"Wild Bill" Donovan
William J. Donovan, the head of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in World War II and one of the forefathers of today’s special operations forces, was born on New Year’s Day in 1883 in Buffalo, New York. After college and law school he entered private practice, where he prospered as a Wall Street lawyer.
In search of a way to serve his country, Donovan joined the New York National Guard’s 69th “Fighting Irish” Regiment as a captain in 1912. During World War I, the 69th was redesignated the 165th Regiment of the U.S. Army and was incorporated into the “Rainbow” Division, so named because of the cross-country makeup of its ranks. Then-Lieutenant Colonel Donovan was troubled by the poor training and lack of physical conditioning of his troops, so one day he ran them in full packs on a three-mile obstacle course over walls, under barbed wire, through icy streams and up and down hills. At the end the men collapsed, gasping for air. “What the hell’s the matter with you?” Donovan demanded. “I haven’t lost my breath!” At age 35, he had carried the same load. The voice of an anonymous soldier in the back responded, “But hell, we aren’t as wild as you are, Bill.” From that day on, the nickname “Wild Bill” stuck. Donovan publically expressed annoyance at the name because it ran counter to the cool, careful image he wanted to cultivate, but his wife, Ruth, said that deep down he loved it.
On Feb. 28, 1918, Donovan and his battalion entered the fighting for the first time. He had wondered how he would react the first time he came under fire and discovered he had “no fear of being able to stand up under it,” he wrote to Ruth, thrilled at the danger of combat like a “youngster at Halloween.” Growing “easily accustomed” to standing up under fire, Donovan eschewed being a “dugout commander” and led his troops from the front.
On the morning of Oct. 14, 1918, during the Meuse-Argonne Campaign, Donovan would earn the Medal of Honor. His unit was being decimated by enfilade fire from his right, and Donovan’s advance stalled, with horrifying casualties. Donovan rallied his troops and exposed himself to enemy fire as he moved from position to position. He was wounded in the leg by machine-gun bullets but refused to be evacuated and continued with his unit until it withdrew to a less exposed position. Donovan would be wounded three times during the war and is the only American to have received the nation’s four highest awards: the Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal, and the National Security Medal. He also received the French Croix de Guerre.