Talking Proud Archives --- Military

They found the Earthquake, Jim McGovern has come home

By Ed Marek, editor

James B. McGovern, transport pilot, Civil Air Transport, CIA, Vietnam, 1950s.

General Chennault was relieved of his command of the 14th AF in August 1945 and retired to Louisiana. In this photo, presented by the Shanghai Star in 2002, he and his new wife, Anna, are welcomed as they return to the US.

But he understood China best and knew the struggle between Chiang Kai-Shek and the communist leader, Mao Tse Tung would be a tough one.

So he returned and bounced around various jobs.

But flying was his great love. Along with Whiting Willauer, an attorney shown here courtesy of Princeton University, he set up a Chinese national airline, mainly to serve the country's transport needs.

The new China airlines was officially called the China National Relief and Rehabilitation Transport company. That name was too long, so it was shortened to Civil Air Transport, or CAT (Warning: Do not confuse this with CAT, Inc.; I will address this a bit later). But briefly, CAT Inc. was a CIA American company set up to buy into the Chinese-owned Civil Air Transport; I will denote the difference by referring to the Chinese company as CAT and the CIA company as CAT, Inc., and then Air America. In truth, CAT Inc. is synonymous with Air America).

In any event, CAT, the Chinese company, was officially established in Shanghai on October 25, 1946 as a commercial airline.

Chennault recruited from among those American fliers who served in China, mainly from the troop carrier squadrons.

The 23rd FG returned to the US and was inactivated. So for his part, McGovern transferred to a troop carrier squadron at Beijing at war's end. He was discharged in 1947 and Chennault successfully recruited him to join the CAT.

CAT C-46 Transport. Presented by Civil Air Transport.

CAT C-47 Transport. Presented by Civil Air Transport.

There were plenty of "surplus" aircraft left in China. Chennault bought fifteen C-46s and four C-47s. By the end of 1948, CAT found itself flying many flights for the Chinese Nationalist government. It became deeply involved in the Chinese civil war.

Indeed McGovern was forced to land his CAT aircraft in China and was captured. He was freed six months later. Legend has it that his guards were tired of how much he ate and his sense of humor. The above photo shows him shortly after his release. His colleagues in CAT say he became a much more serious pilot after his capture and very anti-communist.

The nationalist government could not stand the weight of the communist movement. The communists took over in 1949 and established the People's Republic of China (PRC). Chiang Kai-shek's government moved to the island of Formosa to run what was left of the Republic of China (ROC).

Chennault had to move the CAT to Hong Kong, but faced legal problems with the British concerning ownership of his aircraft. Those he did not lose to the PRC through this legal battle soon fell into disrepair. Chennault then moved the company to Formosa in 1950.

Now I’ll give you a chance to go a bit crazy: CAT vs. CAT Inc.

In 1950, CAT, Inc. bought 40 percent of the Chinese company, Civil Air Transport, also known as CAT. The Republic of China, ROC, maintained 60 percent ownership. CAT Inc. was always owned by the US government. The CIA wanted the US government to buy Civil Air Transport but the powers in Washington rejected that idea. As a result, the CIA developed a plan to buy the company indirectly and presented that plan to the National Security Council (NSC), which approved it. As a result, CAT, Inc. was set up to buy part of Civil Air Transport. All of the pilots were transferred to CAT, Inc. CAT Inc., in turn, set up a wholly owned Chinese company to own all the aircraft and the maintenance facilities. That company was named Asiatic Aeronautical Co., Ltd. Its name changed to Air Asia Ltd. in 1959. CIA initially operated this company.

The corporate-government structural actions for all this thereafter are too confusing to summarize here. The point to be made is that CAT, Inc. and Air America were one in the same. Civil Air Transport, Inc., was partially owned by CAT, Inc. but remained majority owned by the ROC. So when we talk about CAT, Inc. we are talking about Air America and vice versa. Indeed, on March 26, 1959 CAT Inc’s name was changed to Air America.

Chennault turned to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The CIA, seeing the advantages of an alliance with a transport company in the Far East, started advancing money. A main player in this was Paul Helliwell, shown here, courtesy of the Spartacus School in the UK. Helliwell, a lawyer, former OSS officer, and CIA officer, was sent to Formosa in 1950 by an intelligence element of the War Department. His task was to help Chiang Kai-shek prepare to invade China. His method was to support Chennault's effort to set up the CAT to conduct covert flight operations for the CIA.

The Air America grew by leaps and bounds. We have seen different reasons reported regarding why Chennault went to the CIA. One set says the airline was short of funds given the Nationalist loss to the communists. Another is that he hated the Chinese communists and wanted to do what he could to thwart the spread of communism. We suspect there are elements of truth to both versions.

Ho Chi Minh (noted by red arrow) receives American secret servicemen in a special unit nicknamed "The Deer". Presented by VietNamNet Bridge.

Without going too deeply into this fascinating history, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the predecessor to CIA, had sent agents into China during WWII. Among many other things, while there, they befriended a Vietnamese communist guerrilla, Ho Chi Minh. Ho became a strong ally of the US in the fight against the Japanese, and against the French Vichy government that was running Indochina. Indeed, Ho's Viet Minh army was helping downed US pilots in Indochina.

It was well known in Washington circles that Ho's main objective was to terminate the Japanese presence in Indochina, and then terminate French colonial lordship over Indochina, specifically Vietnam. Many in senior levels of the US government, FDR included, favored Ho over the French: they knew his troops were fierce fighters against the Japanese and Vichy, US relations with France were strained because of the Vichy government and French attitudes in the European Theater of WWII, and it was obvious that Ho was extremely popular with his people back home and would ultimately lead the country.

Following WWII, this all presented US policy-makers, most notably President Truman, a dilemma. On the one hand, they knew that Ho Chi Minh was extremely popular among Vietnamese. On the other hand, they saw France as an ally, Ho was a communist, and the Cold War against the communists was in its infancy. The US abandoned Ho and helped the French.

In 1945, President Truman gave France his approval to resume colonial authority over Indochina. The Japanese had thrown the French out in 1945. But, the Japanese surrendered in September 1945. Ho declared independence. In 1946 the French tried to force their way back, and the French Indochina War began.

We did an in-depth report entitled
"RT Breaker Patrol, the Hill Battles of Vietnam" back in March 2006. One section of that report provides some very good history on all this: "From 1887 through 1957, the lines become clear. The divide is clear." We commend it to you.

Sam McGowan, a well known and authoritative author, former USAF C-130 transport crew member, and a civilian pilot, has written a superb paper on combat airlift entitled,
"Anything, Anywhere, Anytime," which includes some detailed history about the air transport support provided by the US to the French during the Indochina War between the French and Viet Minh. We commend this paper to you, and will draw some highlights from it.

French Colonel Jean Arlaux, then a lieutenant, was aboard McGovern's craft when it was hit by enemy fire and lost, and has also described the flight,
"Three hours of my life with hero: James McGovern." We will pass on his observations as well.

The French were sorely short of transport aircraft, and took every avenue available to get help from the US. Both the CIA and the USAF provided this support to the French.

Jim McGovern, for example, started flying C-47 flights for Air America out of Saigon in early 1951. Our understanding is he used a single C-47 in Saigon to do this job. His mission was to fly supplies within Vietnam for the US Special Technical and Economic Mission, which was supposed to be a mission to effect agrarian reform. As the days and weeks passed, however, he found himself flying more and more in support of French military forces.

His were civilian flights run by CIA. But the newly formed US Air Force (USAF) was involved in the transport business as well, and was also supporting Air America and French flight operations.

In November 1951, the US provided the French with an initial supply of 20 C-27s which would build to 116 by war's end in 1954. USAF crews delivered the aircraft, usually flying them in to Nha Trang, Vietnam from Clark AB, Philippines. These would be for tactical airlift. But France lacked the pilots and maintenance crews.

Since the French were short on pilots, the US turned to Air America, which by 1952, was owned by the CIA lock, stock and barrel. Air America pilots began flying a heavy schedule of transport missions for the French. These were combat missions flown by American civilians in every sense of the word. They routinely flew into combat zones, dropped supplies to the French, and dropped French paratroopers. They took their share of hostile fire.

French parachutists being airlifted to the war zone by a U.S. Air Force C-124 Globemaster aircraft from the Orly airfield in Paris. Presented by Frontline.

The French also lacked the strategic airlift needed to get their troops form France to Vietnam. In April, the USAF's 62nd Troop Carrier Wing (TCW) flew French forces from France to Indochina aboard C-124 Globemaster IIs.

Since the French could not maintain their tactical transports, they asked for US help. President Truman sent in the first US military forces to go to Vietnam, a group of 30 Air Force maintenance troops. The aircraft were American owned and bore French markings but retained USAF serial numbers.

The C-47s proved to be insufficient in number, so the French asked the US for C-119s, at the time, the USAF's workhorse. The US was fighting in Korea at this time, but by late 1952-1953 the ground war in Korea was in a stalemate, and C-119s became available.

C-119 Flying Boxcars such as this one were lent to the French for both mobility and attack. Most of the aircrews flying these aircraft were Americans—some military advisors, some civilians. Note the USAF aircraft carried French markings. Photo credit: Edgar Burts. Presented by Air Force Magazine.

After the usually political dancing, President Eisenhower decided to approve sending C-119s to Indochina but they would have to be flown by US trained French pilots and Air America pilots, not USAF crews. The Air America pilots were able to transition to the C-119 far more quickly than French pilots could be trained, so Air America bore most of the load. The USAF 483rd Troop Carrier Group (TCG), just formed at Ashiya AB, Japan on January 1, 1953, trained French pilots and mechanics on temporary duty in Hanoi as part of "Operation Swivel Chair."

Allen Cates, a former Air America pilot and
author of Honor Denied: The truth about Air America and the CIA, has provided me some advice that seems to apply best here. He said:

“The CIA was involved but so was the AF. For this operation Air America pilots interacted more with the USAF than they did with the CIA. I have a copy of one of the contracts. It clearly states the French Republic controlled the assets. The planes were loaded with ammo by Air Force personnel and fueled and maintained by Air Force personnel.”

During the period 1953 until the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954, there was a tremendous amount of activity between Washington and Paris over what the US may or may not do to help. This period merits our further study. Believe it or not, there were some who wanted to employ B-29 heavy bombers against the Viet Minh to include a nuclear attack.

For our part, we'll try to stick to events that are relevant to the Earthquake.

Civil Air Transport pilot Robert "Dutch" Brongersma, left, stands in an undated photo with an unidentified pilot in front of a C-119 at a French air base from where the pilots flew missions in Vietnam to supply French forces at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Photo credit: Steve Kusak. Presented by Review Journal.

In April 1953, a group of Air America pilots went to the Philippines, checked out, and delivered the first six aircraft to Gia Lam Airfield outside Hanoi on May 4, 1953. This was called "Operation Squaw." Some 18 USAF mechanics were sent along with them. The main reason the US agreed to sending the C-119 was because the French said they needed to airdrop heavy equipment, and the C-47s could not handle that job as well. USAF C-124 aircraft were used to medevac wounded French soldiers from Vietnam to Japan.

It is worth noting that the USAF 315th Air Division commanders did not like these operations. There was quibbling between the US and French about the C-119s, so they were sent back to the Philippines where they could be called on to return to Vietnam as required. They left on or after July 16, 1953.

The CIA has said that the aircraft and crews were withdrawn because of a "waning of the Viet Minh offensive." In retrospect, somehow that does not ring true.

French paratroopers being air dropped into Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam. Presented by

Later on in 1953, the French command decided to set up an air base deep in Vietnam, close to Laos, in order to enable improved operations against the Viet Minh operating from Laos. This base was in a valley, on a fairly large plain, surrounded by mountains, and was known as Dien Bien Phu.

Dien Bien Phu from the air. Presented by bboulingclub in France.

This map shows the French disposition at Dien Bien Phu by March 1954. You can compare it to the aerial view above it. We'll come back to this map again later. Presented by wikipedia.

To get things started, more than 60 C-47s air dropped two paratroop battalions into the area in November 1953. Reinforcements were air dropped in later in the day.

The C-119s were initially needed to bring in the heavy equipment required to build the base and air strip. The USAF's 483rd Troop Carrier Group (TCG) out of Japan made about 22 C-119s available at their base in Japan for duty in Vietnam as needed. Twenty-four Air America pilots flew 12 of these, all C-119C models. We understand from the French Embassy in Washington that the total number of Air America pilots to fly over Dien Bien Phu was 37. This was called "Operation Squaw II."

C-119 on the ramp at Haiphong, Vietnam. Presented by the University of Texas, Dallas.

The C-7 Caribou Association's "History of the 483rd" talks to Project "Iron Age" wherein USAF crews would fly a few C-119s into Cat Bi, Vietnam for loan periods of about five days. The Caribous wrote this:

"483rd Wing Operation Plan 4-53 sent aircraft to Air America Bi, Vietnam for loan periods of around five days. USAF crews were to ferry the planes to Indochina and return them to Japan as soon as specified airdrops were completed. General Macarty was afraid the French would misuse the planes for 'champagne and ice runs' and this short-term plan was designed to prevent such misuse. The planes would have French markings but the 483rd personnel would wear their own uniforms while performing maintenance and technical supply functions."

Air America C-119 taking off from Cat Bi base. Note that the American art, in this case of the pin-up, Rose Marie, remained even if the rest of the aircraft was painted with French colors. Photo credit: Paul Corcuff, ECPAD 1954 French Defense Ministry public archive. Presented by wikipedia.

A USAF maintenance detachment was kept at Cat Bi to help keep the 119s flying. The detachment consisted of about 121 men and they served on temporary duty at Cat Bi for about 60 days. They often had to fly aboard a 483rd aircraft to various bases in Laos to repair damaged C-119s forced to land in Laos and return them to base.

French paratroopers load up at Cat Bi on a C-119 to reinforce Dien Bien Phu, March 27, 1954. Presented by Ministry of Defense, Republic of France.

It is worth noting that three enlisted USAF and two US Army parachute riggers were captured at the French base at Tourane, later known as Danang, and released after six weeks captivity.

C-119s then started bringing in the heavy duty stuff, including barrels filled with napalm, in effect making the C-119 a bomber, a tactic employed during the Korean war. It is worth noting that on occasion some USAF people were on some of these combat missions, against the prevailing the rules.

Once the French got established, the Viet Minh set up shop zeroing in on targets at the base from the surrounding hills. The C-47s managed to land, but the C-119s usually had to drop their loads from the air. After a while, Viet Minh artillery was so plentiful and so persistent that all equipment and supplies had to be air dropped. Viet Minh capabilities in the area became so strong that the air transports came under heavy fire on approach and departure. French pilots could not handle the task of getting in and out, so the Air America guys took over most of the flights.

McGowan, in the paper we mentioned earlier, wrote this about the Earthquake:

"The Air America pilots took a special interest in the Frenchmen on the ground, and often included special goodies they had bought with their own money with the supplies they dropped. When 'Earthquake' McGovern heard that the colonel in charge of the base had been promoted, he went out and bought the proper insignia and attached it to a bottle of champagne and dropped it into the camp. McGovern also took advantage of the flights to get rid of his unpaid bills - he ripped them up and tossed the pieces out the window of his Dollar Nineteen as he came into 'The Slot' leading into the valley!"

Air America aircraft and pilots were hit on more than one occasion.

We need to pause for a moment to introduce you to Wallace Buford.

Lt. Wallace Buford, Korean War pilot, US Air Force

Wallace Buford, Air America pilot

Wallace Buford served as a Air America pilot, and as a WWII and Korean pilot, first with the Army Air Corps, then with the newly formed US Air Force. While on active duty, Buford received the Distinguished Flying Cross twice, and the Purple Heart.

McGowan describes a Air America flight in which the Buford's aircraft took some fire:

Wallace Buford standing next to his C-119 following a mission where the aircraft, and the Air America chief pilot, Paul Holden, were hit but successfully recovered.

"Every mission (over Dien Bien Phu was greeted by flak...On one of the drops the Air America chief pilot, Paul Holden was hit in the arm when his C-119 penetrated a wall of flak over the valley.

Air America Chief Pilot, Paul Holden.

"Holden ripped off his shirt and applied to a tourniquet to his half-severed arm while the co-pilot, Wallace Buford, flew the airplane back to Cat Bi. When they landed, McGovern inspected the flak-riddled cockpit and remarked to Buford that 'Somebody must have been carrying a magnet.'"
McGowan adds:

"A week later McGovern’s airplane was hit as he was pulling up after a drop. The C-119 pitched off onto one wing in the beginnings of a spin. As he was adding rudder to bring the huge transport out of the spin before it hit the ground, McGovern committed over his radio that 'I seem to be having a little trouble holding this thing.' On the way to Cat Bi he commented, 'Now I know what it’s like to ride a kangaroo.' When he landed, Buford came up and asked, 'Did you borrow my magnet?'”

Well, it looks like they might have been carrying a magnet on May 6, 1954. McGowan has written this:

"On May 6, 1954, McGovern and his co-pilot Wallace Buford flew in formation with five other C-119s, McGovern flying number two, aboard aircraft serial number 149."

Lt. Jean Arlaux, Republic of France

This was French Lt. Arlaux's first combat mission, and the first time he met McGovern. He reported:

"James McGovern, the pilot, creates an unforgettable impression on me right from the first meeting. On the airstrip of Cat Bi his figure is quite heavy. He wears carpet-slippers and a very loose Hawaiian-style shirt, colorful and flowery. He looks at me with a hearty, lovely smile and puts his arm around my shoulder. I am totally under the spell. I was not familiar with this sort of attitude, and discovered a new dimension in human relationships: friendship and informality, sincere kindness, cheerfulness and an unabated optimism in spite of the hardships and gravity of the situation. With McGovern nothing is to be worried about."

The French disposition at Dien Bien Phu, as of March 1954. The French took up positions on a series of fortified hills. The southernmost, Isabelle, was dangerously isolated. The Viet Minh positioned their 5 divisions (the 304th, 308th, 312th, 316th, and 351st) in the surrounding areas to the north and east. From these areas, the Viet Minh had a clear line of sight on the French fortifications and were able to accurately rain down artillery on the French positions. Presented by wikipedia.

CAT flight schedule board, McGovern and Buford, fly Isabelle.

Their target was Camp Isabelle, 5km south of the main base. They were to deliver about 12,000 lbs of supplies. Isabelle was in very bad shape. A massive artillery attack on March 30 enabled the Viet Minh to dig in and conduct trench warfare. By the end of April, the camp was out of supplies, surrounded, with no way out. As history would have it, McGovern's final mission would be on the last evening before the fall of Dien Bien Phu to the Viet Minh Communists.

Talking about the load of supplies they carried, Colonel Arlaux said this:

"Each pallet has been carefully conveyed into the rear of the plane, bundles are hooked to a ring fixed on a line, strapped with parachutes, ready to be released by a mechanical device when altitude and precise goal is properly assessed. This is difficult in the present situation, because the massive Viet Minh presence is everywhere, fighting openly or from secret hideouts, shelling from trenches, caves and hill-posted encampments taken from the French. Most of the parachuted packets missed the goal and fall into the enemy lines or get lost."

Steve Kusak, shown here courtesy of Civil Air Transport, and Al Pope flew lead aboard C-119 serial 578. John Verdi flew third position with tail number 532. McGowan describes what happened:

"McGovern’s airplane was hit as he was pulling up after a drop. The C-119 pitched off onto one wing in the beginnings of a spin. As he was adding rudder to bring the huge transport out of the spin before it hit the ground, McGovern committed over his radio that "I seem to be having a little trouble holding this thing.' On the way to Cat Bi he commented, 'Now I know what it’s like to ride a kangaroo.'

"Kusak was leading the formation. As he was pulling up he looked back and saw the parachutes from McGovern’s load opening higher than normal. McGovern reported that he had been hit, so Kusak slowed to drop back beside the other C-119 to inspect the damage. He saw that the left wing leading edge was gone and the left engine was throwing oil. As he watched, another shell hit the right boom. The Flying Boxcar lurched and dropped off on a wing. Kusak told his friends to bail-out, but McGovern came back that he was going to try to nurse the crippled transport home. He had been shot down over China before, and had walked several hundred miles to freedom; he didn’t want to have to go through that again.

We commend the web site,
"Steve Kusak, Pilot in China," to your attention to obtain some good additional background.

"Earthquake's Final Flight," a fine art portrait by Jeffrey W. Bass.

This is an actual photo of McGovern's C-119 after it was hit. It was spitting oil on the windshield of a companion ship from which these pictures were taken (we believe, Kusak's aircraft). McGovern's aircraft then began to sink. Hostile fire was still being directed at the Earthquake fire at this time. Photo credit: Steve Kussak. Presented by "The end for Earthquake," Life, May 24, 1954.

"Kusak watched as the shadow of the C-119 grew progressively larger. He knew that if they did not bail out soon, the airplane would be too low. He asked McGovern if he thought he could make it to Hanoi.

"'Piece of cake,' came the reply. As the airplane dropped lower and lower, McGovern made one last radio transmission. 'Looks like this is it, son.' The left wingtip hit the side of a hill and the airplane began to cartwheel. It exploded as it hit the ground. The man was dead, but the legend of Earthquake McGoon would live on."
Colonel Arlaux said the ground fire was heavy, with flak bursts everywhere. He positioned himself directly behind the two pilots, reporting that their altitude as they approached their drop zone (DZ) was 7,000 ft. He said this:

"Suddenly, before we can reach the DZ, near Isabelle, and adjust the bailing the cargo out at the right spot and time, the plane is under attack. The shell's explosions cover the engine noise of our own plane."

Arlaux echoes Kusak's description, saying the port engine was hit by the first shell, a 37mm, the oil conduit was broken, and the oil was flowing out. The second 37mm hit the (horizontal) stabilizer, "cutting it off right in its middle." As all this was going on, the three bailers kicked out the pallets.

Arlaux said McGovern immediately added power to his starboard engine, looked for an exit path, and got the craft over a 7,000 ft ridge. He then followed the Sang Ma river valley to the southeast, then turned south to the Laotion border.

McGovern was able to nurse his airplane about 75 miles to an abandoned and remote airstrip at near Muong Het, Laos.
Air America Association has said:

"Guided by Steve Kusak and Al Pope in the lead aircraft, McGovern and Buford struggled for 40 minutes to keep their aircraft aloft long enough to attempt an emergency landing at a remote emergency landing strip near Muong Het in neighboring Laos. Tragically, just a few hundred yards short of their destination, a wing tip clipped a tree. The aircraft cart wheeled, broke in half and burned. A young French Army officer, Lieutenant Jean Arlaux, and a Malay paratrooper were the sole survivors of the crash landing. The paratrooper later died from wounds he sustained. Two other French paratroopers, Bataille and Rescorio, also perished in the crash."

This is an actual photo of McGovern's plane hitting the ground. Photo credit: Steve Kusak. Photo credit: Steve Kusak. Presented by, "The end for Earthquake," Life, May 24, 1954.

Life magazine reported that McGovern had been hit before, and made a successful river landing and walked away. So this time, Life said, he tried to reach the Nam Ma river, and just did not quite make it. Damn, he was close. Col Arlaux, however, reported that McGovern was actually trying to make it to an old and abandoned landing strip and crashed about a half-mile short.

This is a second shot of the crash from a different angle. The smoke is now rising higher, and McGovern's and Buford's mission is over. Kusak had pointed out this river valley as a possible landing site. Earthquake reportedly responded, "Steve, tell me which way the mountains are lowest." Photo credit: Steve Kusak. Presented by "The end for Earthquake," Life, May 24, 1954.

Both McGovern, 32, and Buford, 28, were killed, the first American aviators to die in combat in Vietnam. This was the only C-119 lost over Dien Bien Phu.

The orange pointer marks Muang Het, Laos. The red dot marks Dien Bien Phu. Presented by

This is a 2006 Digital Globe image of the area around Muang Het (Muang-Et), Laos. We do not know exactly where McGovern was found, but you can see this is rugged country. Presented by

There were four French servicemen on board, Bataille, Rescouriou, Moussa (a Malay), all seasoned paratroopers working this flight as bailers, and Lt. Jean Arlaux, flying as an advisor. Moussa and Jean Arlaux survived the crash. Arlaux said they were unconscious right after the crash and came to aboard a canoe as prisoners of Laotian soldiers. Moussa was badly hurt and died his injuries several days later.

Lt. Arlaux was declared MIA on May 13. His pregnant wife was not told, and his name was not included in enemy announcements. A prisoner release began in September, but Arlaux would not be released until October 13, part of the last batch. He would get home in mid-December.

French prisoners being marched by Viet Minh out of Dien Bien Phu, May 7, 1954. Presented by O Portal de Historia.

The outpost fell the next day to the Viet Minh. Some 8,000 French soldiers surrendered. About half would die during captivity.

We'd like to talk a moment about where the Earthquake's remains were found, Muang Het. There is some heavy history to this area. Muang Het us located in the northern section of Houaphan Province, about at the tip of the blue arrow. The Pathet Lao allies of the Viet Minh have many of their operational and recruiting roots in this province. In 1953, Pathet Lao leaders held an important meeting in the province somewhere along the border and in that same year, the Viet Minh overran the entire province and portions of neighboring provinces. Among other things, there was an remains a profitable opium industry here. On April 19, 1953 the Pathet Lao set up their headquarters in the province at Vieng Xai, near the present-day provincial capital, Sam Neua, and near Muang Het.

So McGovern and Buford were headed for pretty hostile territory. Had they survived, getting them out would have been a challenge.

A second point about this area, a point of geography. The terrain here is very rough and rugged. A man named Leif Petterson, a free-lance writer from Minneapolis, took a trip to Laos , we believe, circa April 2005, and explored the Pathet Lao hideouts near Sam Neuea. He has great photography, which we commend to you. We'll just show a couple of his shots to give you a feel for the landscape.

Limestone cliffs that house caves

A view of the landscape from a cave

All of that said, Life, in its article, "The End for Earthquake" published in the May 24, 1954 edition, said this:

"When he crash landed a plane in Red territory and was released after six months in custody, his comrades joked that the Reds let him go because they couldn't afford to feed him."
On February 24, 2005, the French Ambassador to the US, Jean David-Levitte, presented the Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur, the Legion of Honor medal created in 1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte, with the rank of knight to seven surviving Air America Dien Bien Phu pilots on behalf of the President of the Republic of France. This is France's highest military award. The
ambassador's remarks can be read in full at the embassy's web site. Allen Pope spoke on behalf of the Air America pilots, and said, in part:

"I remember those valiant members of our organization who could not be with us today. May they rest well in the true knowledge that their efforts in the final analysis of history was never in vain."

From left to right: Ambassador of France Jean-David Levitte, then former Air America pilots Allen Pope, Monson Shaver, Douglas Price, Roy Watts, Nelson Duke, Willis Hobbs. Robert Brongersma also received the award, but could not be present. Presented by the Embassy of France in the United States.

Samantha Young reported on the event on February 25, 2005 for the Las Vegas
Review-Journal. Steve Maxner of the Vietnam Archive, Texas Tech University, has posted a video of the full award ceremony on the web and we have taken video grabs of each man to present.

Allen Pope, 1960, Indonesia, shot down flying a B-26 bomber in Indonesia in May 1958, flying for the CIA in support of Indonesian rebels and against the Government of Indonesia. Sentenced to death, the US brokered his release, but he spent four years in an Indonesian jail.

Allen Pope, 76, of Miami, Florida, a Korean War veteran who spent four years in a communist prison. Mr. Pope flew co-pilot with Steve Kusak as they led McGovern and Buford to Muang Het and observed the crash. "They (French soldiers at Dien Bien Phu) never raised the white flag. There were men without hands, men without legs, men without feet, men that were blinded. They were ching hell...When Dien Bien Phu fell, they were just about out of ammunition. They were physically pounded for 55 days and even not wounded were dying at their guns from fatigue."

Monson William Shaver, 84, of St. george, Utah, a World War II veteran who spent 30 years in Asia. "I flew in low, dropped my load, and then got the hell out of there...We were supposed to fly in at 1,000 feet, but I would go in at 800 (feet). I figured if they were going to shoot, then I would fly down low and be gone before they even saw me....All I know is when I went over it looked like the Fourth of July celebration down there," he said. "The ground fire was heavy enough it looked like sparklers."

1940s photo of Douglas Price, Naval Aviator.

Douglas Price, 80, of San Diego, California, a former U.S. Navy "Bearcat" pilot who flew 39 missions for the French. "Every day [the assignment] got a little bit more dangerous because they got more guns in action -- they got a little bit more accurate....I wanted to fly and anything that came with it...We were concerned about communism. We were doing our bit to help...The CIA is part of our government. And I've never been anti-government." Airborne while McGoon was going down, he radioed, "Bail! Bail!" They didn't.

Roy Furniss Watts, 80, of Callao, Virginia, a World War II veteran known for navigating planes through bad weather.

Roland Nelson Duke, 81, of Rockport, Texas, a U.S. pilot who few during the Berlin airlifts

William Preston Hobbs, 82, of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, a US Navy WWII veteran, who as a commercial pilot had his plane hijacked.

Unable to attend:

Robert Brongersma, 81, of Las Vegas, Nevada, a Marine Corps fighter pilot, a Fighter pilot for the Flying Tigers over China. The award was received on behalf of Brongersma by Jame Glerum of McLean Virginia. Glerum said this of Brongersma: "He was a great pilot. He did so much for his country, going far beyond what civil aviation pilots did."

These men range in age from 76 to 84. God bless them all.

In his
remarks at the presentation, Ambassador Levitte talked about James McGovern and Wallace Buford, both of whom were represented by a family member at this ceremony.

It is worth noting that Air America crews continued flying C-119 missions in Vietnam through at least October 1954. They are credited with dropping supplies to isolated French outposts and evacuating nearly 20,000 Vietnamese from the North to the South.

In closing, legend has it that along the China coast, they sang:

"His 300 pounds shake the earth when he walks,
Yet he soars with the grace of a loon;
The legend makes claim that this beast from the East
Is known as Earthquake McGoon."

Here are some additional photos of the All-American legend.