‘Wild Bill’ Donovan

By Les Kinsolving

Among the 2 million of our American men who fought in World War I against enormously dangerous German aggression – in which we discovered the Kaiser’s government was secretly planning to invade us through Mexico in the Zimmerman Telegram – there were 500,000 American men who were killed in action.

Today, there are no more than 3,000 of that 2-million left alive and I salute all of them, including my beloved father and uncle with a tribute to one of their greatest. I think of one of the most extraordinary of them. He was born in Buffalo of Irish immigrants who worked desperately hard to send him to college in Manhattan. First to Columbia College where he quarter-backed a winning football team, and then to Columbia Law School. He graduated with unimpressive grades, but with enormous ability as an orator and a trial lawyer.

Just before the outbreak of the second world war, President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent him around the world as his agent. The president then called on him to organize and operate a national intelligence service to match Germany’s superb intelligence operation, called the Abwehr.

FDR asked him to incorporate all existing intelligence services. First it was the Office of Coordinator of Information, then its name was changed to the Office of Special Services – the OSS. Today it is called the CIA and this veteran would probably have headed it up but for his enemies.

The FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover was jealous of his organization – as were Army and Navy intelligence. Montana’s liberal Sen. Burton K. Wheeler, a leader of the isolationist America First movement, charged that this veteran was “running an American Gestapo” and this kind of hatchet job was taken up by such newsmen as Walter Trohan of the Chicago Tribune and syndicated columnist Drew Pearson, the forerunner of his one time assistant Jack Anderson.

Sen. Wheeler was a close friend of a senator from Missouri. In 1924, when this veteran was assistant attorney general of the United States, Sen. Wheeler was indicted. This veteran decided that he should be brought to trial for using influence to obtain oil and gas leases. Sen. Wheeler was tried, but he was found not guilty.

In 1935, Wheeler befriended the new senator from Missouri and he never missed an opportunity to smear this world war veteran. So when the senator from Missouri became vice president, and was not provided any of the information that the OSS gathered for the president from around the world, this veteran’s days as head of U.S. intelligence were numbered.

And this was unfortunate because President Truman deeply cherished his World War I experiences overseas with his famed Battery D in his American Expeditionary Forces.

Harry Truman, on more than one occasion when he was awarding the Medal of Honor, declared that he would rather have earned this highest of all our nation’s awards for combat heroism, than be president of the United States.

This veteran, had won the Medal of Honor. He won it for extraordinary and intrepid heroism above and beyond the call of duty at great risk to human life. In France, in one of the first and bloodiest of all the battles fought by American troops, this is where his incredible courage and determination was so astonishing that he was nicknamed “Wild Bill” – William J. Donovan. During the 72 hours in which his battalion was virtually surrounded by German machine guns and artillery, he was gassed and hit three times by enemy fire, but he kept going through heavy fire to provide the coordinates necessary for American artillery.

When the battle was finally concluded, they took prisoners from five German divisions which General Ludendorf had sent in a last desperate effort to shatter the inexperienced Americans.

But Donovan’s command was very well disciplined. Heavily trained and bearers of a proud legacy, they were the 69th Regiment of New York and they had earned their nickname “The Fighting 69th” with a great deal of their blood. Fifty five years before, at the foot of Maryes Heights, they were up against Longstreet and Stonewall Jackson at the Battle of Fredericksburg. In France, on one of many trips from one position to another, Donovan saw 10 men around him cut down by machine gun fire. One of them was his sergeant major, one of the giants of American poetry – Joyce Kilmer, author of the unforgettable poem “Trees.” They named Camp Kilmer for this man of letters who was killed in action.

Another of Donovan’s staff is honored today by a statue in the center of Times Square right along with George M. Cohan. He was “Wild Bill’s” regimental chaplain, Father Francis Duffy, recipient of the Distinguished Service Cross. Father Duffy wrote:

The majority of his men thought Col. Donovan was the greatest man in the world. And the few who resented him for his working them so hard in training came to see in battle how important that was.

William J. Donovan served as presidential agent, national intelligence director, ambassador, leader of a renowned law firm and assistant attorney general of the United States. But there was no more unforgettable day in his entire life than April 28, 1919, when the Fighting 69th came home to New York.

The previous day when the transport Harrisonburg came into New York Harbor, all the city knew – and whole fleets of boats were with their fire boats as they sprayed their salutes into the air. The next morning, the regiment formed at 110th Street and 5th Avenue. Each man was prepared to march with weapon, with ammunition and steel helmet. That was the decision of Col. Donovan who told his men, “They’re not going to see your faces so well in these helmets, but they’ll sure as hell know where we’ve been!” The men approved of this, as well as the fact their commanding officer had also refused the traditional colonel’s horse so he could walk the distance with his men.

Just behind Col. Donovan and his staff came the regimental band. Its bass drum featuring a large harp with shamrocks and the lettering “69th New York.” To the regiment’s delight, the band played a march version of their favorite song – the one they had all through the grueling months of training and the same song of this famed Irish regiment’s sang as they marched toward more battles, on more fronts than any other regiment of Gen. Pershing’s AEF. They had suffered 3,501 casualties, including 644 men killed in action. They marched along 5th Avenue, most of the length of Central Park, to the march version of “The Good ‘Ol Summertime.”

Finally, in the distance, they caught their first glimpse of that great New York Irish temple, St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Then, in remembrance of the Irish ancestry of almost the entire regiment, the 69th’s regimental band began playing one of the most marvelously moving and unforgettable of all of the Irish marches, “Garryowen.”

As Donovan led his regiment down 5th Avenue, it was lined with 6,000 police and 1.3 million other people. They saw Patrick Cardinal Hayes and 500 of his priests along with 1,800 Irish-American leaders from all over New York state.

The most moving episode of the entire parade was when Col. Donovan first saw the section reserved for his men who couldn’t march with him any longer because they were too badly wounded or they were blind. Along the long, long line of Gold Star mothers and wives, Donovan ordered the regiment to halt and with a voice breaking with emotion, he called out the order for a salute, “Present Arms!”.

In all of the history of New York, there have been few moments made immortal by the rush of wings unseen. Then they completed this parade to City Hall and there Mayor John Hyland told him and the 69th:

What you and the men of the 69th Regiment did under your command, will be one of the brightest pages of our history. History will tell of your gallantry!

And then as Donovan biographer Anthony Cave Brown described it: “The crowd gave the regiment and his commanding officer a standing ovation. The band played the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ and then the men marched away to civilian life as the band once more played ‘Garryowen.’ They marched into an uncertain future where heroes are soon forgotten and, in the end, even the treasured records of battle – of honor worthy of the immortals – became no more than paper dust.”

But Donovan never forgot, and he nearly went broke during the Great Depression helping his men. That night, he and his brother Vincent motored out to Camp Mills on Long Island to make sure the men of the regiment staying there were comfortable.

Having visited his men and said goodbye to them, he and his brother walked over to the 69th’s old training sites. These were deserted now in darkness. Somewhere in the camp they heard a group of men singing “In The Good Ol’ Summertime,” the song the regiment had once roared out as they marched into the hell of the Argonne Forest. That song never ceased to haunt Donovan’s memories. He stood in the darkness for a long time listening, and he said to his brother: “When I think of all the boys I left behind, who died out of loyalty to me as a commanding officer, it’s too much.”

Then he wept.