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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published March 22 2014

Did You Know That: Donaldson first North Dakota-born flying ace

The first North Dakota-born flying ace is credited with downing eight German airplanes in a span of less than 50 days during the summer of 1918.

John O. Donaldson employed a technique that messed with the minds of the German pilots by approaching them flying upside down. This “often deceived his opponents into believing they themselves were flying upside down, causing a moment of indecision which he was waiting for to attack.”

For his courage, cunning and success, Donaldson was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Belgium Croix de Guerre, the British Flying Cross, the General Service Medal and four citations for gallantry in action. Also, Donaldson Air Force Base in South Carolina was named in

his honor.

John Owen Willson Donaldson was born May 14, 1898, in Fort Yates, to Thomas and Mary Elizabeth (Willson) Donaldson. First Lt. Thomas Q. Donaldson, a member of the 7th Cavalry, had been assigned to the military unit stationed at Fort Yates. Three weeks prior to John’s birth, the U.S. declared war on Spain, and Lt. Donaldson was called to action in Cuba.

For the next 20 years, Thomas Donaldson was assigned to a number of bases in the U.S., as well as serving overseas in the Philippines. John lived with his parents during many of these military relocations as a youth, but when he was older, he went to live with his aunt Nannie Donaldson Furman in Greenville, S. C.

In 1915, John graduated from high school and enrolled at Furman University in Greenville. After his freshman year, he transferred to Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., to major in civil engineering and receive instruction in flying at their ground school. During Donaldson’s time at Cornell, the war in Europe intensified.

In February 1917, Germany declared “unrestricted submarine warfare, with the goal of starving Britain out of the war.” With this news, Donaldson believed his services could be utilized in the war effort. However, the U.S. had not declared war on Germany. Therefore, in March, Donaldson joined the Royal Flying Corps in Toronto, Canada, where he received intensive flying instructions.

On April 6, the U.S. declared war on Germany, and Donaldson transferred to “the Aviation Section of the U.S. Army Signal Corps.” After teaching other Americans to fly in Fort Worth, Texas, he was sent to England for advanced training at the School for Air Fighting. On July 3, 1918, Donaldson “was assigned to the 32nd Squadron of the Royal Air Force in France with nine other Americans.”

The 32nd was stationed at the Planques Airdrome, 110 miles north of Paris, and Donaldson flew a British SE-5A. He saw his first action late in the afternoon of July 22 when he spotted a formation of German Fokker D-7 biplanes about 2,000 feet below.

Donaldson peeled out of formation, picked out his target, and fired “a burst of 75 rounds” into the aircraft, sending it in flames to the ground below. On July 25, he was engaged in a dogfight with two Fokker biplanes when he suddenly began to experience engine problems.

Looking for a possible place to land, Donaldson noticed he was right on top of six other German planes. He fired “200 rounds at point-blank range” into one of them, forcing it to the ground, and was then able to fly his airplane back to the base.

In the early evening of Aug. 8, Donaldson encountered enemy aircraft commanded by Capt. Hermann Goering. Donaldson dived on top of one of them, “firing 100 rounds.” The Fokker “immediately went into a straight dive and crashed to earth.”

The next day, Donaldson downed his fourth aircraft, and the following day, he became an ace with his fifth kill. He shot down his sixth enemy aircraft on Aug. 25, his seventh on Aug. 29, and his eighth on Sept. 1. In the combat resulting in his last kill, Donaldson’s plane was “riddled with bullets.” He was then attacked by the German ace Theodor Quandt and “forced to land behind enemy lines, where he was captured by the Germans.”

After spending one night as a prisoner in the town of Douai in northern France, Donaldson was transferred to a temporary prison camp in the village of Conde, where he was confined in a room with fellow American flyer Oscar Mandel. The two men escaped by jumping out of a second-story window and then located a German “two-seater observation plane.”

A guard discovered the two men attempting to steal the plane and stabbed Donaldson in the back with his bayonet. In the ensuing struggle, the two Americans knocked the guard unconscious and eluded capture by fleeing on foot. After a French farmer treated Donaldson’s wound, the two men made their way to a river, where they were recaptured on Sept. 9.

Donaldson and Mandel were taken to a more secure facility that housed three other prisoners. The men found a broken saw and, three days later, cut a hole in the roof, through which they escaped. After swimming a canal encircling the prison, the five prisoners fled towards Holland.

Eight days later, they arrived in Belgium, where some locals assisted them in crossing the border into Holland. From there, Donaldson and two of the other former prisoners made their way to England and met with King George V at Windsor Castle.

At this time, the war was over, and Donaldson was promoted to captain. In 1920, he resigned his commission to fly in competitions, perform stunt-flying exhibitions, and enter the business world. On Sept. 7, 1930, Donaldson was demonstrating some of his flying stunts near Philadelphia when his plane crashed. He was still alive when he was pulled from the wreckage, but he died in the hospital.

In 1951, the Greenville Army Air Base was renamed the Donaldson Air Force Base to honor the hometown’s war hero. “It was the home to C-124 transports and called the Airlift Capital of the World for its role in the Berlin airlift, Korean War, and Cold War.”

In 1962, the base closed, and the complex was renamed the Donaldson Center Industrial Air Park. In 2008, the industrial area became the South Carolina Technology and Aviation Center, and the airfield became known as Donaldson Field.


“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited

by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns,

comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.