The heart to do what others cannot
Photograph of Lieutenant General James M. Gavin in 1964.

 The heart to do what others cannot

Lt. Gen. James Gavin looked through the car window on a misty day at La  Fiere Bridge. It was June 7, 1984. He needed to talk to the troops of the 82nd Airborne Division who had parachuted in the day before. It was the first time the division had returned to Normandy since June 6, 1944.

Despite the frailties of age and the onset of Parkinson’s, the sight of the red berets energized him. He grasped his cane, stood up and strode to the front of the men, no introduction needed. For an hour and a half, talking and walking, he was in command once again, transporting troops back in time, to that seemingly insignificant causeway they so desperately needed to cross and defend, into a stronghold of entrenched Germans intent on killing every one of them.  

“Only Airborne troops could have done this,” he told them. “It took more heart than head to succeed, which they did, because they could do no less.”

The troops were mesmerized. They followed him, absorbing his energy and an aura of authority that could not be denied. “I would have followed him to hell in gasoline-soaked pants,” one soldier said.

Some of the troopers who served in later wars remembered the spirit and strength they saw from Gavin at La Fiere that day and how it affected them in their own situations. The “jumping general” who led predawn airborne operations on D-Day that opened the Normandy coast for the pivotal Allied invasion that began the end of World War II and Nazi occupation gave them an enhanced will to succeed in their own missions, no matter where.

Every year since, troops from the United States, France and NATO converge on Normandy in celebration of the D-Day anniversary. The Norman French are effusive in their appreciation of the troops, even to this day. They see their grandfathers in their youth. They pat and praise the young soldiers, who are somewhat dumbfounded by the attention. Children here, they soon discover, often know more about the unit regiments and their history than they themselves.

And the highlight of the activities – other than multitudinous ceremonies – are the terrain walks.

Led by two retired colonels who were present when Gavin gave his walk and talk in 1984, and with input from other veterans over the years, they guide the troops through many of the sites, some familiar, some not so. Omaha Beach. Pointe du Hoc. Utah Beach. Brécourt Manor. Chef-du-Pont. Neuville Au Plain. Timmes Orchard. Sainte-Mère-Église. Pegasus Bridge. Merville Battery. Always, the final walk takes place at La Fiere Bridge, tracing Gavin’s steps and points along the way.

The troops look at the land with experienced eyes; they are battle-hardened from their own missions. But here, they envision what Gavin and his men, the “originals,” saw. They understand the friendly and enemy positions and appreciate the decisions that had to be made so long ago to take the position. In a sense, they become their military ancestors for a moment in time, on a seemingly ancient battlefield. They see themselves in their predecessors. More importantly, they see their hearts.

That’s the lesson Gen. Gavin shared for an hour and a half on a rainy day in 1984.

Nothing exemplifies this more than that of a battle-hardened NCO who was part of the later experience, well after Lt. Gen. Gavin passed.

The retired colonel had stood in front of the room as the troops shuffled in, the unmistakable daze of an 18-hour trip on C130s, from Ft. Bragg and Ft. Benning to France, on their faces. The sergeant had the easy efficiency of one who was used to leading under stress. He spoke in a low tone, primarily with gestures. His men immediately responded through their haze and sat down, eyes alert. He checked the men, whose eyes met his. Both satisfied with the result, they returned to the tasks at hand.

This was part of what the Army calls a “good-deal trip.” Yet after the seemingly endless plane ride, MREs and expeditionary-quality bathroom options, he and the troops were not yet ready to call it that.

The sergeant’s alertness and control were noted by the colonel. This was a reliable combat soldier.

The following day, their guide walked a site with the mass of men, briefing them and taking questions. He noted the NCO was off to the side, in a position where he could see him, his men and the land. The sergeant had a combat patch from the Rangers, and his current organizational patch. He had probably served from private to platoon sergeant in the sandboxes and served well, with first-class units, multiple times. He had a Combat Infantry Badge and the sharp eyes of one familiar with kinetic moments.

As the day wore on, he was becoming immersed in the place and the moment, into which he had been transported. He went from controlling his men as a matter of emphasis to absorbing the story of what occurred here during World War II. He analyzed the terrain, calculated enemy numbers, his own resources and the necessary resolution. He became the man on the spot, so many years ago.

Mentally, he maneuvered his men as if he were Owens at La Fiere, Turnbull at Neuville, Lomell at Pointe du Hoc or Hall at Omaha Beach. Here was a man with multiple hard combat tours who was clearly transfixed by his predecessor’s actions. Experienced in the facts of combat, he appreciated the moment. He had bridged the span of time and become part of the place.

Walking back from a site, he moved to the front of his men, an exception from his normal positioning and tugged on the guide’s sleeve.

They slowed their pace and catching his eye, the NCO said with clear reverence, “Sir. Some stuff happened here.”

That sergeant and that statement were the residue of what Lt. Gen. Gavin imparted so long ago. When one of the attendees, in a dark and desperate place, remembers what he saw and felt in Normandy, it would give him the heart to do what others cannot.  And that is exactly what Gavin intended.