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Remains of 'Earthquake McGoon' sought after 48 years
Published Nov. 24, 2002
He was the classic soldier of fortune -- a World War II fighter ace with nine enemy aircraft to his credit, a hard-living, 260-pound bon vivant, known in Asia's bars and byways as Earthquake McGoon, after a character in a comic strip.
Now, 48 years after his cargo plane was shot down on a desperate, last-ditch supply mission over Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam, a U.S. military team is seeking to recover the bodies of James B. McGovern, alias McGoon, and his copilot, Wallace A. Buford.
"Looks like this is it, son," was McGovern's last radio message before his crippled C-119 Flying Boxcar cartwheeled into a Laos hillside in 1954. The crash killed McGovern, 32, Buford, 28, and a French crewman. Two cargo handlers -- a Frenchman and a Thai -- were thrown clear and survived.
The next day, Ho Chi Minh's Vietminh revolutionary forces overran the last French strong points at Dien Bien Phu, ending a siege that had captured world headlines for nearly three months.
McGovern, Buford and Life magazine photographer Robert Capa -- killed later that month -- were the only Americans known to have died in the conflict that doomed French colonialism in Indochina -- as the area was then widely called -- and set the stage for Vietnam's "American war" a decade later.
The death of swashbuckling Earthquake McGoon was big news in 1954, when his grinning face was splashed across newspapers and magazines. Yet most details remained shrouded for decades in Cold War secrecy -- especially the fact that the pilots' airline, Civil Air Transport (CAT), was owned by the Central Intelligence Agency.
But this month, after numerous delays, a 10-member team from the Hawaii-based Joint Task Force-Full Accounting, assisted by Laotian officials and hired workers, began excavating the site of three suspected graves near the Laotian village of Ban Sot.
No human remains yet
Any remains found will go to the Army's Central Identification Laboratory Hawaii for forensic study and identification -- a process that could take months. The lab directs the task force's search operations, providing experts to its field teams.
The Laos search so far has yielded only bits of wreckage and flight-suit remnants, U.S. officials said.
Pho Sai, a Laotian Foreign Ministry official for U.S. affairs, said the chances of finding human remains appear slim after so many years.
The Americans' supporting role at Dien Bien Phu was "never a security issue," even before the widely publicized crash, said Felix Smith, a retired CAT pilot and friend of McGovern. "The only factor that was secret was that the CIA owned CAT -- lock, stock and barrel."
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," Smith said.
By the time the French report was discovered by a historian years later, some family members had died or moved.
The U.S. State Department and the Vietnamese government declined to comment. A CIA spokesman said he could not immediately comment.
Decades of secrecy
Diplomatic agreements in 1992 enabled the United States finally to begin searching in earnest for about 2,000 Americans still missing in Indochina. By that time, the CIA had begun declassifying some files from the 1950s.
In a 1999 interview, McGovern's brother John, of Hawley, Pa., called it "ridiculous . . . a joke" that secrecy had been maintained for so many years.
The McGoon case came to light again in October 1997, when a Joint Task Force team investigating an unrelated crash near Ban Sot saw an old C-119 propeller in the village. It was assumed to be French, until William Forsyth, the agency's top researcher, heard about McGoon from a former pilot and dug out old news clippings about the crash.
A 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 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 CIA Director George Tenet to back the effort.
With Case 3036 given new priority, task force investigators revisited Ban Sot, where last July they interviewed four witnesses to the 1954 crash and three who pointed out burial sites.
Phimpha, a 65-year-old 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."
Days later he noticed fresh grave mounds near a road, Phimpha said. His wife, Thok, 67, recalled that as a girl she "always ran past that location because of the ghosts thought to be there."
John McGovern, a sportswriter and publicist who died last December, said in the 1999 interview that his older brother had become hooked on aviation as a boy in Elizabeth, N.J.
"I didn't know what I wanted to be, but all he ever talked about was becoming a pilot," he said.
Arriving in China in 1944, James McGovern joined the 14th Air Force's "Tiger Shark" squadron, descended from the famed Flying Tigers volunteer group. He was credited with shooting down four Japanese Zero fighters and destroying five on the ground, Smith said.
At war's end in 1945, Maj. Gen. 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.
Under contract to Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist regime, CAT flew civilian and military missions during China's civil war and evacuated thousands of refugees to Taiwan before the Communist victory in 1949.
At 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 in China dubbed him Earthquake McGoon, after a hulking hillbilly 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 said.
Smith, who once shared a house with McGovern, said he was "a real big-hearted guy," but not the "wild man" some reports implied. "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 McGoon legend was assured by an episode in which he ran out of fuel, made an emergency night landing in a riverbed and was captured by Chinese Communist troops.
When McGovern turned up safe six months later, other pilots joked that his captors "got tired of feeding him." But Smith said McGovern had argued his way out. "He told them, 'You keep saying you're going to release me but you haven't, so I don't believe anything you say. You're liars.' Then they let him go."
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.
In 1953, France asked the administration of President Dwight Eisenhower for U.S. help in fighting a Communist rebellion in colonial Indochina. Soon, CAT was there, flying supply missions with French insignia painted over the company logo.
Wally Buford, who had flown B-24 bombers during World War II and C-119s in Korea, was studying for an engineering degree in 1953 when he saw a notice that the government was seeking experienced C-119 pilots, and he signed up.
"He wanted to fly," recalls his brother, Roger Buford, a retired engineer in Kansas City, Kan.
A year later, McGovern and Buford were among two dozen Americans who earned as much as $3,000 a month -- big money in those days -- air-dropping supplies to the besieged French garrison at Dien Bien Phu.
On May 6, 1954, their Flying Boxcar, carrying a parachute-rigged artillery piece, was riddled by antiaircraft fire as it neared the tiny drop zone. "I've got a direct hit," other pilots heard McGoon say.
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 then heard McGovern's last transmission, apparently moments before he crashed.
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