World War II, which occurred precisely at the juncture between air transport capability and the invention of the helicopter, saw history's first and only mass use of paratroopers dropped into battle from the sky, perhaps the most courageous combat task seen in modern warfare. And "Jumpin' Jim" Gavin was by all accounts America's best paratrooper leader.
His first combat jump was in Sicily, where as a battalion commander he found his men scattered all over the landscape in one of airborne's greatest fiascos. Yet his stand with a few stalwarts at Biazza Ridge is credited with saving the U.S. invasion front. In Normandy, as assistant division commander of the 82nd Airborne, he won the eternal affection of his men for continuing to lead in combat, M-1 slung over his shoulder, even as his paratroopers were similarly scattered and faced German fire on all sides. His cool leadership served to coalesce the paratrooper bridgehead behind enemy lines until infantry from the beaches could finally reach them.
During Operation Market Garden, now as commander of the 82nd, Gavin wrote a new chapter in paratrooper heroism, seizing all his objectives despite a serious spinal injury on landing. With hardly a respite after the grueling campaign in Holland, Gavin and his men were called upon for perhaps their most dangerous task - stemming the German onslaught during the Battle of the Bulge. Though most historical kudos have gone to the 101st Airborne in that battle, for their gallant stand at Bastogne, it was the 82nd's stand at St. Vith, where the Germans truly wanted to break through, that equally foiled Hitler's last offensive attempt in the west.
After the war Gavin continued to earn as much respect from policymakers as he had from his men, providing commentary on our Cold War stance, the war in Vietnam, and as Kennedy's ambassador to France. He was not an unflawed individual, as this comprehensive biography reveals, but an exceptional one in every sense, especially during his days of combat leadership during history's greatest war.