General William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan

(January 1, 1883 – February 8, 1959)

As leaders gather in Paris to commemorate the end of World War 1, The Ciesla Foundation would like to share the story of a hero, General William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan.

In 1907, Donovan graduated from Columbia Law School and entered private practice.

In search of a way to serve his country, Donovan joined the New York National Guard in 1912 as a captain. He became part of the 69th “Fighting Irish” Regiment. Donovan also served on the Mexican border in 1916 after his guard regiment was called into federal service to assist the U.S. Army in tracking down the Mexican bandit Pancho Villa.

During World War I, Donovan served his country again, when his regiment was called into federal service. Donovan then became part of the 165th Regiment of the U.S. Army, also known as the “Rainbow” Division because of the cross-country makeup of its ranks. During his time leading the regiment, Donovan earned his nickname “Wild Bill.” The men in his battalion called him “Wild Bill” out of admiration for his coolness and resourcefulness during combat and because of the hard physical drills, he made them do to prepare for battle.

On July 11, 1941, after the shock of Pearl Harbor earlier that year, President Roosevelt appointed Gen. William J. Donovan, a decorated veteran of World War I and also known as “Wild Bill” Donovan to become the Director of the Office of the Coordination of Information (COI), The COI coordinated information collected abroad for the president. After the United States became involved in World War II, the COI became the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in June 1942, with Donovan still in charge.

Donovan became known as the “Father of American Intelligence.”

He was an American soldier, lawyer, intelligence officer and diplomat. He was wounded in action three times during World War I. On July 18, 1918, for bravery under fire on the River Ourcq during the Second Battle of the Marne, he was awarded the Medal of Honor. By the end of the war, Donovan had been promoted to colonel and was one of the most decorated soldiers of World War I. Upon returning from Europe after World War I, Donovan — along with Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. — was a co-founder of the American Legion.

He is the only person to have received all four of the United States’ highest awards: The Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal, and the National Security Medal. He is also a recipient of the Silver Star and Purple Heart, as well as decorations from a number of other nations for his service during both World Wars.

The OSS consisted of men and women from many areas and backgrounds — lawyers, historians, bankers, baseball players, actors, and businessmen. Their assignment was to conduct espionage, sabotage, and morale operations against the Axis powers, and conduct in-depth research and analysis on the nation’s enemies and their capabilities.

One of Donovan’s accomplishments in WWII was hiring Moe Berg, former major league baseball player, to work with the OSS and providing the US government with information about Germany’s efforts to develop an atomic weapon. Moe Berg gathered intelligence and contacted Italian scientists in an effort to keep them from working with the Nazis. He was sent to Zurich to attend a lecture given by Werner Heisenberg and determine the likelihood of a German A-bomb. He was given a gun to assassinate Heisenberg if necessary and a cyanide pill to take himself.

Upon learning of General Donovan’s death in 1959, President Eisenhower said: “What a man! We have lost the last hero.”

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