We’re excited to announce that Paratrooper: The Life of General James M. Gavin by T. Michael Booth and Duncan Spencer is now available from Casemate!
Originally published in 1994, Paratrooper explores the life and service of the legendary General of World War II. Gavin commanded the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, and later the entire 82nd Airborne Division during the war (as America’s youngest major general), and was known as “Jumpin’ Jim” since he always took part in the jumps he commanded. Gavin and his troops participated in key World War II battles including the invasions of Sicily, Normandy on D-Day, Operation Market Garden and the Battle of the Bulge.
Read an excerpt from Paratrooper below:
Bill Walton watched Brigadier General James Maurice Gavin gripping the door frame of the C-47 as it flew low over Normandy, buffeting through the cold air. Behind Gavin, Walton stood amidst a “stick” of eighteen paratroopers, straining under the weight of weapons, hooked by a thin static line to a jump cable. For the hundredth time, Walton, a civilian journalist, who had begged to get on the plane, cursed this stupid idea. Now he could clearly see his own death in a dozen different versions. The noise was a drug, overwhelming. Numbed by the clamor of laboring engines roaring, air sucking and screeching past the metal plane, Walton kept his eyes on the figure in the doorway and tried not to think.
Below, the land looked flat as cardboard, but Walton knew there were thousands of German soldiers down there, ready to kill him. There would be no support or protection. The clumsy transports had flown through the coastline defenses, flack rocking the planes. Preflight briefings had shown the tall poles, “Rommel’s asparagus,” the Germans had set up to smash landing gliders. The low beaches were bristling with guns and metal obstacles. But the planes droned on, dropping lower. The final stage of the European war, the invasion of occupied France and the destruction of Germany’s waning military machine, would begin at the door where Gavin stood.
Walton was glad to be close to Gavin. Before taking off he had hoped for a big story for Time magazine on the man rapidly becoming a legend, but the hopes had dissolved and been replaced by fear. This was Walton’s first jump. He vowed then and there never to do such a thing again if only God would spare him this time, if only the parachute worked! Walton felt himself pushed forward toward the wind-tortured door frame of the rocking aircraft. At least, he thought, the Germans would not expect them.
Then came the buffeting blows and the sound of metal spattering. Flack pinged and pattered, random jagged bits of metal meant to cut, wreck, and kill. There would be no surprise.
That night, all over Normandy, men jumped in a broad band behind the beaches, bent on many different errands of war. By the end of the next day, more than 1,ooo men of the 82nd Airborne would be dead, wounded or missing. Many would fall into marshes and sink, or hit trees, where they would dangle to be murdered later. Some of the missing would be disabled, many with broken bones, and quickly taken prisoner.
Most of the men of the 82nd knew they were jumping into something very big, into history, like Crecy or Waterloo or the Cannae, but for days the tide of battle and uncertainty would cover these men. They would fight alone, almost out of touch with the seaborne invaders at first, not knowing the outcome of the invasion.
The Normandy invasion was Gavin’s doorway to fame in battle. It captured the attention of the entire world and made Gavin larger than life. Looking for heroes, Americans found them in Gavin and his paratroops. The unforgettable images of the Normandy beach by Life magazine photographer Robert Capa gave Americans the picture of American boys storming ashore past wreckage, past even the corpses of their friends, but irresistible. Gavin’s black-faced troopers fulfilled another fantasy: the elite, tough, warriors who fought by stealth and surprise, who put their lives at risk behind enemy lines. Gavin was their beau ideal.
Thirty-seven years of age on the night of the Normandy drop, Gavin looked about ten years younger. Throughout his life, until arthritis from a jump injury, and later, Parkinson’s, stooped and slowed him, youth was his trademark. But not only youth, a particular brand of it. Lean to an extreme, his strength was of the sinew-and-muscle kind, the strength of endurance. He lived a Spartan regime, uninterrupted since early childhood, of heavy manual work, long-distance marches, simplicity of diet, and a belief in the virtue of physical toughness.
At the height of his powers the night he hurled himself out of the transport at the German enemy, Gavin had been preparing for this moment for twenty years. He had spent most of his waking moments thinking about his work and ways to improve it. He had read almost continuously about the great soldiers of history, and he had written out favorite aphorisms from their recorded statements for his own reference. Now the hoped-for opportunity had come.
Suddenly the green light came on, the signal to jump, and Gavin, soon to be the youngest Major General since George Armstrong Custer, left Walton with a last flashing image-the wind plastering dark cloth against the paratrooper’s wiry arms, his form outlined by the naked light, both hands tensed on the alloy doorway. Gavin hurled himself forward and disappeared into the prop blast. Like a suicidal caterpillar the entire stick of eighteen men, automatons now, pushed forward, a sharp metallic sound marking each man’s exit. ” Don’t push,” Walton heard himself saying, “I’ll go quick.” Then he too reached the door and jumped into the black-and-white photo below. Twisted and tossed by the turbulence of the prop blast, his mind went numb, and then with a wonderful lurch, it all stopped. He was swaying, masterfully above the earth; silently, the canopy blossomed above his head. The ground approached fast, then Walton heard gunfire and saw tracers streaking across the ground, and the fear returned.