|Lt. Col. Donovan , 165th Reg. Inf. formerly 69th Regt. Inf. N.Y.N.G., 42nd division. Note the stripes indicating the D.S.C. which he won for bravery at Château-Thierry and the french Croix de Guerre which he was awarded on another occasion. Hazavant, France. 6 September 1918|
William J. Donovan was combat leader, envoy, unconventional warrior, spymaster, and ambassador. His leadership in the 165th Infantry Regiment of Pershing’s American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) during the Great War demonstrated his courage, ability, and potential to become one of the most influential (and famous) Americans of his time. He received some of the nation’s highest decorations for heroism and public service. In doing so, he became the future patron of two elite U.S. organizations – the Central Intelligence Agency and the U.S. Army’s Special Forces – both of which claim descent from the Office of Strategic Services he would later found to conduct the deadly, secret, unconventional combat missions of World War II.
The sobriquet most identified with William J. Donovan is “Wild Bill.” It is a complete misnomer. He was not “wild” either in the sense of being undisciplined or uncontrolled. Donovan was, in fact, quite the opposite. He was a man of extraordinary focus and discipline who deliberately developed and nurtured what biographer Anthony Cave Brown termed character militaris – the character of combat leadership in war necessary to survive and prevail. Donovan studied, practiced, developed, and imparted into his men an indomitable belief in his leadership and their own abilities. That belief was reflected in the wartime record of his battalion in multiple campaigns of World War I. The apocryphal background of the nickname “Wild Bill” purportedly came from an overheard conversation between several of Donovan’s soldiers arguing about the arduous training he had led his men through in the run up to combat. Regimental Chaplain and confidant Father Francis Duffy recorded:
The majority of his battalion have always looked upon him as the greatest man in the world. But certain numbers were resentful and complaining on account of the hard physical drilling he has continually given them to keep them in condition for just the sort of thing they had to go through last week. As a result of watching him through six days of battle – his coolness, cheerfulness, resourcefulness – there is no limit to their admiration for him. What I overheard was the partial conversation of the last dissenter. He still had a grouch about what he had been through during the past year, and three other fellows were pounding him with arguments to prove Donovan’s greatness. Finally he said grudgingly: “Well, I’ll say this: Wild Bill is a son of a b**** but he’s a game one.”
Donovan always publicly decried the nickname, but his wife Ruth knew that deep down he loved it.
His grandfather emigrated from County Cork in the winter of 1846–47. Grandfather Donovan shoveled grain in the ships’ docks and then he worked Buffalo’s railroad yards. His fourth son, Timothy, mirrored his father’s temperance, diligence, discipline, and religious devotion, and in doing so rose from greasing locomotives on the Erie and Lackawanna Railroad to yardmaster of the Blackrock terminal. By his efforts, “Young Tim” and his wife Anna moved up in Buffalo society, attaining a level of prosperity and respectability known in the parlance of the day as “lace curtain Irish.”
Donovan was born into an Irish immigrant family in Buffalo, New York, on New Year’s Day 1883. William (called “Will”), the firstborn, was followed in short order by a brother Timothy and a sister Mary, and later a brother Vincent. Meningitis killed the next four children until another sister, Loretta, was born when Will was a teenager. Despite an insatiable appetite for books, Will was initially a poor student. At 13 he was enrolled at Saint Joseph’s Collegiate Institute and did well at oration and athletics – marginally improving his overall grades along the way. Following three years at the Catholic Niagara University and Seminary, Donovan gained admission to Columbia College in New York City. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree and athletic renown as a pugnacious back-up quarterback for Columbia in 1905. Despite mediocre scholarship he went directly into Columbia’s law school where he studied under future Supreme Court Justice Harlan Fiske Stone. After graduation Will returned to Buffalo to practice law and move about in the upper reaches of Buffalo society.
In 1912 he joined with other youth of means in Buffalo in forming an Army National Guard cavalry unit: Troop I, 1st New York Cavalry. For most of his colleagues, it was a social outlet of outdoor activities, nicknamed “The Business Men’s Troop.” (The local wags called them “The Silk Stocking Boys,” in reference to their wealth and social standing.) In this egalitarian atmosphere, Donovan quickly went from trooper to sergeant, and was elected captain shortly thereafter. Donovan assumed the responsibility of command which included educating himself on strategy, tactics, and logistics.
Donovan’s first exposure to active military campaigning came in 1916 after receiving a telegram while in Europe on behalf of the War Relief Commission of the Rockefeller Foundation. Troop I was mobilized to active duty in support of the Mexican Punitive Expedition under General John J. Pershing. By August 1916, Donovan and his troop were in McAllen, Texas, under Pershing’s command. It was here that Donovan instituted a training process so vigorous in its intensity that fifty years later, a survivor wrote: “Probably the most vivid memory of Border Days come from those early morning hours when you put us through those damnable exercises… But you made us realize what lay ahead of us, you got us to quit playing around at being soldiers.” It was to become Donovan’s hallmark as a commander: he trained his men mercilessly, was often unpopular for his efforts, and was as unsparing of himself as his soldiers.
As the expedition in Mexico wound down, General Pershing and his staff commenced an extensive training regimen in anticipation of deploying to Europe. Donovan took advantage of the opportunity to redouble his efforts, and in the process was first noticed by Pershing and his staff as a promising young officer of extraordinary character, temperament, and leadership. Donovan’s troop returned to New York on 12 March 1917. Three days later he received orders to report to the New York National Guard Armory in Manhattan, where he joined the 69th Infantry, a New York Irish Regiment of U.S. Civil War fame. By August, the regiment was redesignated the 165th Infantry, with Major Donovan commanding its 1st Battalion, assigned to the 42nd Division destined for France. Donovan immediately took to training his battalion at Camp Mills, Long Island. His routine requirements of his new soldiers were arduous – daily 3- and 4-mile runs followed by close combat training, brutal and often barehanded – which made Donovan extremely disliked.
In late October 1917, his battalion shipped for Europe via convoy off of Nova Scotia. Even in transit, Donovan was focused on preparing for the ensuing fight in France. In a letter to his wife Ruth (whom he had married in 1914), he noted: “It is a small ship and it is difficult to drill and discipline the men. I have insisted that the officers give their entire time to the men at the sacrifice of their own.” The battalion landed at Liverpool, took a 12-hour train ride to Gosport, and boarded cross-Channel steamers to Le Havre. From there, “the Micks,” as Donovan came to call his battalion, trudged the muddy roads to their cantonment in Champagne, France.
As he had in the Southwest desert and Camp Mills, Long Island, Donovan disciplined and trained his men strenuously and without letup. Of his relentless efforts to prepare his men for the rigors of combat, the famed unit chaplain, Father Francis Duffy, observed:
Major William J. Donovan, who commands the first Battalion was transferred to us from Brigade Staff, but he is no stranger to us. On the Border when he was Captain of Troop I of the 1st Cavalry he was the best-known man of his rank in the New York Division… He is cool, untiring, strenuous, a man that always uses his head. He is preparing his men for the fatigues of open warfare by all kinds of wearying stunts. They too call him “Wild Bill” with malicious unction, after he has led them over a cross country run for four miles. But they admire him all the same, for he is the freshest man in the crowd when the run is over. He is a lawyer by profession, and a successful one, I am told. I like him for his agreeable disposition, his fine character, his alert and eager intelligence. But I certainly would not want to be in his Battalion.
In addition to the preparations for the physical exertions of combat, Donovan attended to intellectual requirements as well. In his personal study he sought out insight for the actions required for infantry combat. At Christmas in 1917, he received a packet of historical treatises on military affairs, including: An Essay on the Command of Small Detachments (1766); The Manual of Exercise with Explanations (1766); Manoeuvres for a Battalion of Infantry by a German Officer (1766); Manoeuvres for a Battalion of Infantry, Upon Fixed Principles (1767); and Wolfe’s Instructions to Young Officers (1768). He read them cover to cover, and to his wife expressed delight with the gift.
His own continuous focused study of war made him consider not only the theoretical but the practical requirements of campaigning. To ensure the efficacy and understanding of his junior officers, he prepared a list of questions for them that they were required to memorize and to know upon demand:
1. Do I know my particular job here?
2. Do I know the amount of reserve ammunition I have on hand?
3. Do I know the use and purpose of each and every signal at this post?
4. Have I instructed my men in and do they know the place of each in time of attack?
5. Am I doing my utmost in looking out for the men in my platoon?
6. Can I conscientiously say that I am giving the best attention to the feet of my men?6
In February 1918, Donovan’s “Micks” moved into the line as part of the French Sixth Army. The following month, he came to the notice of the AEF high command when the French government determined to award him the Croix de Guerre for rescuing a score of soldiers buried alive by a German artillery barrage in the regimental dugout at Rouge Bouquet. Donovan refused the medal when made aware that the Jewish sergeant who assisted him in saving the men was denied the same award. The French relented, both received the medal, and the “Micks” took note.
His efforts on behalf of the men in his own battalion were similarly noteworthy. Donovan wrote of an event later that spring, when an infantry patrol returned with two men missing:
I went to the Colonel and told him that these men had last been seen outside the wire in No Man’s Land. That they might be wounded, and that it was our duty to make a real search for them, that the entire regiment should turn out to find them, so each man would know however mean and despicable he was if lost in the performance of his duty we would go after him. I insisted that it was vitally important to the morale of the men; also that I should be permitted to conduct the patrol.
Donovan went out with two lieutenants and 36 men. They spent the night combing the sector in no-man’s land and returned at dawn without the missing “Micks.” The two men were found alive six days later, wandering in the wire of a neighboring regiment. His personal example made the men determined to obey his orders, follow his leadership, and persevere regardless of circumstance.
On 27 July, Donovan’s battalion was given objectives as part of a much greater effort of the Aisne–Marne campaign northeast of Paris. The campaign was designed to roll back well-established enemy defenses along a tributary of the Seine River. His orders were to conduct an assault following a brief artillery preparation while restricting his troops to the use of bayonets in the intended surprise attack. To approach his battalion’s objectives, Donovan would have to lead his men down an exposed valley to the Ourcq River, cross the shallow water, and climb the equally exposed approach to Meurcy Farm near the hamlet of Sergy. In and around that small town, unbeknownst to the approaching “Micks,” lay not the expected second-rate Landwehr Division, but at least three German divisions of infantry supported by an elite Guards Division.
The night before the assault, two of Donovan’s company commanders were wounded while conducting a leaders’ reconnaissance as they came upon “a very hot and bloody fight” between U.S. and German units along the route. In the ensuing shelling, Donovan got “a beautiful mouthful of gas.” After a brief treatment of boracic acid for his eyes and a head-clearing dose of ammonia, Donovan led the “Micks” 6 miles to relieve the French unit in the sector. With the relief completed, his unit advanced through the day until reaching the rise overlooking the Ourcq Valley. As night fell, Donovan pulled the battalion back to the reverse slope of the hill, dug in for the night, and prepared for the attack.
The advance began at 0430 hours and the “Micks” crossed the Ourcq with few casualties. However, as the regiment advanced up the approach to Meurcy Farm, intense interlocking fires from dug-in German machine guns forced the battalions back on Donovan’s flanks, leaving his men exposed to fire from three sides. The “Micks” remained in place and fought for possession of the farm and town by continually attacking the Germans who were determined to maintain it. As the casualties mounted, every officer of Donovan’s staff (save one) were killed or wounded. In the last two days of July, the division finally moved up to Donovan’s relief. In Major Donovan’s battalion of approximately 1,000 men, 600 were killed, wounded or missing along with three-quarters of the officers; and yet they prevailed. Donovan’s assessment of his men’s performance is illustrative of his determination to guarantee their military efficiency:
One thing I am glad of, and that is the system which I used in the training of these men justified itself. Their discipline and their training, and above all their spirit, held them full of fight in a position that had been given up by two other outfits. These men who had all along thought me too strict and felt that I had made them work when others did not work, and I held them to too high a standard, are now convinced that I was right, and that I would ask them to do nothing that I myself would not do. This one tribute is greater than any honor that my superior officers can give me…
Nevertheless, Donovan’s superior officers approved the Distinguished Service Cross for his performance at Meurcy Farm and General Pershing awarded it personally.
By October 1918, Donovan had been promoted to lieutenant colonel and commanded the 165th Regiment. The task was more daunting than it appeared. In addition to the losses sustained by Donovan’s battalion the previous July, the regiment as a whole had lost 1,750 of its original 3,000 men as well as 66 of its officers at the Ourcq River fight. The replacements for men and officers lost were, for the most part, green troops, lacking the discipline, training, and experience of their predecessors. An unofficial regimental history bluntly stated: “The men obtained were for the greater part crude and raw, some not knowing how to load their rifles and don their gas masks when they reached us.”
On 14 October, the 42nd Division relieved the 1st Division in the Meuse–Argonne sector and took up the assault on the Kriemhilde Stellung on the Hindenburg Line south of Sedan. Lieutenant Colonel Donovan had spent the previous weeks organizing them and immediately understood that the green 165th leadership replacements were not likely to be up to the task and that he would have to personally lead the attack. To do so, Donovan revealed the depth and breadth of the military character he had so assiduously developed. Eschewing the practice of removing identifying insignia, instead he “went out as if I were going to a party, insignia, ribbons, Sam Brown[sic] belt,” and all. Father Duffy’s narrative described the scene: “As soon as the advance began to slow up under the heavy losses, he passed to the front line of the leading elements… It was more like a Civil War picture than anything we have seen in this fighting to watch the line of troops rushing forward led by their Commander.”
The night of 14 October found the regiment within 500 yards of the German lines with orders to resume the attack supported by tanks at 0730 hours the following day. When his field telephone failed after midnight, Donovan was incommunicado with the units on his flanks. “Zero hour came but no tanks, so we started anyway.” He emerged from his hole, still in dress uniform, and led the men forward in what would be described as the modern equivalent of the Irish Brigade’s experience at the 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg. But, Donovan’s “Fighting Irish” pressed ahead until the attack withered in the face of overwhelming German machine-gun fire. Undaunted, Donovan led his men forward, offering words of encouragement along the way until he was knocked down by a machine-gun round which penetrated his leg just below the knee. A lieutenant tore his trousers open and bandaged the wound. Donovan refused evacuation – for five hours. During that time, he and his men were continually shelled and gassed and then subjected to a German counterattack. In affidavits after the war, it came out that Donovan had deliberately remained to blunt the counterattack with his mortar platoon and to await the arrival of a fresh battalion.
For his actions in the October assault on the Kriemhilde Stellung, Donovan was awarded an Oak Leaf Cluster to his Distinguished Service Cross. Unbeknownst to Donovan, Father Duffy, ever the soul of the regiment, lobbied to have him awarded the Medal of Honor. Duffy submitted to AEF headquarters more than a dozen testimonies of officers and sergeants regarding Donovan’s actions of 14 and 15 October. The following year in April, Donovan, having been promoted to colonel, led the Irish Regiment in a parade up Fifth Avenue in New York and received the key to the city.
As a result of Duffy’s persuasion, General Pershing, then chief of staff of the Army, approved the upgrade in 1923. The Medal of Honor was awarded in the New York City Armory in a ceremony attended by the survivors of the regiment. Colonel Donovan declined to keep the medal, placing it in the armory and saying that it was not his to keep but belonged “to the boys who are not here, the boys who are resting under white crosses in France or the cemeteries of New York, also to the boys lucky enough to come through.”
After the war, Donovan resumed his legal profession, serving as the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of New York. When Donovan’s former law professor Judge Harlan Fiske Stone was appointed Attorney General in 1925, he in turn appointed Donovan as the head of the Anti-Trust Division where he served until 1929. He ran on the Republican ticket to succeed Franklin D. Roosevelt in the New York governor’s mansion, losing in the Democratic sweep of 1932. Despite differing political points of view, Roosevelt and Donovan were cut in many ways of the same cloth. Roosevelt personally respected Donovan’s political skills and was once known to opine that had Donovan been a Democrat, he could have been President.
By 1939, Donovan assessed that another European conflict was looming. As “part of an informal network of American businessmen and lawyers who closely tracked and collected intelligence on foreign affairs,” he travelled, collecting information on foreign leaders (including Mussolini and Hitler) while developing networks of well-placed informants in what would become the Axis Powers. In 1940 and 1941, Donovan traveled to Britain as an informal emissary for President Roosevelt to discern British prospects against Germany in the face of the defeatist assessments of U.S. Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy. During his fact-finding mission, Prime Minister Churchill (desperate for U.S. aid) gave Donovan almost unfettered access to British plans, strategy, and intelligence analysis including trips to the British posts in the Balkans and Middle East. The resulting report strongly supported the U.S. aid, and when judiciously leaked to the press, columnist Walter Lippmann opined that Donovan’s insight on British determination and capabilities “almost singlehandedly overcame the unmitigated defeatism which was paralyzing Washington.”
In June 1941, Donovan responded to a request from the President with an outline for a centralized intelligence service for the upcoming war. His proposal was to create an organization to gather information and analyze it in conjunction with that collected by existing US organizations. The following July, Roosevelt appointed Donovan “Coordinator of Information” (COI). Donovan, who hoped for command of a division in the upcoming conflict, reluctantly accepted the appointment. He set about developing an intelligence organization with alacrity. By June 1942, working with British intelligence cooperation and mentoring, the COI established worldwide espionage, analysis, sabotage organizations, training sites, international front companies, and networks while hiring across a spectrum of employees from artists to forgers and intellectuals to criminals. On 13 June 1942, Donovan returned to active duty as a colonel. The COI moved under the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was given responsibility to conduct “special operations not assigned to other agencies,” and was renamed the Office of Strategic Services (OSS).
The OSS contributions to the war effort included clandestine intelligence collection, analysis, propaganda, sabotage, and unconventional warfare with varying degrees of involvement and success, performed in nearly every theater throughout World War II. Donovan was promoted to brigadier general in March 1943 and to major general in November 1944. During that period, he not only oversaw the development, training, and deployment of OSS officers, but also demonstrated his familiar leadership style of character militaris by personally going ashore at the landings of the Salerno, Anzio, and Normandy invasions and flying “over the hump” to observe operations behind Japanese lines in Burma.
At the conclusion of the war, the OSS was dissolved by President Harry Truman. The following year, Truman created the Central Intelligence Group which became the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in 1947. The CIA claims its direct legacy from Donovan’s OSS, and at his death in 1959, after he had also served as U.S. Ambassador to Thailand, CIA station chiefs worldwide received a cable stating: “The man more responsible than any other for the existence of the Central Intelligence Agency has passed away.”
U.S. Special Operations Forces similarly reflect Donovan’s legacy of character militaris. U.S. Army Special Forces claim lineage from Donovan’s Burma OSS Detachment 101, while U.S. Special Operations Command, founded in 1987, similarly pays homage to Donovan’s discipline, leadership, and standard of strenuous training by using an identical gold spearhead on a black oval background – the OSS design – on its insignia. Deep down, Wild Bill would have loved it.