Col. Donovan and Father Duffy of the Fighting 69th
Shrewd, enterprising and dynamic, he was born to have an impact on any domain
William J. Donovan was never regular Army but proved himself a hero in World
War I and forever changed the function of American intelligence in World War
II. Tagged with the moniker "Wild Bill" in his youth, Donovan influenced generations in the 20th Century. Franklin Roosevelt declared that, had Donovan been a Democrat, he would have been the first Catholic president of the United States.
What Donovan retained of his experiences in the Great War, from his own harsh
training methods to his observation of the workings (and failures) of
military intelligence, he later put to creative use as he established the
Office of Strategic Services. In between, his capability and celebrity
accelerated his legal career and put him on familiar terms with the White
Born in 1883, Donovan had a wife, a son and a Buffalo law practice when the
United States declared war on Germany in 1917. A lively personality always
active in mind and body, he was already a member of the First Cavalry
Regiment of the New York National Guard stationed in Texas where the Army
chased Pancho Villa. An officer by virtue of being elected captain by his
fellow troopers, Donovan became something of a physical education instructor
known for hard drilling. The ex-footballer from Columbia cheerfully
incorporated exercises he had learned on the gridiron with grueling,
innovative ideas of his own that enhanced standard Army methods. If the men
came to curse him, he gained the enthusiastic admiration of Francis P. Duffy,
the regimental chaplain of the storied 69th New York. Father Duffy, well
guessing that America would enter the European fracas at any time, greased
the wheels to have Donovan pulled into the Fighting 69th, where any quality
Irish-American officer from New York should want to be.
Under five-foot-ten, Donovan was brawny and physical with poor working-class
origins. "He had eyes like blue ice that drilled straight through you,"
according to Red Ettinger, who served with the Fighting Irish during the
Great War. But Donovan, the future "spymaster," was also a former seminary
student and a complex intellectual whose knowledge of the war was not limited
to what he read in the newspapers. As a member of the Rockefeller Foundation,
he was in Belgium in 1916 delivering relief in the form of food and blankets
and also observing.
When the U.S. Army was pulled out of Mexico to begin preparations to go to
France, Donovan was transferred to the Fighting 69th as the major of the
First Battalion. The volunteer outfit was mustered into the regular Army as
the 165th Infantry in the 42nd Division. His reputation preceding him,
Donovan was given the responsibility of thoroughly training the unit, mostly
comprised of proud Irish-Americans. It meant weeks of excruciating work and
complaining from the soldiers but they respected that he put himself through
the same torturous training. Shortly before the regiment was to embark for
France, Donovanís newborn daughter was christened Patricia by Father Duffy at
Camp Mills and was named the Daughter of the Regiment.
In France, even before his battalion was on the front lines, Donovan was
known for getting dangerously near the action to gain a complete
understanding of situation and location. It was a trait he would exhibit
again in World War II. Everyone knew that a person who was near the major had
a great chance of getting killed, though Donovan was unconcerned with the
prospect of his own death. While he would earn the highest military honor for
later action, what happened in July 1918 in the Ourcq Valley was the defining
moment of his life. It justified his harsh training ethic, stretching
physical, mental and emotional endurance beyond the breaking point. It was
also an example of how correct, timely intelligence might have prevented a
As part of the divisionís movement through the Marne, the 165th Regiment was
to cross the tiny Ourcq River and take Hill 152. Available information
indicated that the German infantry was in retreat, leaving artillery on the
heights. The regiment was ordered to go in silently, using only the bayonet
and receiving no artillery preparation. Regimental reconnaissance during the
night, however, had discovered dozens of nests of machine guns awaiting them.
Despite this new information, division orders remained unchanged, as the
regiment was only a small part of a sweeping general advance by the First
Corps. Regimental officers were distressed but obedient.
"Whatever might be the cost, it would not be that this regiment should not do
its share to keep the advancing line in even contact with the enemy," Duffy
would later write.
The cost was great. Bullets from machine guns and sniper rifles tore through
the First Battalion on three sides after they crossed the river. Donovan was
almost always in exposed positions, inspecting men, advancing men and
delivering his own messages. A bullet grazed his thigh, another took the heel
off his boot. A fragment of shell that should have struck him full in the
chest instead only tore apart his respirator. Lying half in the river to
check a downed officer, Donovan found that his adjutant and close friend
Oliver Ames had run forward to lie beside him and offer protection. A
sniperís bullet whizzed over Donovan and struck Ames in the head.
Instinctively grabbing him, Donovan was shot in the hand. The regimentís
beloved poet Joyce Kilmer immediately volunteered to be Donovanís sergeant
major. Within 24 hours, Kilmer too was dead from a sniperís bullet in the
head. Mess cook John Kayes insisted on staying near the major and died after
being riddled by machine gun fire. These were very personal losses on top of
the unavoidable shredding of "his Micks."
In a week-long action that allowed minimal food or rest, the 42nd Division
pushed the Germans back 18 kilometers. More than half of the 165th Regiment
became casualties. Of Donovanís First Battalion 600 were killed or wounded.
Only one of his command post officers survived. Within a few days, after
recovering from "lack of sleep and the strain," Donovan could more coolly
assess the results and state that his battalion "had gone the farthest and
stayed the longest."
According to Father Duffy, the men never again griped about Donovanís
laborious drills. He quoted one anonymous soldier as proclaiming, "Wild Bill
is a son-of-a-------, but heís a game one." Donovan was given the
Distinguished Service Cross and promoted to lieutenant colonel. When Col.
Harry Mitchell was made regimental commander, Donovan became field commander.
In October 1918 at the Meuse-Argonne, the regiment again had to contend with
orders that proved futile and deadly. The division was given the task of
capturing the high ground of the Cote de Chatillon two to three kilometers
away. However, they faced impenetrable wire, rain, mud, fog and bad
communications. The day after the 165th Regiment went into line, Donovanís
telephone went out and he had to resort to runners. They faced an enemy that
had no intention of moving, had very effective artillery and liberally used
gas. According to Duffy, Donovan suggested that the regiment "advance until
we would be on a level with the wire to our right, hold that line with a
sufficient number of troops to guard against counter attack, and throw in our
main strength on the left of the 84th Brigade, they striking from the south
and we from the west until the Cote de Chatillon should be taken."
The actual order from the corps was less sophisticated: attack straight on
through open ground. The regiment made three assaults on the wire. Donovan,
scouting all the way up to the wire and decked out in all his officerís
regalia to be identifiable to his men, calmly ran about the battlefield to
check each company and buck up the men. "Gaudy recklessness," the American
writer Alexander Woollcott would later describe his actions. It was during
the last advance that Donovan, standing above his command post, was shot in
the back of the right knee. With two of his battalions being cut to pieces in
a counterattack, he refused to be removed from the field. Tanks, long
expected, never materialized. Donovanís orders to the machine gun unit and
Stokes mortar unit effected a strong enough defense to hold ground. Four or
five hours after being shot, the colonel was able to move the Second
Battalion in to relieve the First and allowed himself to be carried to the
rear by a "blanket brigade" of volunteers.
His actions and leadership under duress ultimately resulted in the Medal of
Honor. He became a full colonel and led the 165th Infantry through its
victory parade down Fifth Avenue in 1919. The knee injury tried to kill him
again during World War II when an automobile accident jarred loose an old
blood clot that traveled up to his lungs to create an embolism.
While in the Army, Donovan was strictly obedient to military authority and
demanded the same of his men. But given the unnecessary slaughter he
witnessed, it does not take a psychoanalyst to understand why he would later
be eager to organize a maverick organization that was not limited by Army
regulations and gave operatives freedom to decide what was best in any given
situation. "Iíd rather have a young lieutenant with guts enough to disobey an
order than a colonel too regimented to think and act for himself," Donovan
would say as head of the OSS.
Newspapers and Father Duffyís published memoir made Donovan one of the most
famous men in New York, and a figure to hang legends on. In 1919, the U.S.
ambassador to Japan asked Donovan to come with him to Russia as an observer
and advisor during the civil upheaval in that country. Within a year, he was
hired by J.P. Morgan to secretly scope out European markets and the political
environment for the magnateís investments. If it was only Donovanís renown
from the War that brought about these circumstances, he took advantage of the
opportunity to expand his skills and reputation. By 1922, he was a U.S.
attorney in the thick of Prohibition. With the Calvin Coolidge
administration, Donovan became an assistant attorney general, head of the
Justice Departmentís Antitrust Division, and a great favorite at the White
House. Even back in private practice, Donovan maintained an intriguing list
of acquaintances around the world Ė Spain, Germany, etc.
When war again broke out in Europe in 1939, William Stephenson (head of the
British secret service) invited Donovan to London. It was a trip for which
Donovan had to have presidential clearance and, in a sense, he became an
observer for the Roosevelt administration. The connection with an effective
intelligence organization sparked Donovanís vivid imagination. Soon he was
drawing up propositions for the creation of an American office for
intelligence gathering. "Strategy, without information on which it can rely,
is helpless," Donovan wrote in his outline for the new department. In early
1941, FDR named Donovan to the new office of Coordinator of Information
(COI). Besides research and analysis, the office could engage in espionage
and intrigues of all kinds to gain information for a country supposedly
Donovan ran the agency just as he had commanded his battalion in France Ė
completely hands-on and physically involved in every aspect. If a major
operation was in the works, Donovan was in the field to see things for
himself. He encouraged and rewarded extemporaneous decision-making. He
latched onto any rigorous new training method that could improve special
agents. He injected those around him with his own enthusiasm. Unlike in his
war days, however, Donovan was able to hand pick operatives who could match
his audacity and boundless energy. He was also less concerned about
Americaís entry into the war at the end of 1941 further emphasized the need
for coordinated information, but under military control. The office of the
COI was renamed the Office of Strategic Services under the Joint Chiefs of
Staff. Donovan was "re-militarized," placed back in uniform as a major
general. The OSS quickly became the stuff of legend. It had commandos,
Special Operations, counterintelligence, saboteurs, scientists, workers in
the subtle craft of causing sedition, and a wide range of personalities Ė
from Moe Berg to Julia Child Ė involved in worldwide activity. The War
Department may have felt all of this was "unsportsmanlike," but Donovanís
vision modernized American warfare.
That vision developed into plans for a civilian intelligence office after the
war. Donovan himself was sent packing by fellow WWI vet Harry Truman (no
Donovan admirer), but most of the generalís plans were put into action with
the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency. Over the decades since, men
who worked and trained under Donovan in the OSS became directors of central
intelligence or directors of the CIA (separate titles).
In Later Years
As a post-war note, Donovan also called on his experience in World War I
during his brief involvement at the trials in Nuremburg. He was put in charge
of prosecuting the general staff of the German Army as war criminals for
obeying orders. Donovan, who intimately knew the hairline difference between
a war crime and the horrors of war heaped on an officer, eschewed the
hypocrisy that such prosecution would require of himself. He butted heads
with Justice Robert Jackson over other major issues and stepped aside.
General Donovan's last public role was as President's Eisenhower's Ambassador to Thailand in 1953-54. He would pass away in February 1959 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
William J. Donovanís Citations
- Medal of Honor*
- Distinguished Service Medal* (with Oak
- Distinguished Service Cross*
- National Security Medal
- Croix de Guerre (with Palm and Silver Star)*
- Legion díHonneur*
- Croce di Guerra*
- Order of the Crown of Italy
- Knight Commander of the British EmpireOrder of St. Sylvester
- Purple Heart (with two Oak Leaf Clusters)*
- Czechoslovak War Cross
- Order of Leopold of Belgium (with Palm)
- Lateran Medal
- Order of Dannebrog
- Royal Order of St. Olav
- Order of Orange Nassau
- Santi Mali Medal
- Polonia Restituta
- Most Exalted Order of the White Elephant
- Special Collar Order of Yun Hui
*for services in the Great War
Sources and Thanks:Photos from Ray Mentzer and the author. The author also found these works useful in preparing this article and recommends them:
Father Duffyís Story,
by Father Francis Patrick Duffy, George H. Doran Company,
A Doughboy with the Fighting 69th,
by Albert M. and A. Churchill Ettinger, Simon & Schuster, 1992.
The Shamrock Battalion of the Rainbow: A Story of the
by Martin J. Hogan, D. Appleton, 1919.
by Nicol and Blake Clark, Bobbs-Merrill, 1946.
- No Banners, No Bands,
by Robert Alcorn,D. McKay, 1965.
- Donovan and the CIA: A History of the Establishment of the Central Intelligence Agency
by Thomas F. Troy, CIA Center for the Study of Intelligence, 1981.
- Wild Bill Donovan: The Last Hero,
by Anthony Cave Brown, Time Books, 1982.
- Americans All, the Rainbow at War: The Official History of
the 42nd Rainbow Division in the World War,
by Henry J. Reilly, F.J. Heer, 1936.
- OSS: The Secret History of Americaís First Central Intelligence Agency,
by R. Harris Smith, University of California Press, 1972.