b. 01/01/1883 Buffalo, New York. d. 08/02/1959 Washington DC.
DATE OF MOH ACTION: 14-15/10/1918 Landres-et-St George, France.
Of Irish descent, Donovan was born in Buffalo, New York to first generation immigrants Anna Letitia “Tish” Donovan (née Lennon) and Timothy P. Donovan, of Ulster and County Cork 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.
William Joseph attended St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute and Niagara University before starring on the football team at Columbia University. On the field, he earned the nickname “Wild Bill”, which would remain with him for the rest of his life. Donovan graduated from Columbia in 1905 and was a member of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity. 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 National Guard. This unit was mobilized in 1916 and served on the U.S.-Mexico border during the American government’s campaign against Pancho Villa.
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 and 15 October 1918, he received the Medal of Honor. By the end of the war he received a promotion to colonel, the Distinguished Service Cross and Purple Heart with two oak leaf clusters.
On July 11, 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), United States Department of State, and other interests each ran its 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.
In 1942, the COI became the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and Donovan was returned to active duty in the U.S. Army in his World War I rank of Colonel. He was promoted to brigadier general in March 1943 and to major general in November 1944. 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, the commander of the Southwest Pacific Theater.
After Truman disbanded the OSS in September 1945, Donovan 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.
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 Robert H. Jackson at the 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. Donovan felt strongly that the German general staff and officer corps should not be prosecuted alongside the Nazi leaders, but failed to get the agreement of Truman and Jackson and resigned from the prosecution team.
For his World War II service, Donovan received the oak leaf cluster to the Distinguished Service Medal. After resigning from the Nazi war criminal 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 1953 he was named United States Ambassador to Thailand, where he served until his retirement in 1957. He died at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC in 1959. He is the only holder of the top four highest awards of the United States: The Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal, and the National Security Medal. Upon learning of his death, the CIA sent a cable to its station chiefs: “The man more responsible than any other for the existence of the Central Intelligence Agency has passed away.” He is buried in Section 2 of Arlington National Cemetery.
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.
BURIAL LOCATION: ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY, ARLINGTON, VIRGINIA.
SECTION 2, GRAVE 4874-A.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: FAMILY.