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.  

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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!”

Army headquarters was expecting up to 60 percent casualties from the assault. Donovan was wounded three times. He steadfastly refused to leave the field until all of his men were administered to or removed from the battlefield. At the same time, American light tanks were turning back because of the accuracy and amount of fire they were taking.

The brass had been correct in one thing: After the battle was over, 600 of the 1,000 men in Donovan’s torn up regiment were killed, wounded, or missing in action.

Because of the efforts of Father Duffy, the erstwhile Chaplain of the regiment and one of his close friends, Donovan was awarded an Oak Leaf Cluster (2nd award) to his DSC.

After the war, Father Duffy kept up the pressure on Washington to upgrade Donovan’s Distinguished Service Cross to the Medal of Honor. And five years later, in 1923, he succeeded. Donovan was awarded the Medal of Honor in New York City. In a move that speaks volumes about the men of the unit and how they felt about him, the ceremony was attended by over 4,000 veterans.

By the end of World War I, Donovan was arguably the most decorated man in U.S. military history at that time. He had been awarded all of the top awards for bravery in combat: the Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal, and the Silver Star.

Donovan would forever earn the respect of his men when he refused to keep his Medal of Honor. He stated that the medal belonged not to him but “to the boys who are not here, the boys who are resting under the white crosses in France or in the cemeteries of New York, also to the boys who were lucky enough to come through.”

Hollywood later made “The Fighting 69th” about the Meuse-Argonne Offensive and the heroism of Donovan. The film stars James Cagney, Pat O’Brien as Father Duffy, and George Brent as Major Donovan.

The WWI hero that pioneered US global intelligence

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Maj. Gen. William Joseph Donovan at his desk during WWII. (OSS photo)

Medal of Honor citation:

“Rank and organization: Lieutenant Colonel, U.S. Army, 165th Infantry, 42d Division. Place and date: Near Landres-et-St. Georges, France, 14–15 October 1918. Entered service at: Buffalo, N.Y. Born: 1 January 1883, Buffalo, N.Y. G.O., No.: 56, W.D., 1922.

Lt. Col. Donovan personally led the assaulting wave in an attack upon a very strongly organized position, and when our troops were suffering heavy casualties he encouraged all near him by his example, moving among his men in exposed positions, reorganizing decimated platoons, and accompanying them forward in attacks. When he was wounded in the leg by machine-gun bullets, he refused to be evacuated and continued with his unit until it withdrew to a less exposed position.”

Several years later, Donovan was contacted by his old Columbia classmate and then-U.S. president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Despite being on completely opposite sides of the political spectrum, the two had remained close friends. Roosevelt asked Donovan to meet with King George VI and Winston Churchill and report on what was happening in Europe as he was certain that the U.S. was going to be dragged into the war.

The U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain, Joseph P. Kennedy’s assessment was that Great Britain was finished and would capitulate to Hitler. Donovan’s assessment was much more optimistic: He urged Roosevelt to provide resources to assist the beleaguered nation. Roosevelt trusted Donovan’s opinion more than Kennedy’s. As a result, the U.S. began sending war equipment to Britain through the Lend-Lease program.

On the eve of the United States’ entry into the war, the country had a non-existent national intelligence network. FDR knew that the United States needed one — not only for the coming war but for the years to come. He appointed Donovan first as the “Coordinator of Information” and then in 1942 as the commander of the OSS.

Donovan’s “glorious amateurs,” as he called them, grew to be huge contributors to the war effort. He once said that OSS wanted “PhDs that can win a bar fight.” The OSS’s ranks from WWII would later become the core element of the new CIA, and the Army’s Special Forces (Green Berets).

And as Paul Harvey said, and now you know the rest of the story.