William J. Donovan
Medal of Honor
Landres-et-Saint Georges, France
October 14 and 15, 1918
William Joseph Donovan was one of the very few American soldiers to have received the U.S. Army’s three highest decorations: the Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross and the Distinguished Service Medal. As an infantry commander in World War I Donovan led his troops from the front and was twice wounded. During World War II he organized and led the Office of Strategic Services, forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Donovan was born in Buffalo, N.Y., to Irish immigrant parents on New Year’s Day 1883. He acquired his lifelong nickname, “Wild Bill,” as a standout quarterback at Columbia University. He graduated from Columbia Law School in 1907, a classmate of future U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Much of Donovan’s post–World War I career benefited from Roosevelt’s support and friendship.
Donovan enlisted in the New York State Militia in 1911 and within a year was commissioned a captain. Mustered into federal service in 1916, he commanded a cavalry troop on the Mexican border during the punitive expedition against Pancho Villa. He mustered out in March 1917, only to be called up again four months later for service in World War I, promoted to major and assigned as a battalion commander in the New York Army National Guard’s 69th Infantry Regiment, which was federalized as the 165th Infantry, 42nd Division.
The 165th entered the front lines in France in February 1918. In July, Donovan received the Distinguished Service Cross for leading his battalion in the capture of German positions near Villers-sur-Fère. Promoted to lieutenant colonel and placed in command of the regiment, he received the Medal of Honor for actions on October 14 and 15 near Landres-et-Saint-Georges, where he again personally led his unit against an enemy stronghold. Although seriously wounded, he rallied his troops and led them forward to the objective.
Following the Armistice, Donovan served briefly in the Army of Occupation. Before mustering out, he received the Distinguished Service Medal, as well as France’s Légion d’honneur and Croix de guerre. He also earned promotion to full colonel.
As soon as Donovan returned stateside, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy Roosevelt made him a member of the Office of Naval Intelligence. In the interwar years he worked as an attorney for various federal agencies. After Roosevelt became president, he sent Donovan to Ethiopia in 1935, to Spain during the 1936–39 civil war and to Britain in 1940, where he made important contacts with the directors of MI5 and MI6.
In July 1941 Roosevelt appointed Donovan federal Coordinator of Information (COI), tasked with synchronizing the fragmented efforts of the various isolated and often competing American military and civilian intelligence organizations. In 1942 the office of COI became the OSS. More than just an intelligence-gathering organization, the OSS also ran covert operations against the Axis.
President Harry S. Truman disbanded the OSS in September 1945, splitting its functions between the departments of State and War. Donovan returned to private law practice but continued to push for the creation of a permanent national agency to oversee all American intelligence gathering and covert actions. When the CIA was established in 1947 Donovan hoped to head it, but with Roosevelt dead, Donovan no longer had the political backing of the White House. Regardless, most of Donovan’s ideas were realized through the work of his wartime OSS protégé Allan Dulles, who in 1953 became the agency’s first civilian director.
Wild Bill Donovan, 76, died on Feb. 8, 1959, and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Although he was never officially a member of the CIA, a life-size bronze statue of Donovan dominates the entrance lobby of the agency’s original headquarters building in Langley, Va. When Donovan died, President Dwight D. Eisenhower proclaimed, “We have lost the last hero.”
Originally published in the March 2014 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.