ALBANY, NEW YORK - A new veterans cemetery to be built between Buffalo and Rochester will be named the Western New York National Cemetery, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs said Tuesday in an announcement that irked an organization of World War II spies.
Some veterans groups had pushed for naming the cemetery after Gen. William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan, a Buffalo-born Medal of Honor recipient in World War I and founder of the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA.
The head of the Falls Church, Virginia-based OSS Society said the group was disappointed in the decision by the VA’s National Cemetery Administration to leave Donovan’s name off the cemetery to be built at a 132-acre rural site near the New York State Thruway in Pembroke in Genesee County.
“It is outrageous that nothing has been done to honor Gen. Donovan, one of America’s greatest patriots, in Buffalo or western New York,” said OSS Society President Charles Pinck.
The National Cemetery Administration said federal law mandates that national cemeteries be named after the region where they’re located and have a “broad appeal to the veteran population.” Only four of the 134 national cemeteries overseen by the NCA are named after people, Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Zachary Taylor, a New York congressman and a World War I general.
The NCA said its staff worked with local and regional veteran service officials and organizations from January through March to solicit suggestions for names for the new cemetery, which is expected to open in 2018.
“Of the names submitted, ‘Western New York National Cemetery’ best met VA’s naming criteria,” the National Cemetery Administration said in a statement.
In July 2014, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-NY, announced at the Pembroke site that he was asking the VA to name the cemetery after Donovan. He stood before a sign that read: “William Donovan Western New York National Veterans Cemetery.” Pinck said that led his organization to believe naming the cemetery after Donovan was “a done deal.”
Amending the name of a national cemetery to add a person’s name isn’t unprecedented. In 2002, “Gerald B.H. Solomon” was tacked onto the name of the Saratoga National Cemetery to honor the late local Republican congressman who helped get it built. The name change required special legislation passed by Congress. It was unclear Tuesday if Schumer or other members of New York congressional district would start a campaign on Donovan’s behalf.
Donovan, born in Buffalo in 1883, served in a New York National Guard unit sent to Texas in 1916 to help the U.S. Army battle Mexican insurgents led by Pancho Villa. During World War I, when Donovan was dubbed “Wild Bill,” he led an Army infantry regiment, earning a Medal of Honor for his battlefield heroics against the Germans.
After the U.S. entered World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt picked Donovan, by then a wealthy Wall Street lawyer, to organize America’s intelligence agency, the OSS. Donovan did much of the recruiting himself, seeking out spy and commando candidates from the American military, Ivy League colleges, and even Hollywood.
Before it was disbanded after the end of the war, some 13,000 people had served in the OSS. Only a few hundred OSS vets are thought to be still living.
Donovan died in 1959 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Despite earning some of the nation’s highest honors, he’s nearly forgotten in his hometown. A downtown Buffalo state office building that bore his name was redeveloped into a hotel. There was an effort to have a nearby federal courthouse named after him, but Robert H. Jackson, a U.S. Supreme Court justice from western New York, received that honor.
At the American Legion post in Buffalo that Donovan co-founded after World War I, there’s support for putting his name on the new cemetery.
“It would be an honor having it named after Wild Bill,” said post commander Denby Stowe.