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Major General William Joseph Donovan, KBE USA (January 1, 1883 – February 8, 1959) was an American soldier, lawyer and intelligence officer, best remembered as wartime head of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). He is also widely known as the "father" of today's Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
Donovan was born in Buffalo, New York and 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 Donovan was also a member of Phi Kappa Psi Fraternity, and he graduated from Columbia in 1905.
Donovan was a member of the New York City "Establishment", a powerful Wall Street lawyer and a Columbia Law School classmate (1908) (but credited to 1907) of Franklin D. Roosevelt, although they were not close at the time.
In 1912, Donovan formed and led a troop of cavalry of the New York State Militia, that in 1916 served on the U.S.-Mexico border in the Pancho Villa campaign.
World War I
During World War I, Donovan organized and led a battalion of the United States Army, designated 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 charges was poet Joyce Kilmer. For his service near Landres-et-St. Georges, France, on 14 and 15 October 1918, he was awarded the Medal of Honor. By the end of the war he received a promotion to colonel, the Distinguished Service Cross and three Purple Hearts (the full text of his Medal of Honor Citation can be found further below).
Between the wars
After the war, he was the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of New York, famous for his energetic enforcement of Prohibition. President Calvin Coolidge named him to the United States Department of Justice's Antitrust Division. He ran unsuccessfully as a Republican for Governor of New York in 1932 and was soundly defeated by Democrat Herbert H. Lehman.
World War II
During the inter-war years, Donovan travelled extensively in Europe and met with foreign leaders including Adolf Hitler of Germany. Donovan openly believed during this time that a second major European war was all but inevitable. His foreign experience and realism earned him the attention and friendship of Columbia-classmate President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The two men were from opposing politicals parties, but they were similar in personality and Roosevelt came to highly value Donovan's insights. Following Germany's invasion of Poland in 1939 and the start of World War II in Europe, President Franklin D. Roosevelt began to put the United States on a war footing. This was a crisis of the sort that Donovan had predicted, and he sought out a place in the war infrastructure. On the recommendation of Donovan's friend United States Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, Roosevelt gave Donovan a number of increasingly important assignments. In 1940 and 1941, Donovan travelled as an informal emissary to Britain, urged by Knox and Roosevelt to gauge Britain's ability to withstand Germany. Donovan during these trips met with key officials in the British war effort, including Winston Churchill himself and the directors of Britain's intelligence services. Donovan returned to the US confident of Britain's chances and enamored with the possibility of founding an American intelligence service modeled on that of the British.
In June 1941, Donovan received his most important assignment to date when Roosevelt named him Coordinator of Information (COI). American foreign intelligence at the time was a fragmented system. The Army, Navy, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), United States Department of State, and other interests each ran in-house operations the results of which they were reluctant to share with the other departments. Donovan was now the nominal director of this unwieldy system, but he was plagued over the course of the next year with brutal 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 awarded them. The FBI, for example, under the control of Donovan's bitter rival J. Edgar Hoover, insisted on retaining its autonomy in South America.
Donovan forged ahead, though, and 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). The OSS gradually earned responsibility for espionage and sabotage in Europe and in parts of Asia. The OSS continued to be kept out of South America by Hoover's hostility to Donovan, and it was blocked out of the Philippines by the antipathy of Douglas MacArthur.
For many years, the exploits of the OSS remained secret, but in the 1970s and 1980s, significant parts of the OSS history were declassified, and the exploits of Donovan's service became public record.
As World War II began to wind to a close in 1944, Donovan began to focus on preserving the OSS beyond the end of the war. After President Roosevelt's death in 1945, however, Donovan's political position, which had thrived on his personal connection to the President, was substantially weakened. Although he argued forcefully for the OSS' retention, he now found himself opposed by numerous powerful opponents, including President Harry S Truman, who personally disliked Donovan. Public opinion turned against Donovan's efforts when conservative critics rallied against the intelligence service that they called an 'American gestapo.' Truman disbanded the OSS, effective September 1945, and Donovan was returned to civilian life. Various departments of the OSS survived the agency's dissolution, however, and less than two years later, the Central Intelligence Agency was founded, a realization of Donovan's hopes for a centralized peacetime intelligence agency.
When the war had finished, 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 the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal.
There, he had the personal satisfaction of seeing 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 award the United States military gives for service (rather than valor). He also received an honorary British knighthood.
At the conclusion of the trial, he returned to Wall Street where his law firm, Donovan, Leisure, Newton & Irvine, was a powerhouse. He remained always available to the postwar Presidents who needed his counsel — or his intelligence management experience.
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.
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.
Donovan died on February 8, 1959, at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, in Washington, D.C. at the age of 76, and is buried in Section 2 of Arlington National Cemetery.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower referred to him as "the Last Hero", which later became the title of a biography of him. 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).
The law firm he founded, Donovan, Leisure, Newton & Irvine was dissolved in 1998.
Major General Donovan is a member of the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame.
List of honors and decorations
- Medal of Honor
- Distinguished Service Cross
- Distinguished Service Medal with 1 Oak Leaf Cluster
- Purple Heart with 2 Oak Leaf Clusters
- National Security Medal
- Mexican Service Medal
- Mexican Border Service Medal
- World War I Victory Medal with 5 Battle Clasps
- Army of Occupation of Germany 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 Arrowheads, 2 Silver Service Stars, and 2 Bronze Service Stars
- World War II Victory Medal
- Armed Forces Reserve Medal with one ten-year hourglass device
- Légion d'honneur (France) (World War I)
- Commandant de la Légion d'honneur (France) (World War II)
- Croix de guerre with Palm and Silver Star (France) (World War I)
- Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire
- Lateran Medal (Vatican)
- Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St. Sylvester (Vatican)
- Grand Officer of the Order of Léopold of Belgium with Palm
- Czechoslovakian War Cross (1939)
- Grand Officer of the Order of Orange Nassau (Netherlands)
Order of the British Empire
Medal of the Order of Saint Sylvester and the Golden Militia, 1841.
Grand Officer of the Order of Léopold of Belgium with Palm
Czech War cross
|Order of Orange-Nassau
Orde van Oranje-Nassau
Medal of Honor citation
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. Entered service at: Buffalo, N.Y. Born: 1 January 1883, Buffalo, N.Y. G.O., No.: 56, W.D., 1922.
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
|Place of birth
||Buffalo, New York
|Place of death
||Arlington National Cemetery
|| United States of America
||United States Army
|Years of service
||69th Infantry Regiment (World War I)
Office of Strategic Services (World War II)
||World War I
World War II
||Medal of Honor
Distinguished Service Cross
Distinguished Service Medal
Purple Heart (3)
The 165th Infantry in WW I was actually renumbered from the 69th Infantry Regiment: The outbreak of World War I saw a resurrection of the old spirit of the 69th. Its ranks were filled with many Irish-Americans and other New Yorkers, and it was sent over to France in 1918 as part of the American Expeditionary Force at the start of the German Spring Offensive. All National Guard regiments received new "100 series" regimental numbers at that time. The 69th was renumbered the 165th Infantry Regiment, but retained its Irish symbolism and spirit. It saw heavy combat with the 42nd "Rainbow" Division. Three of its members won the Medal of Honor, including its famed commander, William Joseph Donovan.
It also produced Father Francis Duffy, "The Fighting Chaplain". In heavy fighting during the Hundred Days Offensive, it looked as if the regiment was to be overrun in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. Donovan gave Duffy grenades lest he be killed. Duffy refused, and unarmed, he continued to give last rites and help the wounded. Poet Joyce Kilmer was killed in the Second Battle of the Marne while a member of the regiment. One member of the Regiment killed in World War I was Daniel Buckley who survived the sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912.
The actual World War I exploits of the regiment formed the backdrop to the 1940 fictional movie The Fighting 69th. Father Duffy is memorialized in a statue at the north end of Times Square, which is technically "Duffy Square". World War II's Camp Kilmer was named for Joyce Kilmer and William Joseph Donovan went on to organize the OSS.
Born at Buffalo, New York, January 1, 1883, he earned the Medal of Honor for service in World War I, where he earned the nickname "Wild Bill."
He is the ONLY American to have received our nation's FOUR highest awards, The Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal and the National Security Medal.
During World War II, he founded, and then led, the OSS (Office of Strategic Services - the predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
Following the war, he served as an Assistant to Robert Jackson, Chief American Prosecutor at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials. He also served as United States Ambassador to Thailand in 1953.
He died at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. on February 8, 1959 and was buried among other family members in Section 2 of Arlington National Cemetery.
Faithful to the end, Ruth was at his bedside in the Pershing Suite when Donovan was "born into eternity" -- in the phrase of the priest -- at 1:55 PM on Sunday, February 8, 1959. His brother, Vincent, in the robes of a Dominican, gave Donovan the last rites. When he heard the news, President Eisenhower remarked: "What a man! We have lost the last hero."
Dressed in his General's uniform, Donovan was buried three days later beside Patricia in Arlington National Cemetery amid a thunder of guns, trumpet calls and hymns. Many of those at the graveside would remember thinking: "We shall not see his like again."
DONOVAN, WILLIAM JOSEPH
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. Entered service at: Buffalo, New York. Born: 1 January 1883, Buffalo, New York. G.O., No.: 56, W.D., 1922.
Lieutenant Colonel 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.