavin never ducked the issues, no matter what the subject under discussion. We talked a great deal about leadership in World War II – and beyond. Gavin was unsparing in his criticism of the way American senior battlefield commanders were, in his opinion, too often relieved of command for what he believed was insufficient time to prove themselves.

In his exceedingly frank war memoir, On To Berlin, Gavin has written: “I have a haunting memory that does not diminish with the passage of time of how unfairly and thoughtlessly we treated some of our senior officers.”

Although not mentioned by name in Gavin’s memoir, the person he most had in mind was Omar Bradley, who was notorious during World War II for relieving senior officers with little time in their command positions or for reasons Gavin considered unfounded.

Gavin cites the case of Maj. Gen. Alan Jones, the commanding general of the 106th Infantry Division in the Battle of the Bulge. “In the case of General Jones and his 106th Division, higher headquarters knew no more about the German plans than he did. Higher command also knew of his dispositions and approved them. His leading green regiments were overwhelmed before they could offer much resistance, and there is little he – or anyone else, for that matter – could have done about it. Summarily relieving senior officers, it seems to me, makes others pusillanimous and indeed discourages other potential combat leaders from seeking high command … It must be changed … Summarily relieving those who do not appear to measure up in the first shock of battle is not only a luxury that we cannot afford – it is very damaging to the Army as a whole.”

The system, Gavin has argued, “must be changed.” Since these words were written in 1978, there is not much, if any, evidence it has changed for the better.

Over the next few years we had other illuminating and engaging discussions. On one occasion I learned of his quest to learn the truth about his ancestry.

Jim Gavin was born in Brooklyn in 1907. His birth name was not Gavin. The name that appears on his birth certificate is James Nally Ryan. He was placed in an orphanage before being adopted at the age of two by Mary and Martin Gavin of the small Pennsylvania coalmining town of Mt. Carmel, where he was raised under very hardscrabble conditions. He had spent many years seeking the truth of his birth and had even hired private investigators to assist him in his quest for the truth about his birth.

He told me his birth certificate had been doctored and that he was certain that his mother and father were clerics of the Catholic Church. Despite a lifetime of great accomplishment and heroic status as one of the most revered figures of World War II, what mattered most to him at this stage of his life was to learn the truth about his birth – and his birth parents.

Sadly, about this time, Gavin developed Parkinson’s disease, and as his condition worsened, he was no longer able to drive. On one occasion we both were both being interviewed at a local TV station as part of a program on the war, and I was asked to drive him to the interview. As his condition worsened, Parkinson’s began to affect his ability to speak and he became increasingly difficult to understand.

He once telephoned me with some questions that I simply could not decipher because the disease had caused him to speak only with great difficulty, and with slurred words. Most were queries that required a “yes” or “no” answer but because Parkinson’s had so impaired his speech I had to guess what to reply – unsure if I’d given a correct response.

Gen. Gavin’s affliction led to me investigate Parkinson’s and its awful effects on the human body. It’s not a pretty picture. According to the Mayo Clinic website: “Parkinson’s disease is a progressive disorder of the nervous system that affects your movement. It develops gradually, sometimes starting with a barely noticeable tremor in just one hand. But while a tremor may be the most well-known sign of Parkinson’s disease, the disorder also commonly causes stiffness or slowing of movement. In the early stages of Parkinson’s disease, your face may show little or no expression or your arms may not swing when you walk. Your speech may become soft or slurred. Parkinson’s disease symptoms worsen as your condition progresses over time.”

And so it inevitably did with Jim Gavin.

There is as yet no cure for Parkinson’s.

What turned out to be my last visit with him was over lunch. It was heartbreaking to see this brilliant, vibrant, successful man, and great leader, gradually slowed and brought down by a dreaded disease over which he had no control.

Time passed, and we lost track of one another until one day in 1990, when I was deeply saddened to learn of the death of this extraordinary man. You can read his obituary that appeared in the New York Times by clicking here.

Next month the first of a two-part article about Gen. Gavin’s remarkable leadership in World War II, and his many accomplishments in the postwar years.

1 Comment

  1. Carlo D’Este is one of my favorite historians. Unlike many, he does not glorify war. His account of his personal interactions with Gen Gavin is excellent. I do not know much of Gen Gavin, but he appears to be the kind of man that was sorely needed during a time of great crisis and a man of great integrity. I look forward to reading the coming 2 part article on his service and I am going to look for his memoir. He seems like someone those in power today should study and emulate, a great American who always stood by his principles regardless of the consequences.

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