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"Wild Bill” Donovan - World War I Hero
An excerpt from Against the Grain, pp. 123-
by Timothy Bohen

Reprinted with permission.

Another famous lawyer came out of the same neighborhood as [John Lord] O’Brian, but his fame didn’t come from the courtroom; rather from the battlefields in France.  His name was William J. Donovan, and he was born in the First Ward on January 1, 1883 to Timothy and Anna (Lennon) Donovan.

As a result of William Donovan’s eventual fame, the lives of his grandfather and father were well documented, and their biographies give us insight into the lives of other First Ward men of their time.  William’s grandfather, Timothy Donovan—who will be referred to as Grandfather Donovan so as not to confuse him with William’s father Timothy—was a schoolteacher from the fishing village of Goleen, Ireland in County Cork.  Despite his previous profession in Ireland, he worked as a grain scooper when he arrived in Buffalo. 

Reportedly he settled in Buffalo for two reasons: the wages were higher than in other surrounding cities and because he wanted to settle in a city where the Catholic Church was prominent. Donovan was one of the fortunate Irish immigrants to arrive in America with some money, and this enabled him to eventually purchase one of the better-constructed homes in the Ward.  In fact, his brick house at 74 Michigan Street was a rarity in a neighborhood of mostly wooden, cottage-style housing stock. As a former teacher, Grandfather Donovan promoted learning among his children and made sure the house was filled with books—uncommon among working class families in the Ward during that time.

Grandfather Donovan, like many first- and second-generation Irish Americans, was an ardent supporter of Irish independence.  It was even rumored that he was connected with the Fenians.  It is a fact that the elder Donovan housed and supported Irish independence leaders and intellectuals who traveled and stayed in Buffalo.  Also, throughout the late 1800s, Grandfather Donovan assisted his fellow Irishmen by turning his homestead into a safe house for Irish refugees who would sneak into Buffalo from Canada.  Numerous Irish natives arrived in Buffalo illegally from Canada and were then sheltered for a short while until they became established. 

Grandfather Donovan was also a teetotaler and was so passionate about the issue of drinking that he was the leader of a local branch of the League of the Cross, which was dedicated to encouraging temperance among the working-class Catholic families in an effort to elevate their situation.  This was the environment in which Grandfather Donovan’s son Timothy — the father of William—was raised and was subsequently passed on to young William.

Timothy Donovan initially worked as a greaser for the Erie and Lackawanna Railroad.  As a hardworking and temperate man he rose quickly and eventually was named to the important position of yardmaster at the facilities in Black Rock.  Like his father, Timothy promoted book learning to his children and abstained from alcohol, but these weren’t the only traits that differentiated the Donovans from many of their neighbors. 

In politics, Timothy Donovan was registered a Republican—an almost unthinkable act among Irish Americans in those days.  In fact, for a while he was the leader of the Republican Party in the Ward.  Despite these differences, the Donovans had struggles like others in the Ward.  Of the nine children in Timothy Donovan’s household, the first four died of meningitis and only two survived to an old age. 

This left William, the fifth in birth order, as the oldest.  Like many young Ward boys, Will Donovan went to St. Bridget’s school, at the corner of Louisiana and Fulton Streets, for his first years and later transferred to Miss Nardin’s Academy.  Even as a young boy, Will had natural gifts that separated him from his peers.  Will’s classmates remembered him as a determined boy, and although not necessarily the brightest student, definitely one of the most tenacious. 

In addition to possessing an abundance of natural gifts, Will was also lucky.  His father was a close friend of one of the rising stars of the Catholic Church in Buffalo: Father James Quigley, who later became the local bishop (William and his brother carried Quigley’s train during his solemn consecration as bishop).  Quigley realized that Will was a child with special talents and he needed to be exposed to the best possible education.  As a result of this relationship, Bishop Quigley used diocesan funds to pay for his studies at St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute (a prominent local Catholic high school).  Donovan went to Niagara University for a short while but transferred to Columbia University where he received his degree.

The handsome Bill Donovan was described as having penetrating blue eyes, and although he was only 5’8”, he seemed taller to those who met him in person.  Donovan grew up in a family that also promoted athletic competition so it was no surprise when he excelled as the quarterback of Columbia’s football team (he also rowed on the college’s varsity team).  All of these traits, coupled with his charismatic personality, contributed to the perception that he was a natural leader. 

After undergraduate studies, he earned his law degree from Columbia University in 1908, and shortly thereafter he entered into a private legal practice in Buffalo.  Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders were his boyhood heroes and this probably interested him in a career in the military.  Before World War I, he and a group of blue-blood Buffalonians formed Troop I—sneeringly called the “Silk-Stocking Boys” by some—which was a cavalry unit of the New York National Guard.  Donovan was selected as captain of the unit, which was unusual since he was an Irish Catholic from the First Ward leading a group composed almost entirely of upper-class Protestants. 

Around this time, he was introduced to Ruth Rumsey, daughter of the wealthiest man in Buffalo: Dexter Rumsey.  Despite the fact that Bill and Ruth came from two different worlds—the working-class First Ward and the monied Delaware Avenue elite—they married in 1914 and Bill Donovan officially entered the WASP society of Buffalo. 

Shortly after the U.S. entered World War I, Donovan was called to lead the 1st Battalion of the 165th infantry, also known as the “Old Fighting 69th” or just the “Fighting 69th”.  This unit of mostly Irish Americans from New York City—the same regiment in which dozens of First Ward men fought during the Civil War—was now, fifty years later, under Donovan’s command. 

There is a controversy as to how and when Donovan acquired his nickname: “Wild Bill”: some say it resulted from his ferociousness on the football field at Columbia University while others attribute it to his fearlessness on the battlefield in France.  Either way, Major “Wild Bill” Donovan and his men were sent to fight in several crucial campaigns in France. 

After proving himself in several battles he was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel where he courageously led his unit in battle at Landres-et-St. Georges during the Argonne offensive.  Donovan led one of three regiments with the objective of capturing an enemy position which was well entrenched on a steep ravine surrounded by machine guns and artillery.  Because of the danger of this mission, the other two supporting regiments refused to advance, but Donovan believed in following orders, so he rallied his regiment and led the advance under absolutely murderous conditions (the high command was expecting 60% casualties from this assault).  Despite being hit three times during the battle by enemy fire, Donovan refused to leave the field until all of his men were administered to or removed from the battlefield.   It was this sort of valor that fed the legend of “Wild Bill” Donovan. 

When the battle was over, Donovan’s regiment was devastated: 600 of his 1,000 soldiers were killed, wounded or missing in action.  By war’s end Donovan’s regiment had suffered 644 killed in action with 3,501 casualties. 

In a New York City parade at the end of the war, over a million people turned out to cheer Donovan and the “Fighting 69th” regiment for their bravery.  Donovan had captured the imagination of the nation and overnight became a true American hero.

As a result of his extraordinary bravery and his accomplishments in France defeating the Germans—including the elite Fourth Imperial Prussian Foot Guards—the former First Ward boy became the most decorated soldier in American history, earning the top three awards: the Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross and the Distinguished Service Medal.  During the war, “Wild Bill” Donovan earned more medals than even the highly distinguished Brigadier General Douglas MacArthur.  Donovan had made a name for himself on the national stage, but his most important contributions to his country were still to come.

World War II

Residents of the Ward hobbled through the Great Depression, and were then thrust into the mobilization to defeat Germany and Japan in the Second World War.  Many heroes emerged from the Ward, but the most prominent First Ward native in this conflict was the same hero from World War I: William J. Donovan. 

In between the wars, “Wild Bill” served in various political positions and was a partner in a successful Wall Street law firm where he reportedly became a millionaire. 

In 1922, as the U.S. Attorney for Western New York, he was responsible for enforcing the Prohibition laws, which he did faithfully (in fact, some speculate that his overzealous enforcement efforts may have cost him a chance at higher political office).  It is rumored that Herbert Hoover offered Donovan the position of Vice President on his ticket in 1928, but he turned it down, hoping for the Attorney General slot.  However, at that time there was too much animosity toward a Catholic enforcing U.S. laws, so Hoover couldn’t offer Bill Donovan his desired position. 

In 1932, Donovan unsuccessfully ran as the Republican candidate for governor of New York and was once considered a possible Republican presidential candidate.  But for various reasons higher political office would elude Donovan for the rest of his life.

“Wild Bill” Donovan and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, former classmates at Columbia University, were close personal friends despite their different political affiliations.  When hostilities began in Europe preceding the U.S. entry into World War II, Roosevelt called on Donovan to assist him. 

Donovan’s first assignments involved diplomatic missions to assess the evolving crisis and he met with leaders such as Winston Churchill and King George VI.  At the start of war between England and Germany, Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy’s assessment was that the English were finished and would capitulate to the more powerful Germans.  Donovan’s assessment was much more optimistic and he urged Roosevelt to provide resources to assist England.  Roosevelt trusted Donovan’s opinion more than Kennedy’s and as a result the U.S. started sending material aid to the British through the Lend-Lease program.  Upon his return to the U.S., Donovan also urged Roosevelt to prepare for a global war. 

After Donovan’s information-gathering European mission, the crippled Roosevelt had even grander plans for the former boy from Michigan Street whom he once referred to as “my secret legs.”   Prior to the U.S. involvement in the war, the United States had an ineffective and fragmented foreign intelligence network, so Roosevelt tasked Donovan with centralizing these disparate organizations.  On July 11, 1941, Bill Donovan was named the Coordinator of Information for the U.S. Government.  One year later, on June 13, 1942, Roosevelt appointed Donovan as director of the newly created Office of Strategic Services (OSS)—a centralized intelligence agency, which aided the U.S. during the Second World War.  Donovan propelled the U.S. intelligence agency from outdated tactics into the 20th century and hired the best and brightest from across the country; he reportedly claimed that his ideal candidate was someone with a PhD who could win a bar fight.    

Donovan’s organization provided valuable information for the Allied Forces during the Second World War and in 1944 he was promoted to the rank of Major General in the U.S. Army for his efforts.  While Roosevelt admired Donovan greatly, his Vice President, Harry S. Truman, strongly disliked Donovan.  At the end of the war, after Roosevelt’s death in 1945, President Truman dismissed Donovan and dissolved the OSS.  One year later, Truman re-established the department under the name of the Central Intelligence Group, but did not appoint Donovan, the likely candidate, as director.  Despite this egregious snub, Donovan is still considered the “Father of American Intelligence” and his portrait hangs first in the gallery of CIA directors at CIA headquarters in Virginia. 

After his directorship of the OSS ended, Donovan was asked to assist during the Nuremberg Trials, and he later served as an ambassador to Thailand.

William J. Donovan was clearly the most remarkable person to come out of the First Ward in terms of his impact on national and international affairs.  His accomplishments for his country rank up there with other native Buffalonians including Presidents Millard Fillmore and Grover Cleveland.  The United States recognized Donovan for his indefatigable efforts by honoring him with the four highest decorations that the nation confers: the Congressional Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal, and the National Security Medal. 

Judge Salvatore Martoche, a Bill Donovan expert, claims that, “Buffalo never produced such a colorful figure on the national or international stage [as Bill Donovan].”  Sir William Stephenson, known as “Intrepid”, was a British Intelligence director who worked closely with William Donovan during World War II.  Stephenson boldly claimed that William Donovan “was one of the significant men of our century.” At the end of the war, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, the German Intelligence chief during World War II, stated that of all of the Allied leaders he wished to meet he would choose William Donovan.   More importantly, Donovan biographer Richard Dunlop claimed that Adolf Hitler “feared and hated him [Donovan] more than he did any other American.” 

In 1959, after William Donovan passed away, President Dwight Eisenhower declared that the young man from the First Ward was “the Last Hero”.  

Page by Chuck LaChiusa in 2012
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