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William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan: America’s Alpha Spy by WILL DABBS

Soldier, statesman, Medal of Honor recipient, hero, and spy, “Wild Bill” Donovan was one of American history’s most remarkable characters.

Some folks are simply charmed. Their trajectory through life just flies a bit higher than that of the rest of us. Winston Churchill was just such a man. An accomplished writer, painter, soldier, and politician, Old Winston was the archetypal Renaissance Man. Over on our side of the pond, “Wild Bill” Donovan was a similar archetype.

Joseph Donovan briefly considered the clergy but ultimately felt he lacked the character for it.

Joseph Donovan was born in 1883, the son of Irish-American immigrants. The family name was originally O’Donovan but got anglicized when Joe’s dad settled in Buffalo, New York. Early on Donovan aspired to the Catholic priesthood before deciding “he wasn’t good enough to be a priest.” Instead, he attended Columbia University where he was voted both “Most Modest” and “Handsomest” out of his graduating class of 1905.

Donovan’s friendship with his law school chum Franklin Roosevelt helped drive his extraordinary career.

Donovan later attended Columbia Law School. He was a classmate of a young Franklin D. Roosevelt. His friendship with FDR would shape the rest of his professional career.

Donovan’s first taste of war was during the Punitive Expedition against Pancho Villa.

Joseph Donovan joined a respected Buffalo law firm and was commissioned into the New York National Guard as a Cavalry officer. In 1914 he married a New York heiress whose family connections immediately transformed him into American aristocracy. Donovan took acting classes under the esteemed stage star Eleanor Robson and went to war against Pancho Villa in 1916. Upon his return from the Punitive Expedition, Donovan was posted to the 42d Rainbow Division alongside Douglas MacArthur.

The acclaimed poet Joyce Kilmer, shown here in his WW1 mufti, was one of Donovan’s soldiers.

While fighting the Germans in France during World War 1, Joseph Donovan caught a load of shrapnel in one leg and was nearly blinded by mustard gas. He subsequently led an assault during the Aisne-Marne Campaign that ultimately cost hundreds of his comrades. Among the fallen was his acting adjutant, the esteemed poet Joyce Kilmer.

Wild Bill Donovan cut an undeniably dashing figure.

In combat, Donovan developed a reputation for being unstoppable, a man of limitless endurance. This led the troops under his command to refer to him as “Wild Bill.” While he publicly professed annoyance at the nickname, his wife later said that she “knew deep down that he loved it.”

Donovan honed his craft in the fetid trenches of the First World War.

As commander of the 165th Infantry Regiment Joseph Donovan led from the front, his rank insignia and medals plainly displayed. In encouraging his troops prior to a critical assault he said, “They can’t hit me and they won’t hit you.” He was nonetheless subsequently shot through the knee yet refused evacuation until all American forces including friendly tanks had been forced back by concentrated German fire.

Wild Bill Donovan, shown here receiving the Legion of Merit from a French General, was an exceptionally capable soldier.

For his remarkable combat performance, Donovan ultimately earned the Medal of Honor. He initially refused the award, stating that it belonged “to the boys who are not here, the boys who are resting under the white crosses in France or in the cemeteries of New York, also to the boys who were lucky enough to come through.” Before his military service was complete Donovan also took home the Distinguished Service Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal, the Silver Star, the Purple Heart with two Oak Leaf Clusters, the National Security Medal, and some two dozen other combat awards.

Adolf Hitler loathed Wild Bill Donovan. He must have been doing something right.

Donovan spent the interwar years in private law practice as well as working for the US Justice Department. Along the way, he traveled the world gathering critical intelligence on world powers in Europe and Asia. He met Mussolini, Winston Churchill, and King George VI. Hitler despised him. During the speech in which Hitler declared war on the United States the German dictator castigated Donovan by name, declaring him “utterly unworthy.” That was high praise considering the source.

This was the original OSS unit insignia.

With the outbreak of WW2 President Roosevelt appointed “Wild Bill” Donovan the Coordinator of Information. While the United States had no formal spy agency back then, Donovan began laying the groundwork for a centralized intelligence apparatus based upon the British MI6. In 1942 Donovan’s organization was rechristened the Office of Strategic Services. The United States was in the spy business.

These days the path to special operations is both regimented and grueling. Back during WW2 those old guys just figured it out as they went along.

Nowadays intelligence officers and special operators are the product of an extensive selection process and grueling training program. Back then unconventional thinkers just came together and got the job done. Over in the UK the future James Bond novelist Ian Fleming was a good example of a neophyte who took to the world of espionage as a natural outlet of his peculiar personal proclivities.

Julia Child had her own TV cooking show for years. This grandmotherly-looking lass was actually a spy during the war.
Former spy-turned-TV chef Julia Child likely knew more about using a knife than one might think.

Donovan sought out unconventional warriors for his burgeoning team of misfits. He recruited the film director John Ford and the Hollywood actor Sterling Hayden. The poet Archibald MacLeish, the influential banker Paul Mellon, and the author Stephen Vincent Benet joined the team. The famed psychologist Carl Jung, the chef Julia Child, the industrialist Alfred DuPont, and the author Walter Lord as well as several influential members of the Vanderbilt family hung their hats at OSS headquarters. The extensive density of upper-crust aristocrats drove many in government to claim that OSS actually stood for “Oh So Social.”

Wild Bill Donovan’s unconventional crew had to contrive the guns and gear needed to support covert agents operating in hostile territory.

Building an intelligence and covert action organization from scratch is an overwhelming task. Donovan had access to money and resources, but this was uncharted territory. There were no manuals he could read or deep well of institutional insight he could mine. Wild Bill Donovan just figured it out as he went along. Among myriad other things, that meant brand new specialized covert guns and gear. Principle among them was the High Standard sound-suppressed H-DM/S pistol.

In an effort at selling FDR on his unconventional warfare techniques, Donovan emptied a magazine from his suppressed spy gun into a sandbag on the floor of the Oval Office.

Raw lead bullets were prohibited by the Hague Convention, so Donovan had to contract for special lots of jacketed .22 rimfire rounds. Once the gun was perfected Donovan wanted to show it off. He once slipped into the Oval Office while his friend FDR was dictating a note to his secretary. Dropping a sandbag onto the floor he proceeded to fire ten rounds as fast as he could squeeze the trigger. Donovan then dropped the smoking pistol onto the desk before President Roosevelt. FDR was so smitten with the quiet little gun that he refused to give it back.

The Weapon

The High Standard H-DM/S suppressed covert operations pistol began life as a semiautomatic H-DM target gun like this one.

The H-DM/S was an integrally-suppressed version of the High Standard H-DM target pistol. H-DM/S stood for H-D Military/Silenced. As the program was classified the original examples were spuriously described as “Impact Testing Machines.”

The High Standard H-DM/S suppressed handgun served for decades with America’s clandestine operators.

Chambered for .22LR, the H-DM/S was a straight blowback design that fed on a ten-round single-stack box magazine. The gun sported fixed iron sights, a five-inch ported barrel, and a heel-mounted magazine release. The H-DM/S came equipped with a slide lock that prevented the action from cycling. In this configuration, the weapon was indeed exceptionally quiet. Development began in 1942 with the first operational fielding in 1944.

CIA pilot Gary Powers was packing a suppressed High Standard H-DM/S when he was shot down over the USSR in 1960. This particular pistol is on display in a Moscow military museum today.

The first variants featured a blued finish on the pistol and a Parkerized suppressor. Later versions were completely Parkerized. The H-DM/S saw a fairly widespread issue among early special operations forces. Gary Powers had a suppressed H-DM/S on his person when his U2 was shot down in Soviet airspace in 1960.

The sound suppressor on the High Standard H-DM/S was radically advanced for its day.

The H-D/MS suppressor was developed during the war by Bell Labs and featured an initial chamber filled with a cylinder of zinc-plated bronze mesh that acted as a heat sink. The barrel was ported with four rows of eight holes that dropped standard velocity rounds into the subsonic range. Later guns featured four rows of eleven holes. A second distal chamber was filled with bronze mesh screens. This repackable design was typically good for 200 to 250 rounds.

This cutaway version shows the internal architecture of the sound suppressor on the High Standard H-DM/S pistol

For applications requiring extreme stealth the distal chamber could be charged with water, oil, or shaving cream. The muzzle was then sealed with a piece of tape. Thusly configured with the action locked the gun made no more noise than a human whisper.

The Rest of the Story

Wild Bill Donovan gifted one of his newfangled suppressed spy pistols to Navy Admiral Chester Nimitz who promptly started shooting it in public with the children in his neighborhood.

Much to Donovan’s consternation, FDR displayed his top-secret pistol at his home in Hyde Park, occasionally showing it to visiting guests during the war. Donovan also gave a copy to Admiral Chester Nimitz. He was known to shoot the classified weapon with neighborhood children. A photograph of such an outing actually made it into a local newspaper in 1944.

Wild Bill Donovan enjoyed some prescient insights into many of the hot button issues of his day.

Wild Bill Donovan was, by all accounts, a genuinely good guy in possession of some remarkable insights. He opposed the internment of Japanese Americans during the war, rightfully predicting that this was an unnecessary solution to a non-existent problem. In his roles as America’s espionage chief, he also took part in many of the major combat actions of the war.

Wild Bill Donovan was trapped along with a subordinate during the Normandy invasion and planned his suicide in the event of imminent capture.

Donovan and his commander for covert ops in Europe, Colonel David Bruce, went ashore early during the Normandy invasion. Pinned down by German machinegun fire, Donovan said, “David, we mustn’t be captured. We know too much…I must shoot first,” Donovan said.

You can’t fault Donovan’s commitment to the cause.

Bruce replied, “Yes, sir, but can we do much against machine guns with our pistols?” Donovan explained: “Oh, you don’t understand. I mean, if we are about to be captured, I’ll shoot you first. After all, I am your commanding officer.”

Apparently, Donovan and Truman did not much get along. However, Wild Bill continued to have an outsized influence on the American intelligence services until well after the war.

Donovan ended WW2 as a Major General but fell afoul of post-war politics. President Truman sidelined him with a task to produce a study of the nation’s fire departments. Under Eisenhower, he was made ambassador to Thailand. Throughout the early bits of the Cold War, Donovan helped influence the formation of the CIA from the shadows.

Wild Bill Donovan is venerated in American intelligence circles today. Yes, that is Daniel Craig in character as James Bond visiting the CIA headquarters at Langley, Virginia. Wish I could have been there for that visit.

Wild Bill Donovan died in 1959 from complications arising from vascular dementia. His statue graces the lobby of the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, today. In 2011 Vanity Fair writer Evan Douglas described Donovan’s exploits as “a brave, noble, headlong, gleeful, sometimes outrageous pursuit of action and skullduggery.” Wild Bill Donovan was the real freaking deal.

William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan was a genuine American hero.

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