Pilot Art Donahue Spit Fire At Hitler’s Nazis


Art Donahue had nailed his Japanese targets, but had a gaping hole in his left leg from anti-aircraft fire. The World War II fighter pilot knew he had to do something to stop the heavy bleeding. Otherwise he would pass out and never make the 100-mile flight back to his air base in Singapore. So Donahue stuck one fist in the wound and flew his fighter plane safely home with his other hand. For his bravery on this successful mission in early February 1942, the Minnesota native was awarded the U.K.’s Distinguished Flying Cross.

Donahue also earned other medals from a grateful Great Britain. Plus he became the first American to lead an all-British squadron in the U.K.’s Royal Air Force. In addition, he was part of a small number of Americans who — while the U.S. remained neutral — served as RAF fighter pilots in the Battle of Britain, the 1940 aerial clash with Nazi Germany’s Luftwaffe.

Donahue was especially effective among these Americans while motivated to defeat the Nazis, author Alex Kershaw told IBD. “He wanted to go over to Britain and fight Hitler there because he didn’t want to have to do it in his own backyard,” said Kershaw, who wrote “The Few: The American ‘Knights of the Air’ Who Risked Everything to Fight in the Battle of Britain.”

“He was doing it for a reason. He wasn’t just a solider of fortune.”

Facing The Heat

The few Americans who fought in 1940 put their lives on the line, but also basically became criminals. They were breaking U.S. neutrality laws and knew they might lose their American citizenship or face other penalties.

Arthur Gerald Donahue (1913-42) was born and raised on a farm in the St. Charles, Minn., area and fell in love with airplanes early.

Around age 15, he convinced a local pilot to give him flying lessons. That set him on a path toward making his first solo flight at 16 and becoming Minnesota’s youngest qualified commercial pilot at 19.

A devout Catholic and teetotaler, he considered the clergy, but flew in another direction. “During the years of the Depression this wasn’t always too lucrative, and at various times I worked as a garage mechanic, construction worker and truck driver, in addition to working on my father’s farm quite often,” Donahue wrote in his 1941 book, “Tally-ho! Yankee in a Spitfire.”

“Always, however, I tried to work at some place where I could also keep my hand in flying part of the time — barnstorming, instructing and the like, and working as an aircraft mechanic.”

As the fighting spread in Europe, Donahue considered joining the RAF, but instead applied to the U.S. Army Air Corps Reserve. He figured that would mean fewer worries for his parents. But he found himself “frustrated for months by delays that were mostly hard to understand,” he wrote in “Tally-ho!” So he ended up joining the RAF after all. He traveled to London by way of Canada, initially saying he would take a noncombat job and lying to his parents.

Upon his arrival in London in early July 1940, just before the Battle of Britain erupted, he marveled at the resolve of Londoners. That clinched it. He signed up as a pilot rather than a noncombatant. The RAF certainly wanted someone with Donahue’s experience. He had 1,807 hours of flight time at that point, according to Lyle Harrison, a Minnesotan who has worked to make sure Donahue isn’t forgotten, such as by helping put him in the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame this year.

Harrison, who was 10 years old in 1940, recalls living in St. Charles and hearing stories about Donahue fighting Hitler: “We started to hear rumors about this guy from St. Charles who had gone to England.” Donahue plunged into air combat right after completing the RAF’s advanced fighter training in just 18 days, according to Harrison. The pilot experienced his first dogfight in early August 1940 in the thick of the Battle of Britain, flying one of the Spitfires from 64 Squadron.

Pressure In The Air

Kershaw notes that Donahue had to survive tremendous stress in the cockpit without the gear that protects today’s pilots. “If you go and talk to any fighter pilot today, they’ll tell you that being a fighter pilot in the Battle of Britain and World War II in a Spitfire without a G-suit was about as intense as it gets,” the author said. “It takes an enormous amount of moral, physical and spiritual strength just to endure that day after day.”

Donahue was shot down and forced to bail out during one mission that summer, suffering severe burn wounds before escaping the cockpit. He recuperated for several weeks, then returned to the air after the Battle of Britain ended with a U.K. victory while the broader war raged on.

He briefly was posted to an all-American RAF squadron called the Eagles, but switched back to 64 Squadron when he saw the Eagles hadn’t been provided with planes yet. His attitude, according to Kershaw, was: “They’re a bunch of cowboys, and I’ve got a job to do, which is saving Britain.”

Donahue had a chance to visit St. Charles and other parts of Minnesota in the spring of 1941. He likely enjoyed the events held in his honor, but remained disappointed that his country wasn’t in the fight.

“It was a big deal. They had a big banquet for him,” Harrison said. “He got a hero’s welcome. However, he could not wear his uniform.”

Kershaw points out parallels to how returning veterans feel today.

“Art Donahue would be a very sharp and poignant example of the dislocation between America and what happens abroad in war,” he said. “His own country was standing by while democracy was going up in flames. He felt very angry about that.”

After the trip home, Donahue returned to patrol the English Channel for six more months. He then joined 258 Squadron to fight abroad. That’s how he ended up in Singapore, a British colony in the midst of falling to the Japanese.

Back Up And At ‘Em

On the day Donahue was injured, his mission was to strafe Japanese barges invading Singapore. While he did hit those ships, he ended up hurt and a passenger on one of the last British planes fleeing Singapore as it succumbed to the enemy.

After recovering from this second injury, he made another comeback to the English Channel. This Spitfire hitch came as he commanded 91 Squadron, sticking with the British even though the U.S. had entered the war. His last aerial clash came on Sept. 11, 1942. The prior day, his wingman had been shadowed by a German plane, according to the supporting pilot’s memoir. Donahue planned to lay in wait for that enemy craft on this fateful day, and he did that, destroying it while getting hit. His last radio message was that his engine was overheating and he was too low to bail out.

Though his fellow RAF pilots searched the channel for signs of him, they were hindered by lousy weather and couldn’t find him.

“Art put himself in harm’s way to try to destroy one more German machine,” Harrison said.

Kershaw describes Donahue as “sort of a stereotypical Midwesterner — fairly softly spoken, quiet, reserved. He wasn’t big and brash.”

That modesty shines through in Donahue’s writing. Along with “Tally-ho!” he penned “Last Flight From Singapore,” which came out two years after his death.

“The most that can be said for myself is that I tried and tried hard, and fought hard,” Donahue wrote in “Tally-ho!”

“I did have the privilege of being numbered among the few score pilots who met the first German mass onslaughts in the Air Blitzkrieg against England. Of these facts I shall always be proud, even if I fail to add more to them.”

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