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...