When the name “Wild Bill” Donovan is mentioned, most think of the World War II OSS (Office of Strategic Services) which later became CIA and another part of it branched off to later become the U.S. Army Special Forces (Green Berets) of today. But what many people don’t realize is that long before he became the “father of US intelligence”, Donovan was a much-decorated war hero from World War I who was awarded both the Distinguished Service Cross and the Medal of Honor for bravery.

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

On this day October 14-15, 1918, the United States 69th Regiment (the famed Irish Brigade of Civil War fame), later renamed the 165th Regiment of the 42nd Division was locked in heavy combat against the Germans at Landres-et-Saint-Georges. Donovan’s actions during this action would ultimately result in him being awarded the Medal of Honor.

Duty in Mexico, Fame in France:

After attending Columbia University to study law and being a classmate of the future president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Donovan was a partner in a law firm in Buffalo, New York when 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”  which became the 165th Regiment of the famed “Rainbow Division.” Donovan was an officer who led from the front, even as a battalion commander.

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 rescue under fire of a wounded soldier. But Donovan refused to accept it since a Jewish soldier who also took part in the same action was snubbed. After that omission was changed, Donovan accepted the honor.

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 with the objective of capturing an enemy position which was well entrenched on a steep ravine surrounded by machine guns and artillery.  

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

Donovan refused to conform to the convention of the times, by not stripping off all of his rank and insignia which was common for officers, he told his men, “They can’t hit me and they won’t hit you!”

The brass were expecting up to 60% casualties from this assault, can you say proper planning?.  Despite being hit in the knee and two other times during the battle by enemy fire, Donovan refused to leave the field until all of his men were administered to or removed from the battlefield. While he remained, American light tanks were turning back because of the accuracy and amount of fire they were taking.

Because of the efforts of Father Duffy, the erstwhile Chaplain of the regiment and a close friend of Donovan’s, he was awarded an Oak Leaf Cluster (2nd award) to his DSC. The brass was correct in one thing. After the battle was over, 600 of the 1000 men in Donovan’s regiment were killed, wounded or missing in action. They were ripped up in the assault.

After the war, Duffy kept up the pressure on Washington to upgrade Donovan’s DSC to the Medal of Honor. 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 4000 veterans.

In another move that speaks more about Donovan than the medal itself, he refused to keep it. 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 a film about the Meuse-Argonne Offensive and the heroism of Donovan in a classic, “The Fighting 69th” with James Cagney, Pat O’Brien as Father Duffy and George Brent as Major Donovan.

William “Wild Bill” Donovan Born Jan.1, Head of OSS, Forerunner of CIA

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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.

World War II and the OSS:

Donovan was contacted by his old Colombia classmate now President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt to help him find out information about the war in Europe which FDR was certain that the U.S. was going to be dragged into.

Despite being complete opposites on the political spectrum, the two remained close friends and Roosevelt trusted Donovan to meet with King George VI and Winston Churchill. Today’s political leaders should take note.

US Ambassador to England, Joseph P. Kennedy’s assessment was that England was finished and would capitulate to Hitler and Nazi Germany.  Donovan’s assessment was much more optimistic and he urged Roosevelt to provide resources to assist England. Roosevelt trusted Donovan’s opinion more than Kennedy’s and as a result, the U.S. began sending war equipment thru the Lend-Lease program.

Maj. Gen. William Joseph Donovan the namesake of the prestigious OSS Society award. OSS photo

With a non-existent national intelligence network, FDR knew the United States needed one, not only for the coming war but in the years to come. He selected Donovan first at the “Coordinator of Information” but then in 1942, as the commander of the OSS. And as Paul Harvey said, and now you know the rest of the story.

Photos: US Archives.