William J. Donovan


William J. Donovan : biography

January 1, 1883 – February 8, 1959

Post-war era

After the war ended, Donovan reverted to his lifelong role as a lawyer to perform one last duty: he served as special assistant to chief prosecutor Telford Taylor at several trials following the main Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal in Germany. There he had the personal satisfaction of seeing the Nazi leaders responsible for the torture and murder of captured OSS agents brought to justice. For his World War II service, Donovan received the Distinguished Service Medal, the highest American military decoration for outstanding non-combat service. He also received an honorary British knighthood.

At the conclusion of the Nazi war criminal trials, Donovan returned to Wall Street and his highly successful law firm, Donovan, Leisure, Newton & Irvine. He remained always available to postwar Presidents who requested his advice on intelligence matters.

In 1949 he became chairman of the newly-founded American Committee on United Europe, which worked to counter the new Communist threat to Europe by promoting European political unity.

In 1953 President Dwight Eisenhower appointed Donovan Ambassador to Thailand. He served in that capacity until his resignation in 1954.

Donovan’s son, David Rumsey Donovan, was a naval officer who served with distinction in World War II. His grandson, William James Donovan, served as an enlisted soldier in Vietnam and is also buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Death and legacy

Donovan died from complications of vascular dementia on February 8, 1959, at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, in Washington, D.C. at the age of 76, and is buried in Section 2 of Arlington National Cemetery.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower referred to him as "the Last Hero", which later became the title of a biography of him. After his death, Donovan was awarded the Freedom Award of the International Rescue Committee (not, as some biographies state, the "Medal of Freedom", a different award).

The law firm he founded, Donovan, Leisure, Newton & Irvine was dissolved in 1998.

His home Chapel Hill near Berryville, Virginia, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2004. Major General Donovan is a member of the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame.

Medal of Honor citation

Rank and organization: Lieutenant Colonel, U.S. Army, 165th Infantry, 42d Division. Place and date: Near Landres-et-St. Georges, France, 14–15 October 1918. Entered service at: Buffalo, N.Y. Born: 1 January 1883, Buffalo, N.Y. G.O., No.: 56, W.D., 1922.


Lt. Col. Donovan personally led the assaulting wave in an attack upon a very strongly organized position, and when our troops were suffering heavy casualties he encouraged all near him by his example, moving among his men in exposed positions, reorganizing decimated platoons, and accompanying them forward in attacks. When he was wounded in the leg by machine-gun bullets, he refused to be evacuated and continued with his unit until it withdrew to a less exposed position.

Awards and decorations

U.S. awards

number=0|type=oak|ribbon=Medal of Honor ribbon.svg|width=60}} Medal of Honor
number=0|type=oak|ribbon=US-DSC-RIBBON.png|width=60}} Distinguished Service Cross
number=2|type=oak|ribbon=Distinguished Service Medal ribbon.svg|width=60}} Distinguished Service Medal with two oak leaf clusters
number=0|type=oak|ribbon=Silver Star ribbon.svg|width=60}} Silver Star
number=1|type=oak|ribbon=Purple Heart BAR.svg|width=60}} Purple Heart with one oak leaf cluster
number=0|type=oak|ribbon=USA – National Security Medal Ribbon.png|width=60}} National Security Medal
number=0|type=oak|ribbon=Mexican Border Service Medal ribbon.svg|width=60}} Mexican Border Service Medal
number=0|type=oak|ribbon=World War I Victory Medal ribbon.svg|width=60}} World War I Victory Medal with 5 campaign bars
number=0|type=oak|ribbon=Army of Occupation of Germany ribbon.svg|width=60}} Army of Occupation of Germany Medal
number=0|type=oak|ribbon=American Defense Service ribbon.svg|width=60}} American Defense Service Medal
number=0|type=oak|ribbon=American Campaign Medal ribbon.svg|width=60}} American Campaign Medal
number=2|type=service-star|other_device=arrowhead|ribbon=Asiatic-Pacific Campaign ribbon.svg|width=60}} Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with Arrowhead device and 2 bronze service stars
number=12|type=service-star|other_device=arrowhead|ribbon=European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign ribbon.svg|width=60}} European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with Arrowhead device, two silver service stars, and two bronze service stars
number=0|type=oak|ribbon=World War II Victory Medal ribbon.svg|width=60}} World War II Victory Medal
number=0|type=oak|ribbon=Army of Occupation ribbon.svg|width=60}} Army of Occupation Medal with Germany clasp
number=0|type=oak|ribbon=AFRM with Hourglass Device.jpg|width=60}} Armed Forces Reserve Medal with one ten-year hourglass device