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First Name: William

Last Name: Donovan

Birthplace: Buffalo, NY, USA

Gender: Male

Branch: Army (1784 - present)

Middle Name: Joseph

Date of Birth: 01 January 1883

Date of Death: 08 February 1959

Rank: Major General

Years Served: 1916 - 1919, 1941 - 1945 (Army)
William Joseph Donovan
'Wild Bill'

•  World War I (1914 - 1918)
•  World War II (1941 - 1945)


William Joseph 'Wild Bill' Donovan

Major General, U.S. Army

Medal of Honor Recipient

World War I

Major General William Joseph 'Wild Bill' Donovan was a U.S. Army officer who received the U.S. military's highest award for valor, the Medal of Honor, for his heroic actions during World War I.

Donovan is best remembered as the wartime head of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the prototype of the Central Intelligence Agency. He is also known as the "Father of American Intelligence" and the "Father of Central Intelligence."

The Early Years

William Joseph Donovan was born on 1 January 1883 in Buffalo, NY, to first generation Irish immigrants Timothy P. and Anna Letitia "Tish" Lennon Donovan of County Cork and Ulster origins respectively. His grandfather Timothy O'Donovan (Sr.) was from the town of Skibbereen, being raised there by an uncle, a parish priest, and married Donovan's grandmother Mary Mahoney, who belonged to a propertied family of substantial means which disapproved of him. They would move first to Canada and then to New York, where their son Timothy (Jr.), Donovan's father, would attempt to engage in a political career, but with little success. This success awaited his son in other arenas.

William attended St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute and Niagara University before starring on the football team at Columbia University. On the field, he got the nickname that would stick with him for the rest of his life; Wild Bill Donovan. He graduated from Columbia in 1905 and was a member of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity, as well as the Knights of Malta.

Donovan was a graduate of Columbia Law School and became an influential Wall Street lawyer. In 1912, Donovan formed and led a troop of cavalry of the New York State Militia that, in 1916, served on the US-Mexico border in the Pancho Villa campaign.

World War I Service

During World War I, Major Donovan organized and led the 1st Battalion of the 165th Regiment of the 42nd Division, the federalized designation of the famed 69th New York Volunteers (the "Fighting 69th"). In France, one of his aides was poet Joyce Kilmer, a fellow Columbia College alumnus. For his service near Landres-et-St. Georges, France, on 14-15 October 1918, he received the Medal of Honor.

Medal of Honor

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.

Citation: 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.

By the end of the war, in addition to the Medal of Honor, he had received a promotion to Colonel, the Distinguished Service Cross and two Purple Hearts.

Between the Wars

From 1922 to 1924, he was U.S. Attorney for the Western District of New York, famous for his energetic enforcement of Prohibition. President Calvin Coolidge named him to the U.S. Department of Justice's Antitrust Division. He ran (unsuccessfully) as a Republican for Lieutenant Governor of New York in 1922; and for Governor of New York in 1932.

World War II Service

During the interwar years, Donovan travelled extensively in Europe and met with foreign leaders including Mussolini of Italy. Donovan openly believed during this time that a second major European war was inevitable. His foreign experience and realism earned him the attention and friendship of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The two men were from opposing political parties, but were similar in personality. Because of this, Roosevelt came to highly value Donovan's insights. Following Germany's invasion of Poland in September 1939 and the start of World War II in Europe, President Roosevelt began to put the U.S. on a war footing. This was a crisis of the sort that Donovan had predicted, and he sought out a responsible place in the wartime infrastructure. On the recommendation of Donovan's friend U.S. Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, Roosevelt gave him a number of increasingly important assignments. In 1940 and 1941, Donovan travelled as an informal emissary to Britain, where he was urged by Knox and Roosevelt to gauge Britain's ability to withstand Germany's aggression. During these trips, Donovan met with key officials in the British war effort, including Winston Churchill and the directors of Britain's intelligence services. Donovan returned to the U.S. confident of Britain's chances and enamored with the possibility of founding an American intelligence service modeled on that of the British.

Office of Strategic Services (OSS)

On 11 July 1941, Donovan was named Coordinator of Information (COI). America's foreign intelligence organizations at the time were fragmented and isolated from each other. The Army, Navy, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), U.S. Department of State, and other interests, each ran their own intelligence operations, the results of which they were reluctant to share with the other departments. Donovan was the nominal director of this unwieldy system, but was plagued over the course of the next year with jurisdictional battles. Few of the leaders in the intelligence community were willing to part with any of the power that the current ad hoc system granted them. The FBI, for example, under the control of Donovan's rival J. Edgar Hoover, insisted on retaining its autonomy in South America.

Nevertheless, Donovan began to lay the groundwork for a centralized intelligence program. It was he who organized the COI's New York-headquarters in Room 3603 of Rockefeller Center in October 1941 and asked Allen Dulles to head it. The offices Dulles took over had been the location of the operations of Britain's MI6.

In 1942, the COI became the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and Donovan was returned to active duty in his World War I rank of Colonel (by war's end, he would be promoted to Major General). Under his leadership the OSS would eventually conduct successful espionage and sabotage operations in Europe and parts of Asia, but continued to be kept out of South America as a result of Hoover's hostility to Donovan. In addition, the OSS was blocked from the Philippines by the antipathy of General Douglas MacArthur, Commander of the Southwest Pacific Theater.

For many years the operations of the OSS remained secret, but in the 1970s and 1980s, significant parts of the OSS history were declassified and became public record.

As World War II began to wind to a close in early 1945, Donovan began to focus on preserving the OSS beyond the end of the war. However, after President Roosevelt's death in April Donovan's political position, which had thrived because of his personal relationship to the President, was substantially weakened. Although he argued forcefully for retention of the OSS, he found himself opposed by numerous opponents, including President Harry S. Truman, who personally disliked Donovan, as well as J. Edgar Hoover, who viewed the OSS as competition for his goal to expand the FBI's investigative operations internationally. Public opinion turned against Donovan's efforts when conservative critics rallied against the intelligence service that they called an 'American Gestapo.' After Truman disbanded the OSS in September 1945, Donovan returned to civilian life. But various departments of the OSS survived the agency's dissolution and less than two years later the Central Intelligence Agency was founded; a realization of Donovan's hopes for a centralized peacetime intelligence agency.

Donovan's Role in forming the CIA

Donovan did not have an official role in the newly formed CIA, but with his protégé Allen Dulles and others, he was instrumental in its formation. Having led the OSS during World War II, Donovan's opinion was especially influential as to what kind of intelligence organization was needed as a bipolar, post-war world began to take shape. Although he was a force to be reckoned with, his idea for consolidating intelligence met with strong opposition from the State, War and Navy Departments and J. Edgar Hoover. President Truman was inclined to create an organization that would gather and disseminate foreign intelligence; Donovan argued that the new agency should also be able to conduct covert action. Truman was not a fan of this but Donovan's arguments prevailed and were reflected in the National Security Act of 1947 and the Central Intelligence Agency Act of 1949. In 1946, Truman appointed Rear Admiral Sidney Souers, USNR, as the first Director of Central Intelligence. This was an important first step but the actual creation of the CIA required another persuasive voice, that of Hoyt Vandenberg. In 1947 Rear Admiral Roscoe H. Hillenkoetter was appointed as the first Director of the CIA.

The Post-War Era

After the war ended, Donovan reverted to his lifelong role as a lawyer to perform one last duty: he served as special assistant to chief prosecutor Telford Taylor at several trials following the main Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal in Germany. There he had the personal satisfaction of seeing the Nazi leaders responsible for the torture and murder of captured OSS agents brought to justice. For his World War II service, Donovan received the Distinguished Service Medal, the highest American military award for outstanding non-combat service. He also received an honorary British knighthood.

At the conclusion of these trials, Donovan returned to Wall Street and his highly successful law firm, Donovan, Leisure, Newton & Irvine. He remained always available to postwar Presidents who requested his advice on intelligence matters.

In 1949 he became Chairman of the newly-founded American Committee on United Europe, which worked to counter the new Communist threat to Europe by promoting European political unity.

In 1953 President Eisenhower appointed Donovan as U.S. Ambassador to Thailand. He served in that capacity until his resignation in 1954.

The law firm he founded, Donovan, Leisure, Newton & Irvine was dissolved in 1998.


Donovan's son, David Rumsey Donovan, was a naval officer who served with distinction in World War II. His grandson, William James Donovan, served as an enlisted soldier in Vietnam and is also buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Donovan's Comments about Espionage / Intelligence Work

"Espionage is not a nice thing, nor are the methods employed exemplary. Neither are demolition bombs nor poison gas.... We face an enemy who believes one of his chief weapons is that none but he will employ terror. But we will turn terror against him...."

"The door for intelligence work opened for me when I undertook my first secret mission while on my honeymoon in Japan in 1919. The United States Government asked me to take a two-month trip to Siberia to report on the anti-Bolshevik movement in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. Well, it wasn't your usual honeymoon, but Mrs. Donovan was very understanding. The mission was successful and opened doors to many more missions for the government. I was heading down the intelligence path and I was loving it"

Medals and Awards

Medal of Honor
Distinguished Service Cross
Distinguished Service Medal with 2 Bronze Oak Leaf Clusters
Silver Star Medal
Purple Heart with Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster
Mexican Border Service Medal
World War I Victory Medal with 5 Battle Clasps
Occupation of Germany World War I Medal
American Defense Service Medal
American Campaign Medal
Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with Arrowhead and 2 Bronze Service Stars
European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with Arrowhead, 2 Silver and 2 Bronze Service Stars
World War II Victory Medal
Army of Occupation Medal with "Germany" Clasp
Armed Forces Reserve Medal with 1 Ten-Year Hourglass Device

He was also awarded the National Security Medal.

Foreign Awards

Légion d'honneur (France) (World War I)
Commandeur de la Légion d'honneur (France) (World War II)
Croix de guerre with Palm and Silver Star (France) (World War I)
Honorary Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire
Papal Lateran Cross (Vatican) (Italian: Croce Lateranese)
Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St. Sylvester (Vatican)
Order of the Crown (Italy)
Croce di Guerra (Italy)
Commander's Cross with Star of the Order of Polonia Restituta (Poland)
Grand Officer of the Order of Léopold of Belgium with Palm
Czechoslovakian War Cross (1939)
Grand Officer of the Order of Orange Nassau (Netherlands)
Grand Cross of the Royal Norwegian Order of St. Olav (Norway)
Knight Grand Cross (First Class) of The Most Exalted Order of the White Elephant (Thailand)

Distinguished Service Cross Citation

The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, July 9, 1918, takes pleasure in presenting the Distinguished Service Cross to Colonel (Infantry) William Joseph "Wild Bill" Donovan (ASN: 0-102383), United States Army, for extraordinary heroism in action while serving with 165th Infantry Regiment, 42d Division, A.E.F., near Villers-sur-Fere, France, July 28 - 31, 1918. Colonel Donovan led his battalion across the River Ourcq and captured important enemy strong holds. He was in advance of the division for four days, all the while under shell and machine-gun fire from the enemy, who were on three sides of him, and he was repeatedly and persistently counter-attacked, being wounded twice. Colonel Donovan's coolness and efficient leadership rendered possible the maintenance of this position.

General Orders: War Department, General Orders 71 (1919)


President Dwight D. Eisenhower referred to him as "the Last Hero," which later became the title of a biography of Donovan.

After his death, Donovan was awarded the Freedom Award of the International Rescue Committee (not, as some biographies state, the "Medal of Freedom," a different award).

Major General Donovan is a member of the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame.

Death and Burial

Major General William Joseph Donovan died on 8 February 1959 at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC. He was 76. Donovan is buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, VA, in Section 2, Grave 4874-A.

Origin of Nickname/Handle:
William attended St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute and Niagara University before starring on the football team at Columbia University. On the field, he got the nickname that would stick with him for the rest of his life; Wild Bill Donovan.

Honoree ID: 70   Created by: MHOH




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