Earthquake's Final Flight

Art Details

James McGovern was flying a Civil Air Transport aircraft to deliver supplies to French forces in northern Indochina when he was shot down by Communist anti-aircraft fire. This painting is part of CIA’s Intelligence Art Gallery.

by Jeffrey W. Bass

Oil on Canvas, 2006

Donated by the Fairchild Corporation

This painting commemorates air operations of Civil Air Transport (CAT, an Agency proprietary) and its CIA contract pilots in support of French forces at Dien Bien Phu during the final days of the conflict between the French and Viet Minh in 1954. In Fairchild C-119s with US Air Force markings hurriedly painted over with French Air Force roundels, 37 CAT pilots volunteered to fly supplies from the French airbase at Haiphong to the battlefield near Vietnam’s border with Laos.

In a concentrated operation to resupply the beleaguered French forces, the pilots and crews made 682 airdrops between 13 March and 6 May 1954, flying through murderous antiaircraft fire that ringed the valley at Dien Bien Phu.  On 6 May, the day before the Viet Minh overran the French fortifications, antiaircraft flak hit an engine and control surfaces of the C-119 flown by legendary CAT pilot James McGovern (nicknamed “Earthquake McGoon”) and copilot Wallace Buford, who struggled gallantly to stay airborne.  The plane limped over the border into Laos and crashed, killing McGovern and Buford – the first two Americans to die in the early days of a conflict later to be known as the Vietnam War- and two French paratroopers.

The painting depicts McGovern’s C-119 shortly after a flak burst has disabled its port engine over the drop zone at “Isabelle,” an outpost of the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu.  After the shell impact, oil streams out of the engine nacelle, causing the engine to seize and its propeller to become frozen at operational pitch in a cross position.  Having ejected the plane’s cargo over Isabelle, the cargo kickers sit in the rear opening of the fuselage, resigned to their fate.

The crash site was located in 2002, and DNA tests in 2006 confirmed the recovered remains were McGovern’s. He was buried with honors at Arlington National Cemetery on 24 May 2007.  Pieces of his valiant C-119 are now in the CIA Museum collection.

When the painting was unveiled at his residence in 2005, French Ambassador Jean-David Levitte presented the French Republic’s highest award (the Légion d’Honneur) to five of the six surviving CAT pilots for their heroic performance in the epic battle that marked the end of French colonial rule in Indochina.

Art Specs

75.8 cm x 107 cm

(H x W)

Learn More

CIA Air Operations in Laos, 1955-1974: Supporting the “Secret War”

Recollections of a Case Officer in Laos, 1962-1964