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Following her invasion of China in 1937 and having all but swept China’s fledgling air force from the skies by 1939, Japan began a sustained bombing campaign against China’s cities. Free China’s Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek sent Claire L. Chennault, a medically retired U.S. Army captain serving as an advisor to the Chinese Air Force, back to the United States in late 1940 with an urgent request for American planes and pilots.
Arrangement was made for China to purchase 100 P-40B aircraft, and President Roosevelt approved the voluntary recruitment of 200 support personnel and 100 pilots from the armed forces. Since the United States was not at war, the volunteers would have to accept discharge from the service and those who were officers would have to resign their commissions. They would sign a one-year contract as civilian employees of the Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company (CAMCO), an American company with operations in China. With letters of introduction signed by high government officials in hand, Chennault and his recruiters proceeded to scour America’s military and naval air bases for acceptable volunteers.
John Donovan, a Navy pilot, was one of Chennault’s recruits. An Eagle Scout in his youth, Donovan graduated at the top of his high school class in 1933 and pursued his college education on an installment plan of sorts. These were the Great Depression years, and Donovan interrupted his education at various times to work for enough money to continue his studies. His perseverance paid off with a bachelor’s degree in 1939 after which he briefly entered law school.
A relative wrote of him, “John was concerned with the start of World War II in Europe and the Japanese-Chinese War in Asia. He decided to prepare himself for the war he felt was coming to America. Dropping out of law school, he joined the Navy’s air cadet program and was sent to the Pensacola Naval Air Station.”
Donovan completed Navy flight training and received his officer’s commission in 1940. He was an instructor pilot flying the Navy’s PBY, a large two-engine amphibious aircraft, when he accepted the offer in 1941 to join Chennault’s First American Volunteer Group, or AVG.
The initial contingent of AVG volunteers left the United States by ship for Rangoon, Burma on July 10, 1941. Donovan, part of the second AVG contingent, boarded the Dutch ship Boschfontein in San Francisco on September 24.
On May 12, 1942, three later-model P-40s equipped with bomb racks and three P-40Bs took off from Kunming on a mission to attack the Gia Lam airfield near Hanoi, French Indochina. After the P-40s armed with bombs dropped their loads, the older P-40Bs rolled in on strafing runs. As Donovan completed his strafing attack and pulled up, Japanese anti-aircraft fire found its mark, devastating his plane.
Thomas Trumble, Chennault’s personal secretary throughout the war, wrote:
"Jim Howard's plane engine caused him to abort and he returned to Kunming. The others shot up the control tower and the grounded planes pretty thoroughly, but the AA fire was intense and Donovan crashed. Bishop was hit by AA fire over another airfield and was captured. Three of the planes returned in the Kunming twilight. Chennault watched to the south with his binoculars for over an hour before we saw them coming home. The three pilots talked to the General in the darkness and Link Laughlin described Donavan's crash. Driver Wang drove us home to Hostel One. Chennault was utterly silent and I didn't break the stillness. The strain and ache in my throat was almost intolerable. Donovan had been such an eager, likeable youngster."
Touch the Wall, a website dedicated to those whose names are on the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, lists Donovan as the first veteran killed in-country, saying of him, “Flying Tiger John T. Donovan was killed on May 12, 1942, but our involvement in Vietnam was not considered official and his name is not on the Memorial.”
John Donovan’s combat record was indistinguishable from that of many of the AVG pilots. He flew his assigned missions and had four Japanese aircraft kills and two probables to his credit. But as the first American killed in combat in what was then French Indochina and now Vietnam, his death occupies a unique place in American history connecting two wars and spanning two generations.