William J. Donovan

My name is William J. Donovan. I was born on January 1, 1883. I grew up at 742 Delaware Avenue, a very prestigious address in Buffalo, New York. (72) I joined Troop I of the First Volunteer Cavalry of the National Guard of New York in 1912. I was soon elected Troop Commander, and went as a Captain, with the rest of the Troop, to Texas in 1916. While there, we trained and protected our southern border from the Mexican bandit Pancho Villa. (73) Then, on October 26, 1917, I was promoted to Major and reassigned to the 2nd, or the “Rainbow” Division, I was to be with them until I was discharged in 1919. (74) I was promoted twice during the war, once to Lieutenant-Colonel in September of 1918, and then to full Colonel in March of 1919.(75)

Our departure from New York enroute to the war in Europe had been a sad one. Seeing Lady Liberty drift off into the distance as we left home, possibly for the last time, was an emotional experience. None of us knew who would come back and who wouldn’t. More than one stern soldier had to dry saltwater off of his face, saltwater which didn’t find its way beneath his eyes from the ocean either! (76)

My men and I landed in France in November 1917.  We were one of the first units to land in France.  We trained in the areas surrounding Vancouleurs and Coetquidan.  In February 1918, we entered the line in the Luneville sector.  We saw action in the Champiegne-Marne Defensive, the Aisne-Marne Offensive, St. Mihiel, and the Meuse-Argonne.  (77)

The battle of St. Mihiel in September of 1918 was our toughest battle yet.  The Germans commanded the high ground, which was heavily fortified.  We lost many good men driving the Germans out of that salient.  In the end, we freed up the Paris-Amiens railroad as we had set out to do.  (78)

Aftert the battle of St. Mihiel, we moved to the Meuse-Argonne.  On the march we passed the freshly killed yet unburied enemy soldiers who littered the countryside, we smelled the unmistakable odor of dead horses.  In the battle areas the soldiers of both sides were laid out in rows, as if game pieces.  It was easy to see by these formations the plans their officers had.  (79)

During the battle of Meuse-Argonne the Germans again commanded the ridges which had been heavily fortified over the years.  Artillery had little effect on the German positions. The U.S. attack to seize the area resulted in some of the highest casualties of the war. (80)

During the war, General Pershing issued an order stating what deeds should be rewarded with the Medal of Honor. It said: “Men who have performed in action, deeds of most distinguished personal bravery and self-sacrifice above and beyond the call of duty; so conspicuous as clearly to distinguish them for gallantry and intrepidity above their comrades…” should receive the Medal of Honor. (81) In October 1918, I performed an action which met these requirements.

Crossing the Meuse River at Sedan, I was hit in the knee by a machine-gun bullet. All I did was to stay on the field of battle and exercise my command through the use of runners. I felt this was critical since new men need “some visible symbol of authority.” (82) They were all young and scared, and just because I refused to be evacuated until my men had withdrawn to safety I got the Medal of Honor.  I never really thought I did anything special. I saw many men do much braver things and die, with no recognition for their actions. All I did was my duty.

The American military wasn’t the only one impressed with my actions during the war. Along with the Medal of Honor, I received the French Citation Certificate, The Italian Citation, the French Croix de Guerre with Silver Star, the French Legion of Honor, the Italian Croce Medal of Honor, and the U.S. Distinguished Service Cross. (83)

On April 17, 1919, I was finally able to return home, never to forget my experiences or my men in the Great War.

Benjamin Kaufman | Alton Schurr

Donovan's story in PDF format (Adobe Acrobat Reader reuired)