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Irish-American War Hero and Superspy “WILD BILL” DONOVAN: By Geoffrey Cobb

“Wild Bill“ Donovan had many fascinating friends, including Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond – the fictional, globe-trotting superspy. Donovan’s real-life feats, however, surpassed even Bond’s wildest exploits. Perhaps no other Irish American served his country more daringly, yet Donovan’s largely clandestine service to America is still greatly underappreciated. orn in 1883 into poverty, the son of a County Corkborn railroad superintendent in Buffalo, New York, William Joseph Donovan combined rakish good looks with a first-rate intelligence. Rare amongst IrishAmericans of his generation, Donovan inherited his father’s allegiance to the Republican party. Excelling in his local Catholic school, Donovan first went to a local Catholic college before transferring to Columbia University, where he starred as the football team’s quarterback. Admitted to its law school in 1905, Donovan was a classmate of his future boss, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but the two were not friendly. Returning to Buffalo, Donovan forsook the IrishAmerican First Ward, spending his time in posh Protestant circles and joining a prestigious Buffalo law firm. Soon admitted as the first-ever Catholic into the Saturn Club, Buffalo’s most prestigious club, Donovan courted and married Ruth Rumsey, the

38 IRISH AMERICA MAY / JUNE 2019

attractive Protestant daughter of Buffalo’s richest man. Donovan, though, was too restless just to practice law. Eager for military service, he and his Saturn Club friends formed a National Guard cavalry troop, known as the Silk Stocking Boys, which was soon dispatched to Mexico, chasing Pancho Villa in vain across the hot and dusty Mexican landscape. When America entered the Great War in 1917, Donovan was commissioned as a major in “the Fighting 69th,” a regiment of poor Irish toughs who, despite their heroism in the Civil War, were notorious for their fist-fighting and hard drinking. Donovan weeded out the troublemakers, putting his imprint on the unit by hand-picking 2,000 smart, athletic, and agile men. Becoming infamous for his demanding physical training of the recruits, in which he also took part, Donovan once asked his exhausted men what the hell was wrong with them. One of them replied, “We are not as wild as you are, Major Donovan,” and the name stuck. Donovan befriended the 69th’s famous Canadianborn chaplain Father Duffy, whose statue still graces New York’s Times Square. Duffy admired Donovan’s fearlessness in battle. Donovan wore his medals in battle to encourage his men, even though they made him a target for snipers. On July 27, 1918, Donovan proved his valor while leading his men across the Ourcq River. Hemmed in by machine guns on three sides, Donovan refused to cower, even though the 69th lost 600 of 1,000 men, including three-quarters of the officers. For his bravery, Donovan won the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s secondhighest award. Soon, Donovan again displayed his courage, fighting in the thick of battle on October 14 and famously shouting, “They can’t hit me and they won’t hit you!” Wounded the next morning, Donovan refused to be evacuated and continued commanding his men, even after American tanks retreated from the withering German fire. Awarded the Medal of Honor, Donovan’s letters about the engagement, published by newspapers, made him a national hero. Upon being awarded the Medal of Honor, Donovan became the most decorated soldier in U.S. history, winning, amongst other orders, the Silver Star, the Purple Heart, and several foreign awards. The Fighting 69th, or what was left of it, returned to a hero’s welcome and a ticker-tape parade up Fifth Avenue. Using his newly found fame, Donovan, along with

Profile for Irish America Magazine

Irish America May / June 2019  

Irish America's May / June issue, featuring Congressman Richie Neal, chairman of the Ways and Means committee of the U.S. House of Represent...

Irish America May / June 2019  

Irish America's May / June issue, featuring Congressman Richie Neal, chairman of the Ways and Means committee of the U.S. House of Represent...