William “Wild Bill” Donovan is one of the giants and fathers of the American intelligence community. But before he became a spymaster, he fought in World War I in the infantry and was a war hero. 

After studying law at Columbia University, where he was a classmate of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Donovan became a partner in a law firm in Buffalo, New York. There he decided to help form and lead a troop of cavalry for the New York National Guard. His unit was mobilized and sent to Mexico during the punitive campaigns to catch Pancho Villa.

Upon returning from Mexico, Donovan was promoted to Major and joined the “Fighting 69th” (the Irish Brigade of Civil War fame). The 69th later became the 165th Regiment of the famous “Rainbow Division.”

Donovan was an officer who led from the front, even as a battalion commander.

In World War I, he was wounded by shrapnel and nearly blinded by a German mustard gas attack. He was awarded the French Croix de Guerre for a daring under fire rescue of a wounded soldier. Donovan refused to accept the honor until a Jewish soldier, who had also taken part in the same action but was snubbed because of his religion, received the award. After the French authorities rectified Donovan accepted the Croix de Guerre.

On October 14-15, 1918, during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, the 165th was in heavy action at Landres-et-St. Georges. Donovan, now a Lt. Colonel, led one of three regiments. The objective was to capture an enemy position that was well entrenched on a steep ravine and surrounded by machine guns and artillery.  

Because of the heavy German fire and strong defensive positions, the other two supporting regiments refused to advance. Yet Donovan persisted and rallied his regiment and led the advance under absolutely murderous enemy fire.  

Although most of the officers of the time had stripped off all of their rank and insignia, Donovan had refused to do so. He told his men, “They can’t hit me and they won’t hit you!”