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This Day in History: William "Wild Bill" Donovan

On this day in 1918, a hero engages in an action that would earn him the Medal of Honor. William “Wild Bill” Donovan had already earned the Distinguished Service Cross, and he would later earn the Distinguished Service Medal and the National Security Medal.

The awards make Donovan the only person to receive all four of our nation’s highest honors.

His Medal action came during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, one of the final Allied campaigns during World War I. The mission facing the Allies was difficult, to say the least. One major goal was to punch through the Kriemhilde Stellung, a “dense network of prepared killing grounds the Germans had created between the Meuse River and the Argonne Forest,” as historian Geoffrey Perret describes it.

As part of this effort, then-Lt. Colonel Donovan was tasked with an attack against a German stronghold near Landres-et-St. Georges on October 14, 1918.

“Officers preparing for battle usually stripped their uniforms of rank insignia to make them less inviting targets for German snipers,” biographer Douglas Waller writes, “but Donovan this morning dressed as if he were marching in a Sunday parade.”

Too many of his men were new, entering combat for the first time. He hoped to give them courage, and he wanted to make sure that they could see him clearly and follow his orders during the battle to come.

“They can’t hit me, and they won’t hit you!” he bellowed, emboldening these raw recruits as the attack began.

The conflict that followed was rough. Four hundred men in the regiment were lost that first day, but Donovan was among his men, moving from exposed position to exposed position, reorganizing units, participating in forward attacks, and leading by example. Finally, the troops dug in for the night, just five hundred yards from enemy lines.

A new attack came at 7:30 a.m.

His men were exhausted and hungry, but Donovan was back at it again. Suddenly, he was hit. “I felt as if somebody had hit me on the back of the leg with a spiked club,” he later described. “I fell like a log, but after a few minutes managed to crawl into my little telephone hole. A machine gun lieutenant ripped open my breeches and put on the first aid. The leg hurt, but there were many things to do.”

He didn’t quit, naturally. He was soon back in the thick of it, keeping his men going for another five hours until he concluded that the position was untenable. “I was getting very groggy but managed to get a message through,” he said, “withdrawing the unit on the line and putting another in place.”

His men were in a relatively safer position, and he finally allowed himself to be carried away for medical attention. The Kriemhilde Stellung was breached the next day, and Donovan would receive the Medal of Honor for his brave leadership.

That’s not the end of the story, of course. Donovan is perhaps more famously known as the “father of American intelligence” because he was the first director of the Office of Strategic Services (predecessor to the CIA).

Naturally, his adventures as our nation’s top spymaster are stories for another day.

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