The son of General Thomas Quinton Donaldson, John Owen Donaldson attended Cornell University before he enlisted a month before the United States entered the war. He joined the Royal Flying Corps in Canada but transferred to the American air service when the United States entered the war. Attached to the Royal Air Force, he was posted to 32 Squadron on 3 July 1918 and claimed seven Fokker D.VIIs in less than two months whilst flying the S.E.5a. Captured on 1 September 1918, Donaldson was shot down by Theodor Quandt of Jasta 36. The following day, while being held in a temporary prison camp in the village of Conde, he and a fellow prisoner escaped. Attempting to steal a two-seater from its hangar at a German aerodrome, they were discovered by a guard. In the struggle that followed, Donaldson received a bayonet wound in the back before the two men overpowered the German soldier and fled into the countryside. On 9 September 1918, the unlucky duo was recaptured while attempting to swim a stream between the Allied and German lines. Three days later, Donaldson, together with his former companion and three other prisoners, escaped again and made his way to safety in the Netherlands. After the war, he received the Mackay Gold Medal for winning the U.S. Army's transcontinental air race in October 1919. Resigning his commission in 1920, he later became president of Newark Air Service in New Jersey and continued to participate in air races. He was killed in a crash while performing stunts near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
For gallantry. On 22 July 1918, Lt. Donaldson, when on a patrol, attacked a formation of 20 Fokker biplanes over Mont-Notre-Dame. He singled out one of the hostile machines and engaged it from behind, firing a short burst at close range. The EA side-slipped to the right and then to the left, finally bursting into flames and crashing. On 8 August he engaged five enemy scouts over Licourt. He singled out one and diving on it from behind, opened fire at very close range. The EA immediately went into a straight dive and crashed into the ground between Licourt and Morchain, becoming a total wreck. On 9 August he observed a British machine being attacked by three hostile scouts over Licourt. He immediately flew to the scene of the encounter and engaged one of the EA, firing a long burst at very close range. Almost at once a white stream of escaping petrol was observed and a little later the EA burst into flames. On 25 August he attacked, single handed, four Fokker biplanes over Hancourt, diving into their midst and firing a short burst into one machine at close range. The EA went down in a side-slip dive and having fallen about 2,000 feet the left wing broke off. The pilot descended in a parachute and shortly after leaving the machine the other wing was observed to crumple up. In addition to the above this officer has driven down out of control three enemy machines as follows: 25 July 1918, one Fokker biplane over Fismes; 10 August, one Fokker biplane over Péronne; 29 August, one Fokker biplane over Cambrai. 2nd Lt. Donaldson also did magnificent work attacking ground targets with machine gun fire and bombs during the recent retreat on the Somme in August. He invariably showed the greatest devotion to duty and gallantry in the face of the enemy.
Supplement to the London Gazette
Distinguished Service Cross (DSC)
The Distinguished Service Cross is presented to John Owen Donaldson, Second Lieutenant (Air Service), U.S. Army, for extraordinary heroism in action near Mont-Norte-Dame, France, July 22, 1918, when, on patrol, he attacked a formation of 20 Fokker enemy biplanes. Singling out one of the hostile machines Lieutenant Donaldson engaged it from behind, firing a short burst at close range, the plane bursting into flames and crashing to the ground. On August 8, 1918, he engaged 5 enemy scout planes over Licourt, France; singling out one and diving on it, he opened fire at close range, causing it to crash to the ground. On August 9, 1918, over Licourt, France, observing a British plane being attacked by three enemy scout planes, he immediately engaged one of the enemy, firing a long burst at very close range, the enemy plane bursting into flames and crashing to the ground. On August 25, 1918, over Hancourt, France, he attacked four Fokker enemy planes, diving into their midst and firing a short burst at one of them from a short range, destroying the plane, the pilot of which descended to safety in a parachute. On July 25, 1918, over Fismes, France, he drove down out of control an enemy Fokker plane; on August 10, over Perrone, France, one Fokker biplane; and on August 29 over Cambria, France, one Fokker biplane. In all these engagements Lieutenant Donaldson displayed the greatest devotion to duty and gallantry in the face of the enemy.