Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Maj. Gen. William Joseph"Wild Bill" Donovan (1883 - 1959)

William J. "Wild Bill" Donovan was the stuff of heroic legend. For forty years he was a preeminent figure in the American establishment, having distinguished himself in two world wars. In World War I, he led the valiant soldiers of the old "Fighting 69th" New York Irish brigade (165th Infantry). That force's record in France was astounding in that it fought and was victorious in more battles than any other unit of the American Expeditionary Army under General John Pershing. And it lost more than two thirds of its men achieving that record.

Colonel Donovan in St. Mihiel, France,
September 1918
At war's end, Donovan wandered weeping through the empty billets of his lost generation of soldiers, then murmured to his brother Vincent: "When I think of all the boys I have left behind me who died out of loyalty to me… it's too much." That same loyalty would be demonstrated by those who served Donovan in World War II when he headed the Office of Strategic Services (OSS).

Donovan, who participated in the heavy hand-to-hand action, was severely wounded and received the Congressional Medal of Honor. When he and what was left of the old 69th returned from France and marched down the streets of New York, he was lionized before the world, as was his regimental chaplain, the unforgettable and equally heroic Father Francis Duffy whose battle-garbed statue still stands in New York City's Times Square.

Donovan was born in Buffalo, New York on January 1, 1883. His middle-class family could not afford to send him to college so Donovan worked his way through Columbia University, earning a law degree in 1907. He operated a successful law firm and organized a regiment of cavalry in Buffalo as part of the National Guard. Donovan rose to the rank of captain. He married Ruth Rumsey in 1914.
Col. Donovan and Father Duffy
of the Fighting 69th
Donovan's reputation as a fair-minded, intelligent lawyer, one who could accomplish difficult tasks with seeming ease, brought him to the attention of the Rockefeller Foundation in 1916. The Foundation asked him to travel to Europe, without compensation, in setting up war relief supplies and medical attention for the displaced persons of Poland. He accepted with alacrity. When arriving in England, however, Donovan was informed by British naval authorities that Germany's blockade of the seas would prevent the Rockefeller supplies from getting to Poland. Donovan then joined the Belgium Relief organization, headed by future president, Herbert Clark Hoover, to feed ten million starving refugees in Belgium

This was Donovan's first introduction to espionage. Before going behind the German lines to bring food to the starving displaced Belgians—American was neutral in 1916—Donovan met in London with a Canadian officer working for British intelligence, William Samuel Stephenson, who would later be known under the code name "Intrepid." It was this meeting, one which Donovan denied to his dying day but was evident in Stephenson's biography and Donovan's correspondence, which started Donovan on the road to being a spy.

He received some brief espionage training in London before going to Belgium and it is believed that while Donovan was working to aid refugees, he also gathered information on German supplies, troop reserves and other important military information. This he managed to pass to the British before their great offensive which resulted in the devastating battle of the Somme where the British lost 420,000 men in killed, wounded and missing—60,000 on the first day of the offensive—the "flower of British manhood," as it was later stated.
It was alleged that without Donovan's information, the British might have lost considerably more men. It was Stephenson, assigned to Washington, D.C. in 1940, who would put forth the strongest recommendation that Donovan head America's first full-fledged intelligence agency, the OSS. Just as the Somme offensive took place, Donovan was suddenly recalled to the U.S., his old cavalry unit activated and ordered to join General Pershing in an Expeditionary mission into Mexico in pursuit of the bandit Pancho Villa who had raided the small town of Columbus, New Mexico.

Villa had lead a force of 1,500 Mexicans on the raid, in search of cash and supplies to fuel his revolution in northern Mexico. He had attacked the U.S. Army camp of the 13th Cavalry, killing nine U.S. citizens and eight troopers. The cavalry had pursued Villa, killing fifty of his men inside the U.S. and seventy more inside Mexico. Now, Pershing was to lead a full-scale punitive invasion of Mexico in an undeclared war against Pancho Villa.

Donovan put his cavalry through severe training at McAllen, Texas. He got his men up one hour before any other unit and ordered them to sleep one hour after all other units were in bed. He double-drilled them, forced them to hike and march on greater distances than any other commander would expect. He was unpopular which he knew but he was unconcerned. He had been in northern France and seen the rigors of deadly warfare. He also knew that America would eventually become involved and he wanted his troops trained as well as they could be, to be as tough as the veteran front-line Germans. This he achieved.

The "Border Days," as Donovan later referred to this experience, proved to be some of the happiest of his life. He loved the rough and tumble life, the banjo campfire parties, eating carrot stews on the mesas under the stars. The discipline of his troops was superb and he had never been in better physical condition. After six months of unsuccessfully chasing the will-of-the-wisp Villa, Donovan and his unit were withdrawn from Mexico, one of the last U.S. forces to return from the expedition.
No sooner did he return than Donovan, commissioned a major, was named to head the 69th New York Irish battalion, which became the 165th Infantry in the Rainbow Division. Again, Donovan proved to be a severe taskmaster in training his tough New Yorkers. They were boated to France and went into action for the first time on February 18, 1918 at Luneville. One of Donovan's men was Joyce Kilmer, who had worked for the New York Times and was considered one of the finest American poets of the day. Donovan promoted Kilmer to the rank of sergeant and made him his intelligence clerk.

Donovan instructed Kilmer to keep a running daily log of everything heard and seen along his front. Dutifully, Kilmer described unusual smoke formations, noises of digging (underground tunnels for German sappers laying mines), rockets exploding from the German lines, their colors and configurations, artillery fire and the type of shells used, the sound of German patrol dogs. All of this seemingly trivial information was extremely useful to American military intelligence. By studying such information, the Americans could determine how the Germans were reinforcing their trenches, laying mines (which meant a defensive posture instead of mounting an offensive), different colored rockets and flares which would signal forthcoming artillery barrages. Kilmer would be killed, a loss deeply felt by Donovan, as were those of all of his men.

Following an eight-day epic battle that resulted in an American victory, Donovan and only one half of his regiment survived. For this action Donovan was to receive the Distinguished Service Cross and, subsequently, the Congressional Medal of Honor. A few days after this battle, regimental chaplain Father Duffy, overheard three of Donovan's doughboys arguing in a trench as to the worthiness of their commander. Said one: "Well, I'll say this—Wild Bill is a son-of-a-bitch, but he's a game one!"
By the time the doughboys returned from France, Donovan, along with Sergeant Alvin C. York, Captain Eddie Rickenbacker and General John Pershing, were the four great heroes of World War I. Although there were many who wanted Donovan to run for the presidency in 1920, he refused any chance at political office and went into private law practice in Buffalo, N.Y. In 1920, Donovan was appointed U.S. Attorney for the Buffalo district. His main chore was enforcing the unpopular Prohibition law. He eagerly prosecuted dozens of rumrunners and sent them to federal prison.

In 1925, Donovan became Assistant U.S. Attorney General under his Columbia University mentor Harlan Fiske Stone. One of his chores was to help clean up the Department of Justice and its Bureau of Investigation, which had been corrupted by the Teapot Dome crooks in the administration of President Warren G. Harding. One of Donovan's first jobs was to review the work and background of J. Edgar Hoover, who had been temporarily named to head the Bureau of Investigation, after William J. Burns had been removed from that office.

The Bureau, its name having been changed to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), had, under Harding's regime, been corrupted by several agents working for Burns, men like Gaston Bullock Means, an agent whose job with the Bureau in the early 1920s, consisted of blackmail, bribery and other dirty deeds on behalf of the venal Attorney General Harry M. Daugherty and his cronies. Hoover cleaned his own house, purging the Bureau of these boondogglers. In turn, Donovan studied Hoover's background and new procedures and then gave him the approval that led to Hoover's permanent appointment.
J. Edgar Hoover, who was to become the all-powerful director of the FBI, had very little contact with Donovan. The two never became friends and were never seen together throughout their long careers in Washington. Not until Donovan's appointment to head the newly formed OSS in 1940 did J. Edgar Hoover again significantly appear in Donovan's life, and he came not as an old friend but a wily, vicious antagonist.

Donovan served the Justice Department until 1929, when he returned to private practice, successfully arguing many cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. He ran as a Republican against Herbert Lehman for the governorship of New York in 1932, and was soundly beaten. Again, Donovan returned to private practice, becoming one of the most successful appeals lawyers in the country. He prospered but suffered a great tragedy in 1940 when his 22-year-old daughter Patricia, a student at George Washington University, was killed when her car overturned in a rainstorm. She was buried at Arlington National Cemetery, an honor given to her as the daughter of a Medal of Honor winner.

Donovan had doted on his daughter, his only child, and her death caused his hair to turn white almost overnight. William Samuel Stephenson called Donovan two-month's after the death of his daughter, while he was in New York City, having just arrived from London. He was one of the leading British intelligence figures of the day and operated under the code name "Intrepid". His job was to convince President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to aid England in its war against Germany and he asked Donovan to help. Through Donovan's friend, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, President Roosevelt approved of a clandestine trip Donovan was to make to England.

With government credentials and a letter of credit for $10,000. Donovan flew to war-torn England. There he met with King George VI and Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the British chiefs of staff and the war cabinet. He also conferred with British spymaster, Colonel Stewart Menzies, chief of Secret Intelligence Service (SIS).
Menzies confided to Donovan innumerable secrets, including the details of its most secret operations, the British code and cipher service that operated under the name of Ultra. This was extraordinary for the usually close-mouthed Menzies but he had been obviously instructed to cooperate in every way with Donovan in the hopes that Donovan would do his utmost to urge FDR to aid England. Even more extraordinary was the fact that England's top secrets were imparted to a private citizen on a temporary state visit.

Donovan returned to the U.S. to report to President Roosevelt that England would continue its fight against Hitler but that it desperately needed the tools of war, particularly destroyers, having lost many such warships in its sea battles for control of Norwegian waters. A short time later FDR responded by establishing his so-called "Lend-Lease" deal with England, giving that country fifty old American destroyers on the absurd condition that, after having used them, England would return these warships to the U.S.

Oddly, the British intelligence system had vastly overrated Donovan's political standing in Washington. In a secret memorandum, Sir Alexander Cadogan, undersecretary of state for England, sent a note to the British foreign secretary which described Donovan as a man who could turn the tide for England. According to Cadogan, Stephenson had convinced Menzies that Donovan had "Knox in his pocket." and that if Churchill would be completely frank with Donovan in future talks then Donovan "would contribute very largely to our obtaining all that we want of the United States."
Donovan did return to England to meet with Churchill who candidly outlined his plan for the defeat of Nazi Germany. Then the SIS conducted a VIP tour for Donovan of the British war stations from North Africa to the Middle East. During this tour, Donovan visited many heads of state, acting unofficially for FDR, attempting to persuade neutral countries from joining the Axis Powers. All through this period, Donovan, with the urging of his British intelligence friends, formulated a plan to create a new super-intelligence agency for America, one which would collect, collate and evaluate all military intelligence. The agency would be organized similar to England's SIS.