Talking Proud Archives --- Military

They found the Earthquake, Jim McGovern has come home

By Ed Marek, editor

November 6, 2006, updated significantly on December 16, 2008 to correct major errors made describing his WWII service.


The remains of James B. McGovern, better known in air legend as "Earthquake McGoon," were found in Laos and positively identified. McGovern was a WWII pilot with the 23rd Fighter Group "Flying Tigers," and a Vietnam-era transport pilot with the Civil Air Transport run by the CIA. He was among those who air-dropped supplies to French forces trapped at Dien Bien Phu. On May 6, 1954, the day before Dien Bien Phu would fall, McGovern's C-119 was hit in the port engine and the horizontal stabilizer. He babied her for 75 miles into Laos before he crashed, about one-half mile short of an abandoned airstrip. James B. McGovern, Jr. is an American hero.
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Editor's note: When I first did this story about Jim McGovern in October and November 2006, the sources I used all said Lt. James B. McGovern, Jr. first went to China in 1944, assigned to the 75th Fighter Squadron (FS) "Tiger Sharks," 23rd Fighter Group (FG), 14th AAF, flying the P-40 Warhawk. Several of these accounts said he shot down four Japanese fighters in aerial combat and destroyed five more on the ground. Nearly all summaries I saw of McGovern's early days in the AAF tell this story. Since the time I first published the story, Bob Bourlier alerted me that while it is possible that McGovern flew P-40s with the 75th, for a fact he was assigned to the 118th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron (TRS) "Black Lightnings" of the 23rd FG, flying the P-51 Mustang. I followed up on this and have confirmed Bob is right. Once he tipped me, I found I would have to re-accomplish the section describing his WWII experiences.

Contrary to much that has been published about McGovern's WWII days, he was not initially assigned to the 75th FS. Furthermore, he had two aerial victories and two ground victories, not four air and five ground. Finally, his nickname "Earthquake McGoon" did not originate with a saloon owner in China as has been so widely reported.

I feel confident about the information I am about to review. Much of it comes from USAF documents, scholarly research done by experts in the field, squadron histories, mission reports, and men close to the squadron to which he was assigned.
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The US Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) in Hawaii has positively identified the recovered remains of James B. McGovern, Jr. , WWII fighter pilot, and Vietnam War CIA pilot flying for Civil Air Transport (CAT). McGovern is more widely known as "Earthquake McGoon." He is one of the first two Americans killed in combat in the Vietnam-Laos Wars.


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

Piloting a C-119 "Flying Boxcar" cargo aircraft for CIA in support of the besieged French garrison at Dien Bien Phu on May 6, 1954, his aircraft was struck by ground fire. McGovern babied it for about 75 miles but finally crashed into a hillside in Laos, about one-half mile short of an old abandoned runway. As an aside, I bought the print of "Earthquake's Final Flight" by Jeff Bass, and have it hanging proudly in my office. It holds great meaning for me.

In 1997, an American MIA team looking for something else found a C-119 propeller in Laos. We have confirmed with JPAC that his remains were found at Muang Het, Laos.

These two graphics show Muang Het, also known as Muang Et.


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


This is a 2006 Digital Globe image of the area around Muang Het (Muang-Et), Laos. Presented by fallingrain.com

After finding the propeller, a JPAC photo analyst then spotted possible graves in aerial photography. An excavation team went to the site in 2002 and uncovered remains in an unmarked grave. Those were sent to Hawaii. JPAC forensic specialists employed nuclear DNA technologies using DNA from a brother and positively identified McGovern on September 11, 2006. This is only the second time this method this has been done. His family was told in late September 2006. His co-pilot, William Buford of Ogden, Utah, a former WWII bomber pilot, and two French crewmen were also lost and have not been found. One French officer and a French cargo handler, a Malay, managed to survive the crash. The cargo handler died a few days later.


John McGovern, who died in 2001, looks at a picture of his brother, James, in a file photo from 1998. Photo credit: Home News Tribune, 1998.


James B. McGovern III of Lacey, nephew of the hero pilot, poses with a painting of his uncle's C-119. Photo credit: Peter Ackerman,. Presented by Asbury Park Press

As an editorial aside, we always find it remarkable that our JPAC POW/MIA people are able to find these needles in 10,000 haystacks. God bless them all.

Before pressing on, I want to alert you to some wonderful photography taken by Bob Bourlier of
McGovern's funeral and internment at Arlington National Cemetery. I'll show one of these.


The woman receiving the flag is McGovern's niece, Therece Johnston. At the reception area prior to the funeral were pilots from the 118th TRS but also about a dozen men from Air America with whom McGovern worked in the late 1940s and early 1950s. All together about 50 people showed up. His ashes were placed in the Columbarium, court #8.

I'll do the story in sections:

Lt. James B. McGovern, Jr., fighter pilot, 118th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron, 23rd Fighter Group, 14th Army Air Force, China, 1944-1945

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