Spymaster "Wild Bill" Donovan

WARS | August 30, 2019

OSS Operatives in training during World War II. Source: (wikimedia.org)

On New Year’s Day, 1883, William Joseph Donovan was born in Buffalo, New York. He was to become an American hero, earning the Medal of Honor during World War I as well as becoming the country’s spymaster during World War II.

His life was like a Hollywood movie, except better since it was real.

William J. Donovan. Source: (wikimedia.org)

Donovan was the son of Irish parents, his father was a railroad superintendent. He studied law at Columbia University where he was a classmate of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Despite a modest upbringing, he married Ruth Rumsey, the daughter of the richest man in Buffalo. Hobnobbing in upper circles he and some society men joined the New York Guard forming a cavalry unit known as the Silk Stocking Boys. It was during this time that he took part in General John Pershing’s famous hunt for the Mexican bandit, Pancho Villa in 1916.  

William J. Donovan during World War I. Source: (Wikipedia - Image taken from NARA)

During the First World War, Donovan obtained a commission as a major and led the first battalion of the 165th regiment of the 42nd division. This regiment, previously designated as the 69th was famous since Civil War days as the so-called “Fighting Irish.” The First World War had a profound impact on Donovan. In the five-day-long battle of Ourcq, his battalion suffered 600 casualties of 1,000. After the Battle of Meuse-Argonne, only 600 of his 3,500 were able to report to duty -- everybody else was wounded or killed. In one battle near the Marne, he refused to strip himself of his insignia or medals which was custom to avoid being singled out by snipers but led a charge crying, “They can’t hit me, and they won’t hurt you.” He was wounded the next day in the leg but refused to leave the field and continued to direct his men. For conspicuous bravery, he was later awarded the Medal of Honor.   The French too gave him the Croix de Guerre which he refused at first since they would not give the same medal to one of his soldiers who took part in the action because he was Jewish.  When the French acquiesced, Donovan accepted the medal.

 While it is indeterminate where he earned the nickname “Wild Bill,” by this time, his men were certainly calling him that.

Donovan being decorated by French General Grancher. Source: (gettyimages.com)

Because of Donovan’s talent and bravery he became a minor celebrity and intermingled with the elites of his time. He became the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of New York from 1922 to 1924 then the Assistant Attorney General for the Department of Justice. He was known as a fierce prosecutor -- he even alienated himself from Buffalo society by ordering a raid on a club he owned to enforce Prohibition. But Donovan was troubled -- his experiences during World War I had been terrible. Some scholars argue persuasively that Donovan’s traumatic experiences during the war led him to question the value of direct conflict. Rather, Donovan believed that reliance on indirect warfare through espionage, sabotage, and other covert operations could reduce battlefield casualties. Thus, even as war clouds gathered again, then broke in 1939, Donovan observed and thought about the international scene and how best to wage war.

Donovan as head of the OSS. Source: (wikimedia.org)

On June 10, 1941, Donovan gave to President Franklin D. Roosevelt a memorandum recommending the establishment of a formal, separate intelligence service. Until that point, intelligence operations were handled on a piecemeal basis by separate agencies such as the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) and the military intelligence division (G-2). Much of Donovan’s recommendations were influenced by his interaction with British intelligence services. Roosevelt named Donovan the head of the Coordinator of Information (COI). Due to bureaucratic infighting, this was replaced on June 13, 1942, with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS).

OSS operatives in training. Source: (wikimedia.org)

Although other military branches operated independent intelligence units, the OSS was the first centralized one under the jurisdiction of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Because of the existence of other intelligence units and also J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, there was serious infighting during the war as to the role the OSS would take. In addition, there were also squabbles in jurisdiction between the OSS and the British secret service, MI-6.

Despite these obstacles, Donovan created an organization that had a solid record of success against Axis forces. In a prelude to the Allied push into North Africa in Operation Torch, the OSS set up a spy ring to provide valuable intelligence data. The OSS research station in Berne, Switzerland provided valuable information on German weapons development, particularly that of the V-series weapons. In order to disrupt German military operations prior to D-Day, Donovan launched Operation Sparrow into Hungary which required Germany to send more forces to that country, thus diluting their strength. After the invasion of Normandy, OSS operatives helped behind enemy lines to disrupt German defenses and aid the French resistance. In addition, Donovan established the Research and Analysis Branch (R&A) which analyzed all intelligence operations and provided valuable data for operations such as decided what targets to bomb or making estimates on the number of German casualties (to which R&A was surprisingly accurate).

Donovan’s OSS was also instrumental in collecting data concerning war crimes. His organization had gathered so much data, that Donovan himself served on trial staff and interrogated prisoners.

A bust of Donovan at the CIA Museum in McLean, VA. Source: ((Photo by Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

After the war, the OSS evolved into the CIA but Donovan was not selected to lead the organization. He would eventually become the Ambassador to Thailand. He died on February 8, 1959. According to his biography of the CIA web site, he is the only person to receive the country’s four highest honors: the Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal, and the National Security Medal. Donovan was posthumously awarded the Freedom Award of the International Rescue Committee.

Upon his death, the CIA cabled “The man more responsible than any other for the existence of the Central Intelligence Agency has passed away.”

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Joseph A. Williams


Joseph A. Williams is the author of Seventeen Fathoms Deep: The Saga of the Submarine S-4 Disaster and The Sunken Gold: A Story of World War I, Espionage, and the Greatest Treasure Salvage in History.