Excerpt from Wild Bill Donovan


Overlord, the code name for the Allied invasion of France’s northern coast, had gone pretty well June 6 and 7, 1944, at the three eastern beaches assigned to British and Canadian forces—Sword, Juno and Gold. A seasoned German division had just arrived at Omaha Beach in the center, however, and turned the shore into a murderous killing field for the wet and frightened infantrymen struggling through frigid surf and maddening obstacles to reach the shelter of dunes and cliffs. Nearly three thousand lay dead, wounded or missing after the first day. But the Seventh Corps (part of Lieutenant General Omar Bradley’s American 1st Army) had landed at Utah Beach and suffered only about two hundred casualties, far below what had been expected, and the corps had already begun to march inland. Even so, the beach, now in a state of organized chaos as equipment and men streamed ashore, remained a hot zone as Brigadier General William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan sat with David K. E. Bruce on the hood of a DUKW amphibious truck there, scanning his field map. Donovan was intent on wading ashore at major allied landings, much to the chagrin of his OSS aides and the opposition of senior American commanders who feared that with the secrets he knew as America’s spymaster he would be a valuable prize if captured by the enemy. But Donovan had managed to talk his way aboard a U.S. Navy warship for the Normandy landing and to hop rides on amphibious craft to make his way to the Utah Beach.

Donovan heard the drone of a plane motor along with the thudding sound of machine gun fire and looked up. Four German Messerschmitts approached, strafing the beach. He rolled nimbly off the hood to the sand beside the DUKW for cover. Bruce, his OSS station chief from London, was slower to react and fell on top of Donovan. He discovered to his horror that the rim of his steel helmet had gashed Donovan’s chin, and blood now gushed down his neck. Bruce was terrified he had cut a vital artery and was about to kill the leader of America’s spy service. Donovan, however, cheerily got up after the planes passed, dusted the sand off his uniform, and dabbed his chin with a handkerchief.

Donovan ditched the DUKW and began to trudge inland with Bruce, hoping he could catch up with OSS agents or French guerrillas he felt sure were nearby. After several miles of walking they were halted by a young Army lieutenant in command of a forward anti-aircraft battery, who demanded to know what they were doing out here. Eyeing the stars on Donovan’s collar, the Medal of Honor on his chest and the dried blood on his neck, the lieutenant asked it respectfully. Donovan told the incredulous officer he was hunting for secret agents. He spotted three French peasants a couple hundred yards ahead digging up roots and vegetables in a large open field enclosed at the far end by a thick hedge. “Those are some of my boys and I must interrogate them,” Donovan told the lieutenant.

The officer thought waltzing into an open field with German soldiers still around was a crazy idea but Donovan practically sprinted off before he could stop him. With Bruce running to catch up, Donovan reached the far end of the field near the hedgerow, but by then the Frenchmen had disappeared. Suddenly enemy machine gun fire erupted not far from the hedgerow. Donovan and Bruce dove to the ground. With bullets whizzing overhead, Donovan turned to Bruce and said in a whisper: “You understand, of course, David, that neither of us must be captured. We know too much.”

“Yes, sir,” Bruce dutifully answer. Each of them had only a revolver strapped to his waist.

“Have you your pills with you?” Donovan asked in a low voice.

Bruce had been issued the poison tablets but hadn’t brought them along, thinking the last place he’d be was flat on his stomach with Germans firing at him. He apologized profusely.

“Never mind, I have two of them,” Donovan whispered and began hunting for his L tablets while Bruce peered through a hole in the hedge looking for the machine gun nest.

Donovan disgorged everything from his pockets onto the ground beside him: hotel keys, a passport, currency of several nationalities, photographs of his granddaughter, travel orders, newspaper clippings. Then he realized he had left his pills in the medicine cabinet in his room at Claridge’s hotel in London. If we get out of this jam, he told Bruce, “you must send a message” to the hall porter at Claridge’s and tell him not “to allow the servants in the hotel to touch some dangerous medicines in my bathroom.”

Donovan took his revolver out of his holster and looked through the hole in the hedgerow. “I must shoot first,” he whispered to Bruce.

“Yes, sir,” Bruce answered, almost breathlessly. “But can we do much against machine guns with our pistols?”

“Oh, you don’t understand,” Donovan explained. “I mean if we are about to be captured I’ll shoot you first. After all, I am your commanding officer.” Then, Donovan said, he would shoot himself.

Bruce was not particularly enthralled with that prospect. Fortunately, American and British warplanes roared above and they soon heard the whine of artillery shells streaking over them and exploding ahead. Crouching down, Donovan and Bruce ran across the field to safety.