On Sundays, after the war, he used to drive out to Tempelhof airfield in Berlin and do a parachute drop "to get the cobwebs out," as he said quietly. This was after his spine had been cracked in two places during a drip into Holland with his 82nd Airborne.
Gen. James M. Gavin, the youngest division commander in World II, always was an action soldier. He believed that "the place for the general in battle is where he can see the battle and get the odor of it in his mostrils," to quote from his immensely readable book, "On to Berlin."
Now he is 71. He doesn't look it. He has the soft voice and calm eye of a man who has walked across minefields and stared down the gullet of German 88 tank gun. And he still believes in being on the scene.
The people at Arthur D. Little Inc., the research and consulting firm, say he brought them down from the tower and out into the real world during his 19 years as vice president, president and board chairman. He built it up from $11 million to $130 million a year, expanded its overseas activities and turned it toward the burgeoning field of management counseling.
"By its very nature, you have to be on the line in that business," Gavin said during a visit here. "There's such a variety of jobs. We had a daily meeting of the top people, and we'd go over the list of new projects and decide who would take responsibility for what, who was best for it. Then that person would take over and do it as best he could."
A man who belives is being there has got to be somebody special in our era of computer decisions and committeefied responsibility. He may be onto something, too. The war in Europe might have ended in 1944 had the Falaise Gap been closed, he writes, and he puts the finger ultimately on Gen. Eisenhower for his "remoteness from the battle scene when critical decisions had to be made."
By contrast, Gen. MacArthur was there for the Inchon landings in Korea. "MacArthur got into the action so much that I felt he was courting death," he said. "The thing is, he was at home on a battlefield. He had seven Silver Stars from World I, and you don't get those for sitting around staff headquarters. I think some of these top generals don't have enough battle experience as junior officers."
The book opens a few old wounds, notably the American resentment of British Gen. Montgomery, by nature a World War I general who insisted on fighting Napoleonic set-piece battles in the middle of a fast-breaking war of movement.
It was Monty, vainglorious and insufferably patronizing about the Yanks, who tried to stop Patton, Gavin reminds us. The ferociously aggressive Patton was roaring across France at the time, while the Briton was still dug in before Caen, far behind schedule. It was Monty, we are told, who presented Arnhem to the world as a British victory when actually it was American paratroops who saved the operation from British ineptitude.
Gavin also disapproves of the American tendency to relieve commanders after one mistake, before they could prove themselves.
"We wasted talent," he said. "It was getting so bad by the end of the war that they couldn't get division commanders. Nobody wanted to go out there and maybe not do so well in their first exposure to combat and have their career ruined for it. The British knew what it meant to be in a long slogging war, and they'd let a new general find himself a bit."
On the other hand, he said, Americans have a great talent for management, which shows up not only in their way of fighting but in everything they do. Their gift for improvising was vital in a war of movement.
"Before we dropped, all the commanders would meet and inform each other what their goals and plans were," he noted, "so you could take over for someone else if you had to.
"We'd agree on an informal code: I would be Slimjim, and the Nijmegen bridge would be Apple, and so on, so that I could get on the radio and say, 'This is Slimjim and I'm moving north on Apple.' It was only good for the first 48 hours, but it was very efficient."
The Russians, he added, just couldn't get the hang of that kind of organization. It's why they never were able to do much with paratroops, which Gavin saw as the weapon that transformed World War II just as the tank transformed World War I.
In his book, the general examines with a cold eye our failure to take Berlin before the Russians in 1945. He analyzes the main phases of the European war, letting the chips fall where they may, as indeed they do. Always he thinks.
"I might do a book on this concept of the bigger bomb," he remarked, "this policy that requires ever greater deception of the people. It reached a peak with the false body counts in Vietnam. That was why I left the military in 1958, the deception. I was against the involvement in Southeast Asia from the beginning, you know. I saw Diem in '55, and from what he told me I realized the whole thing was a can of worms."
Gavin is full of surprises. One remembered that he was Kennedy's ambassador to France in 1961-'62, but one didn't know he had written a book with Andre Maurois on France's role in our Civil War. One had been told he was a coal miner's son, but not the rest of it: Orphaned as a baby, he was adopted by the miner, a nearly illiterate immigrant, and brought up in poverty in Mount Carmel, Pa.
"My parents were kind people, they could hardly read or write. I was an avid reader, but there was no library in the town, so I read books in the store where I picked up my papers, I was a paperboy then."
Fascinated with military affairs, he wrote an outline of the Civil War while still in grade school. He dropped out to work in a "filling station," the latest thing in Mount Carmel in 1923.
"But I was very upset at having no education, so I left home and enlisted and was sent to Panama. There was a post library there."
Teaching himself algebra and other subjects, laboriously conquering the textbooks page by page, he passed the exam for West Point, squeaked through his first year, gradually caught up with his classmates and finished in the top third.
Doubtless the modesty of his background had something to do with his being a soldier's general, sleeping on the ground with his men, jabbing them into action when they panicked, carrying them to safety when they were wounded.
This is not to say he was all bite and no bark.
Late in the war the haughty Gen. Von Tippelskirch came in to surrender his army before the Russians got them. Elegant in field gray, with his red collar tabs and the Iron Cross at his throat, Von Tippelskirch asked for the American general in charge and was directed to Gavin, standing on a street corner in his faded old jumpsuit with a rifle over his shoulder like any other GI except for the two stars on his helmet and collar.
"He looked at me with some disdain," Gavin recalls, "saying I was too young and did not look like a general to him."
Then he adds, drily: "It took only a moment to change his mind."