Like most kids I loved reading about Americans who rose from nothing to greatness.  When I got to college and encountered my first left-wing history professor, I learned that Horatio Alger characters were pure myth—except I had already read and heard about dozens of them.  One of my favorites was Jumpin’ Jim Gavin, the heroic commander of the 82nd Airborne.

Gavin was born James Nally Ryan in Brooklyn in 1907.  His parents were Irish immigrants Thomas and Catherine Ryan, although some say his real father was another Irish immigrant, James Nally.  He was placed in the Convent of Mercy orphanage in Brooklyn, not exactly an auspicious beginning in life.  In 1909 he was adopted by an Irish immigrant coal miner and his wife, Martin and Mary Gavin of Mount Carmel, Pennsylvania.

As a youth Gavin read voraciously about the Civil War and worked several part-time jobs.  He dropped out of school after the eighth grade to work.  On his 17th birthday he took a train to New York and enlisted in the Army.  While stationed in Panama, he showed extraordinary leadership, great intellectual curiosity, and a natural aptitude for learning.  At the urging of superiors, he studied for and took the entrance exams for West Point, qualifying easily.

He arrived at the U.S. Military Academy in the summer of 1925, only 18 but already a corporal and a veteran.  To compensate for his lack of formal education he rose two hours before his classmates and studied in the latrine, the only place with a light burning during the wee hours of the morning.  He graduated on schedule in 1929.

Everywhere the young lieutenant was posted he took advantage of the Army library and correspondence courses.  He feared the Army was much behind the times, especially after being stationed in the Philippines and monitoring the Japanese.  Gavin saw what was coming and declared that our weapons and equipment were no better than those used in World War I.

By the late 1930’s he was back at West Point, now a captain and an instructor in tactics.  Students called him the best teacher at the Academy.  Gavin was developing theories on airborne forces and predicting that parachute regiments would be essential should we enter the war in Europe.  After graduating from the Airborne School at Fort Benning in the summer of 1941, he took command of the newly organized 503rd Parachute Infantry Battalion.  In October he was promoted to major.  He quickly realized that the Army desperately needed a manual for airborne units.  He wrote it.

Following America’s entry into the war, Gavin was tasked with developing an airborne division.  With the aid of Gen. Lesley McNair, he transformed the Army’s 82nd Infantry Division into an airborne division, initially composed of two glider infantry regiments and one parachute infantry regiment.  In August 1942, Gavin became commander of the latter, organized as the 505th, and was promoted to colonel.  Gavin personally led every training exercise, telling his officers that it was their duty to be “the first out of the airplane door and the last in the chow line,” a tradition followed to this day in Army airborne units.

When the 505th went into action during the July 1943 invasion of Sicily, Gavin was the first out the door of the lead airplane.  Less than a year later and now a brigadier general and assistant division commander of the 82nd, Gavin led his troops in a night jump behind enemy lines before the D-Day landings at Normandy.  (Robert Ryan, who not only shared Gavin’s true surname but was a veteran as well, portrayed Gavin and his actions at Normandy in The Longest Day.)

Gavin’s next combat jump came in Holland in Operation Market Garden, but not before he was appointed commander of the 82nd, making him the youngest officer to command a division.  A hard landing ruptured two discs in his back, but he stayed in the fight, which included several battles to secure bridges across the lower Rhine.  The operation exposed the difficulties of working with our British allies.  Remarked Gavin, “Their tops lack the know-how.  Never do they get down into the dirt and learn the hard way.”  (With Ryan O’Neal playing Gavin, the operation is brought to life in A Bridge Too Far.)

At the conclusion of Market Garden, Gavin was promoted to major general, making him the youngest in the Army to hold such rank.  Still only 37, he would temporarily command the XVIII Airborne Corps at the Battle of the Bulge.  By the end of the war, Gavin’s decorations included the Distinguished Service Cross (twice), Silver Star, and Purple Heart.  He stayed in the Army through Korea and retired a lieutenant general, declining a promotion to general and command of the Seventh Army in Europe.  He was also the author of five books and served as U.S. ambassador to France under President Kennedy.  Not bad for the kid from the Convent of Mercy orphanage.