Air University Review, January-February 1986

Lieutenant John O. Donaldson:
World War I Air Ace and Escape Artist

Dr. James J. Hudson

Scattered cumulus clouds seemed to fill an otherwise bright sunny sky as six SE-5A singleseat fighters of Royal Air Force Number 32 Squadron circled at 11,000 feet over the small French town of Mont Notre Dame late in the afternoon of 22 July 1918. Second Lieutenant John Owen Donaldson, a twenty-year-old American, who had been assigned to that crack British fighter squadron less than three weeks earlier, found himself quite busy trying to maintain his position as a wingman in the formation. Suddenly the patrol leader rocked the wings of his SE-5 and slanted down to the left. The sharp-eyed Donaldson, keeping one eye on the patrol leader, quickly spotted the reason for the maneuver. Approximately 2000 feet below and a little to the east, he saw some twenty blue-and- white-colored Fokker D-7 biplanes. Apparently the Fokker patrol had not yet seen the SE-5s diving out of the sun and from the fringe of a nearby cloud. Donaldson, flying as number two in his formation, picked out the second enemy machine, "firing a burst of 75 rounds into it from close range." The Fokker "sideslipped to the right and then to the left, finally bursting into flames." Young Donaldson circled around "watching the enemy machine fall, and saw it crash near Mont Notre Dame." The destruction of the enemy fighter was witnessed by Lieutenants Alvin Andrew Callender and P. Macfarlane, and Lieutenant Donaldson had his first confirmed "kill" of the war.1 There would be seven other victories before he was shot down and captured by the Germans on 1 September 1918.

SON of Thomas Quinton and Mary Elizabeth (Willson) Donaldson, John Owen Donaldson was born at Fort Yates, North Dakota, on 14 May 1898. His father was a distinguished U.S. Army officer who, like most military people, served at many different army posts throughout the United States and the Philippines.2 Consequently, young John was to have a varied background. His education was completed at Furman University in South Carolina and at Cornell University in New York. He was at Cornell when the United States entered the First World War. Volunteering for aviation duty, he was trained initially in the United States and then in England, where he completed his preparation for combat flying at the School for Air Fighting.3

Donaldson was posted to Number 32 Squadron, then commanded by Major J. C. Russell and stationed at Planques Airdrome, some thirty-five miles north of Amiens, on 3 July 1918.4 Because the squadron was heavily engaged in offensive patrols at the time, he was forced to get his familiarization flights in actual combat patrols. Lieutenant Donaldson survived this early learning period (the highest rate of casualties normally occurred in the first few weeks of combat experience) and soon became a highly skilled fighter pilot.

Three days after his first victory, Lieutenant Donaldson's patrol, which was then based at Touquin in the Marne area, bounced a formation of fifteen Fokker biplanes over the town of Fismes on the Vesle River. Donaldson fired approximately 150 rounds at two of the enemy aircraft without results. As his engine began to malfunction, he broke off contact and started to glide to a possible forced landing. In doing so, he found himself practically on top of six enemy machines. Ignoring his faltering engine, he dived on one of the Fokkers and fired "200 rounds at point blank range into it." The German fighter "turned on its back, went into a spin, came out of the spin, and went down in a flat spin, and was observed to fall out of control for two or three thousand feet." While struggling with his own sputtering engine, Donaldson was unable to observe whether the enemy plane actually crashed. Nonetheless, he was credited with driving the Fokker "down out of control."5 Three other enemy aircraft were knocked down in the same air battle--one by Lieutenant Alvin Andrew Callender, an American from New Orleans.6

After the allied counteroffensive in the Aisne-Marne sector ended on 3 August, Number 32 Squadron was shifted back to the Somme area on the British front and stationed at Bellevue, some fifteen miles southwest of Arras. It was from this base that the squadron was to participate in the British-French Amiens offensive to drive the Germans out of the Somme sector. The drive opened on 8 August 1918 with ten British and eight French divisions engaged. From the air forces' point of view, according to one source, the Amiens offensive "was the most complete surprise of the war." Behind the front, from Courcelles to Albert, the Allies had concentrated more than 1900 planes.

The German fighters were outnumbered more than six to one and when the thick mist lifted around 9:00 A.M. the greatest armada ever assembled in the war took to the sky. Tremendous confusion within the German lines produced exceptional targets. Transports were blown off the road, and horses stampeded. Time and again, parties of infantry were scattered in panic by low-flying singleseaters. Bomb after bomb was showered on demoralized enemy troops in full retreat toward the Somme.7

However, the initial Allied air advantage was soon to vanish. Late in the afternoon on the first day of the offensive, the Germans were able to shift vast aerial reinforcements, including the Richthofen Jagdgeschwader, then commanded by Captain Hermann Goering, into the Amiens Somme battle area.8

The result of the German air reinforcement was to increase the intensity of the air fighting. During the next several days, Number 32 Squadron pilots were to score several aerial victories, and Lieutenant Donaldson added more kills to his own score. At 1810 on 8 August, Donaldson, accompanied by two Sopwith Camels and one French Spad, engaged five Fokker D-7s at 1500 feet over the town of Licourt. He attacked the first enemy aircraft head on, "firing about fifty rounds without result, then made a climbing turn and dived on a second enemy machine, firing 100 rounds at him, at very close range." This machine immediately "went into a straight dive and crashed to earth, midway between Licourt and Morcham where it remained with its tail vertical."9

On the following morning, John Donaldson fired a 200-round burst into a Fokker biplane and watched it go down in flames for victory number four. His own SE-5 fighter was damaged in the dogfight, and he was forced to land at a nearby airfield occupied by an Australian fighter squadron.10

On the morning of 10 August, a patrol from Number 32 Squadron became hotly engaged in a battle with nine Fokker biplanes in the vicinity of the French city of Peronne. In the swirling dogfight, Donaldson sent one of the German fighters down out of control for his fifth kill--making him an ace after approximately one month with the squadron.11

Although involved in several air battles during the next few days, Lieutenant Donaldson did not score again until the late afternoon of 5 August, when he attacked four "blue-gray" Fokkers in the vicinity of Hancourt, a village some ten miles northwest of Saint-Quentin. After firing approximately 150 rounds at long range, he singled out one enemy aircraft and, diving on it, fired 100 rounds at very close range (approximately fifty yards). The Fokker "went into a sideslip-dive, and after falling about 2000 feet, the left wing of the enemy aircraft broke off." The pilot of the doomed Fokker jumped out of his machine with a parachute, "which opened after falling about 1000 feet, and apparently went down safely."12

Victory number seven for the eagle-eyed ace came at 0730 on 29 August, when Donaldson "observed a Fokker biplane edging close to DH-9s (British observation planes), and diving on it fired 100 rounds at medium range." His quick action saved the two-seater observation aircraft, and observers saw the enemy machine "do a vertical dive for some thousand of feet, out of control." Because of the presence of other enemy fighters in the area, Donaldson was not able to witness the actual crash of his victim.13

On 1 September over Valenciennes, some eighteen miles northeast of Cambrai, Donaldson scored his eighth and last "kill" when he shot down a Fokker D-7 in flames. During the combat, his own plane was riddled with bullets. With his engine out of commission, he was forced to land his SE-5 behind enemy lines, where he was captured by the Germans. 14

Lieutenant Donaldson was taken as a prisoner to the town of Douai and kept for one night. Due to the heavy shelling by the British forces, he was transferred the next day to a temporary prison camp in the village of Conde. During Donaldson's first evening at Conde, he was joined by another recently captured American pilot--Lieutenant Oscar Mandel.15 The two escaped a few hours later by jumping out of a second-story window and strolling casually through the village street. The pair walked all night and just before dawn discovered a newly established German aerodrome. Making sure that there were no guards patrolling the field, Donaldson and Mandel then attempted to steal a German two-seater observation plane. After approximately two hours of work, they managed to get the plane "almost entirely out of its hangar, but finally had to take the whole hangar down to get the machine clear."Just as the two American pilots were about to start the plane's engine for an escape by air, a German guard appeared on the scene. In the ensuing struggle, Donaldson was stabbed in the back and Mandel had his clothes slashed by the bayonet-wielding guard. However, the Americans were able to hit the German on the head with a large electric lamp, and they fled across the airdrome. 16

The two pilots were not pursued, and a few minutes later they stopped at the home of a French peasant, where Donaidson's wounds were treated and found not to be very serious. Due to the fact that Lieutenant Mandel spoke German fluently, the American pair were able to talk their way past numerous enemy guard posts during the next several days. However, on 9 September, while trying to swim across a stream between the German and Allied lines, they were apprehended and once again imprisoned--this time in the city of Valenciennes. The ingenious pilots continued their escape try and after three days managed to cut a hole in the prison roof with a piece of broken saw that they had discovered in the room. Donaldson and Mandel, along with an English noncommissioned officer and two other American pilots, Lieutenants T. E. Tillinghast and R. A. Anderson, then crawled through the opening in the roof, slid down into the courtyard, climbed over the wall, swam the canal bordering the prison, and set out on a cross-country trek toward Holland.17

For several days the escapees traveled at night and slept during the daylight hours. On the eighth day after the Valenciennes breakout, the little party arrived in Brussels, where they met several wealthy Belgians who could speak English. Here Donaldson and his friends were supplied with civilian clothes, maps, and other items and information that would help them on their journey to freedom. Mandel and the Englishman separated from the group at Brussels. A few days later, Lieutenant Donaldson and two of his companions, Lieutenants Tillinghast and Anderson, cut their way through an electrified and closely guarded wire fence and entered the neutral state of Holland. From the Dutch border, the three proceeded to Rotterdam, to Le Havre, and finally to England, arriving only a few days before the end of the war.18

Shortly after his arrival in England, Donaldson and several other flyers were received by King George V at Windsor Castle. Although Donaldson had never actually flown with the U.S. Air Service while in combat, he was promoted to captain in the U.S. Army and was decorated with the British Distinguished Flying Cross, the U.S. Distinguished Service Cross, and the Belgian Croix de Guerre.19

Captain Donaldson remained in the U.S. Air Service for several months after the war and won the Mackay Gold Medal for taking first place in the Army's transcontinental air race in October 1919. He resigned his commission in 1920 to enter the business world but continued to be involved in flying activities. During the 1926 to 1930 period, he was president of Newark (New Jersey) Air Service, Incorporated. After winning two races at an American Legion air meet in Philadelphia, he was killed when his plane crashed during a stunt-flying performance on 7 September 1930.20

University of Arkansas


1. Combat Report, 22 July 1918, in Air 1, Box 122, housed in the Public Record's Office, London, England. Other combat reports cited in this article can be found in this collection.

2. Thomas Quinton Donaldson was born in Greenville, South Carolina, and educated at Patrick Military Academy and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He served as a lieutenant in the Seventh U.S. Cavalry and participated in two engagements with hostile Sioux Indians near the Pine Ridge Agency in South Dakota in 1890. He received a slight wound at the Battle of Wounded Knee. Later he served as professor of military science at Patrick Military Academy and at Clemson University. Subsequently, he served in the Army at various posts in the United States, Cuba, and the Philippines. He held the rank of brigadier general during World War I and was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for his work in France. Through most of the 1920s, he commanded the 23rd Brigade at Fort Howard, Maryland. In 1928, he was appointed Commander of the Second Division and promoted to major general. He retired in June 1928 due to ill health.

3. The National Cyclopedia of Biography (New York: James T. White and Company, 1935), vol. XXIV, p. 226.

4. Number 32 Squadron was formed on 12 January 1916 as a fighter outfit at Netheravon from surplus personnel of Number 21 Squadron. Originally equipped with DH-2 singleseater pusher biplanes, the squadron proceeded to France on 28 May 1916. The squadron was based for short periods at airdromes at Saint-Omer, Auchel, and Treizennes before transferring to Vert Galand, where the unit remained until late October 1916. It then moved to Lealvilliers, where it remained until the summer of 1917. Throughout the Battle of Somme, the battles of the winter and spring of 1917, and the Battle of Arras, the squadron continued to fly offensive patrols. In May 1917, it was reequipped with DH-5s, with which it intensified operations, including ground strafing sorties, especially during the Third Battle of Ypers. In January 1918, the unit was given SE-5 machines. The squadron was moved to Fouquerolles-Ruisseauville on the French front in June 1918 and transferred to Touqin Airdrome in late July.

5. Combat Report, 25 July 1918.

6. In addition to Donaldson, three other Americans were to become aces with Number 32 Squadron during the summer and autumn of 1918. They were Lieutenants Alvin A. Callender (ten victories), Bogert Rogers (five victories), and Frank Hale (eight victories). Lieutenants W. Amory and M. A. Tancock, both New England boys, were also members of the squadron.

7. Gordon W. Callender, Jr., and Gordon W. Callender, Sr., editors, War in an Open Cockpit: The Wartime Letters of Captain Alvin Andrew Callender, RAF (West Roxbury, Massachusetts: World War I Aero Publishers, 1978), p. 17.

8. S. F. Wise, Canadian Airmen and the First World War: The Official History of the Royal Canadian Air Force (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 1980, p. 531. Goering was away at the time, leaving the Jagdgeschwader in command of Lothar von Richthofen, the younger brother of Manfred.

9. Combat Report, 8 August 1918.

10. Combat Report, 9 August 1918.

11. Combat Report, 10 August 1918.

12. Combat Report, 25 August 1918. Many German pilots had begun to use parachutes during the last several months of the war. Unfortunately, Allied pilots were not so equipped. Many Americans, British, and French flyers were very disgruntled with the Allied high command for its reluctance to provide parachutes. See James J. Hudson, Hostile Skies: The Combat History of the American Air Service in World War I (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1968), p. 299.

13. Combat Report, 29 August 1918.

14. "American Air Service Units with the British Expeditionary Forces" (Gorrell History, Air Service, American Expeditionary Force, series B. volume XII), p. 37. This document is housed in the National Archives, Washington, D.C. Also see Callender, War in an Open Cockpit, p. 87.

15. Lieutenant Oscar Mandel was a member of the 148th American Squadron, which was then flying Sopwith Camels on the British end of the Western Front. He had been shot down on 2 September 1918.

16. These details on the escape of Lieutenant John O. Donaldson are derived from a report in "American Air Service Units with the British Expeditionary Forces."

17. Lieutenant Theose E. Tillinghast from West Hartford, Connecticut, was a member of the 17th American Squadron, then flying Camels. He had been shot down behind enemy lines on 22 September 1918. Lieutenant R. A. Anderson was an American attached to Number 40 Squadron, RAF, and had been captured on 27 August 1918.

18. "American Air Service Units with the British Expeditionary Forces."

19. The National Cyclopedia of American Biography, vol. XXIV, p. 226.

20. Ibid.


James J. Hudson (B.A., M.A., University of Arkansas; Ph.D., University of California, Berkeley) is a Professor of History and Dean of the Graduate School at the University of Arkansas. During World War II, he served as a fighter pilot in the Mediterranean theater. Dr. Hudson is the author of Hostile Skies: A Combat History of the American Air Service in World War I ( 1968) and a variety of articles that have appeared in Military Affairs, Aerospace Historian, American Aviation Historical Society Journal, and the Review.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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