Doughboy Center

The Story of the American Expeditionary Forces




42nd Division

William J. Donovan

From Fighting Irishman to Spymaster



By Raquel Hendrickson



Presented the Great War Society



Col. Donovan and Father Duffy of the Fighting 69th

Shrewd, enterprising and dynamic, he was born to have an impact on any domain he touched.

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 House.

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.


During WWI
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 slaughter.

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.


During WWII
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 neutral.

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 regimented organization.

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.


In Later Years
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).

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 Leaf Cluster)
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, 1919.
  • 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 Fighting Sixty-Ninth, by Martin J. Hogan, D. Appleton, 1919.
  • Into Siam, 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.



To find other Doughboy Features visit our

Directory Page

For Great War Society
Membership Information


Click on Icon

For further information on the events of 1914-1918 visit the homepage of

The Great War Society



Additions and comments on these pages may be directed to:
Michael E. Hanlon (medwardh@hotmail.com) regarding content,
or toMike Iavarone (mikei01@execpc.com) regarding form and function.
Original artwork & copy; © 1998-2000, The Great War Society