The Shootdown of “Earthquake
Near Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam
May 6, 1954
Straight Out of Jersey...
James B. McGovern, Jr. was born on February 4, 1922, in Elizabeth, New
Jersey. Growing up, his brother recalled in a 1999 interview that, "I
didn't know what I wanted to be, but all he ever talked about was
becoming a pilot," he said.
graduated high school in 1940, the young McGovern got a job working at
Wright Aircraft Engineering Company in Patterson, NJ, and trained at the
Casey Jones School of Aeronautics. After the United States entered World
War II, the five-foot nine-inch tall, then-180 pound, aircraft mechanic
enlisted in the Army Air Corps on May 21st, 1942, to learn to fly.
Arriving in China in November of 1944, James McGovern joined the 14th
Air Force - 23rd Fighter Group's 75th "Tiger Shark" squadron, part of
the Flying Tigers volunteer group. He was credited with shooting down
four Japanese Zero fighters and destroying five on the ground.
war's end in 1945, Major General Claire Chennault, founder of both the
Flying Tigers and the 14th Air Force, recruited McGovern and other
veteran pilots for his next enterprise, a commercial airline called
Civil Air Transport (CAT). Under contract to Chiang Kai-shek's
Nationalist regime, CAT flew civilian and military missions during
China's civil war, and would later help evacuate thousands of refugees
to Taiwan before the Communist victory in 1949.
Having bulked up during the war to 260 pounds, the ex-fighter pilot
liked the roomy cockpits of CAT's war-surplus C-46 transports but still
sometimes used a wicker chair instead of the standard pilot's seat.
A saloon owner and ex-sailor, Ed
F. Gingle, but known to most in the Orient as
“Pop”, dubbed the big aviator “Earthquake McGoon”, after a hulking
hillbilly wrestler character in the then-popular "Li'l Abner" comic
strip. "It didn't bother him. He was a character himself, and I think he
thrived on it," John McGovern, his younger brother, said.
However, during a flight in December of 1949, McGovern ran out of fuel,
made an emergency night landing in a riverbed and was captured by
Chinese Communist troops. When he turned up safe six months later, other
pilots joked that his captors "got tired of feeding him." But McGovern
had argued his way out, saying “You keep saying you're going to release
me but you haven't, so I don't believe anything you say. You're liars.”
So, the Chinese soldier let McGovern go free in May of 1950.
Civil Air Transport moved to Taiwan in 1949 and a year later was
secretly acquired by the CIA, which continued its commercial service as
a cover for clandestine activities.
The First Indochina War...
1953, France asked the administration of President Dwight Eisenhower for
American help in fighting a Communist rebellion in colonial Indochina.
Soon, CAT was there, flying supply missions with French insignia painted
over the company logo.
Buford, who had flown B-24 bombers during World War II and C-119s in
Korea, and a recipient of two Distinguished Flying Crosses and the
Purple Heart, was studying for an engineering degree in 1953 when he saw
a notice that the government was seeking experienced C-119 pilots.
So, he signed up.
A year later, McGovern and
Buford, 28, were among two dozen Americans who earned about $3,000 a
month air-dropping supplies to the besieged French garrison at Dien Bien
May 6, 1954, their unarmed C-119 Flying Boxcar, #149 (originally U.S.
Air Force tail number 49-149, as it was on loan to the French Air Force
from the USAF's 314th Troop Carrier Wing), and five other C-119s, took
off from Haiphong's Cat Bi Airport. McGovern's plane was carrying a
parachute-rigged Howitzer artillery piece to aid the French soldiers
at Camp Isabelle – the southernmost
firebase of Dien Bien Phu.
Earthquake's Final Flight,
an Oil on linen painting, 31 x 43 inches in size, painted in
2004 by Jeffrey Bass, and commissioned by the Fairchild
Corporation. Click the picture to see it enlarged.
The first aircraft in the flight,
flown by Steve Kusak, safely dropped its load on Isabelle. But as
McGovern approached the drop zone, however, his aircraft was hit twice
by 37mm anti-aircraft fire, in both the left engine and stabilizer.
"I've got a direct hit," other pilots heard McGovern say.
Immediately, the French crew of
“kickers” in the aircraft's rear, named Jean Arlaux (on his first combat
mission), Bataille, Moussa (a Malayasian), and Rescouriou, dropped their cargo, as McGovern shut down the burning engine, and
climbed over the mountains surrounding the fort.
With one engine afire, McGoon nursed
the aircraft another 75 miles southward, into Laos. Approaching
4,000-foot mountains, he radioed fellow C-119 pilot Steve Kusak for help
in finding level ground. "Turn right," said Kusak, who was directing
McGovern towards an airstrip near the Nam Ma River.
photo of McGovern's C-119 after it was hit. From the
Life magazine article in 1954
An actual photo of McGovern's
C-119 shortly after impacting. From the Life magazine
article in 1954
Forty minutes after being hit,
McGovern made his last radio transmission, "Looks like this is it, son."
His crippled C-119 Flying Boxcar cartwheeled into a Laos hillside near
the Sang Ma river in Houaphan Province. The crash killed McGovern,
Buford, and two of the French crewmen instantly. But two of the cargo handlers,
French Lieutenant Jean Arlaux
and Private Moussa, were thrown clear and survived, but were captured by
the Vietminh. Moussa died a few days later of his injuries.
McGovern & Buford were the first two Americans to die in combat in
Vietnam. The day after the crash, the garrison at Dien Bien Phu
surrendered, ending the 57-day siege. No effort were made to recover
McGovern or Buford's remains then.
In the May 24, 1954, edition of Life magazine, an article called "The
End for Earthquake" ran, detailing the pilot's shoot-down, and
displaying photographs that would become all to common in the years of
conflict that would follow.
Years of Silence...
After a French officer learned from Ban Sot villagers in 1959 about
three graves in the area, CIA officials stifled his report. "They
indicated in a vague way that they feared a lawsuit if they gave the
relatives false information. Therefore, no one notified McGovern's
or Buford's relatives," according to Felix Smith, a retired CAT pilot.
Smith recalled McGovern as being "a real big-hearted guy," but not the
"wild man" as the press widely reported. "He was a bon vivant,
happy-go-lucky. He loved kids, and he was the guy who in a tense
situation would come out with some joke."
The search for McGovern's remains came to light again in October of
1997, when a "Joint Task Force-Full Accounting" team investigating an unrelated crash near
Ban Sot saw an old C-119 propeller in the village. It was assumed to be
French in origin, until William Forsyth, the agency's top researcher,
heard about McGovern from a former pilot, and began to search for old
news clippings about the crash.
year later, Forsyth, whose specialty is aerial photo analysis, spotted
three "probable graves" in a 1961 photo of the Ban Sot area. But with
Vietnam War MIAs taking precedence, officials moved "Case 3036", as it
was called, to the back burner with other "Cold War losses."
There it stayed until a group of ex-CAT pilots, led by Felix Smith,
launched a letter-writing campaign, and lobbied Congress and former
intelligence officials, to have the case upgraded for immediate action.
Retired spy Dudley Foster, who once served in a liaison role with CAT,
persuaded George Tenet, then the director of the CIA, to back the
With "Case 3036" given new priority, task force investigators revisited
Ban Sot, where in July of 2001, they interviewed four witnesses to the
1954 crash and three who pointed out burial sites. Skeletal remains were
discovered in an unmarked grave in northern Laos in December of 2002.
Phimpha, a 65-year-old Laotian farmer, recalled that he was fishing in a river
when the plane came down, and later saw three bodies, among them a "very
large Caucasian with a round face, still strapped in the pilot's seat."
A few days later, Phimpha noticed fresh grave mounds near a road. His wife,
Thok, 67, recalled that as a girl she "always ran past that location
because of the ghosts thought to be there."
February 24, 2005, James McGovern was posthumously recognized by the French
government, along with
his co-pilot Wallace Buford, for their sacrifice. Seven of the other surviving pilots
of the Civil Air Transport were awarded the Legion of Honour with the rank of Knight by the President of the Republic of
France for their actions to supply Dien Bien Phu during the siege.
The skeletal remains found in 2002 were positively identified in
September 2006 as McGovern's by laboratory experts at the U.S.
military's Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command. He was interred in
Arlington National Cemetery on May 24, 2007, in Section 8-M4, Row 11,