Earthquake’s Final Flight
by Jeffrey W. Bass, Oil on Canvas, 2006
Donated by the Fairchild Corporation
This painting commemorates air operations of Civil Air Transport, an Agency proprietary, and its CIA contract pilots in support of French forces at Dien Bien Phu, Indochina, in 1954, during the final days of the conflict between the French and Viet Minh. 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 the border with Laos.
Between 13 March and 6 May 1954, the pilots and crews made 682 airdrops to the beleaguered French forces, flying through murderous antiaircraft fire from guns that ringed the valley at Dien Bien Phu. On 6 May, the day before the Viet Minh overran the French fortifications antiaircraft fire hit the C-119 flown by legendary CAT pilot James McGovern (nicknamed “Earthquake McGoon”) and co-pilot Wallace Buford. The pilots struggled to keep the plane airborne despite flak damage to the control surfaces and the port engine. The plane limped over the border into Laos and crashed, killing McGovern and Buford and two French paratroopers. The CAT pilots were thus among the first Americans to die in the Indochina conflict, which would eventually fully engage US military forces and end only in 1975.
The painting depicts McGovern’s C-119 shortly after it was hit by flak over the drop zone at “Isabelle,”an outpost of the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu.
The crash site was located in 2002, and in 2006 DNA testing confirmed that the remains recovered were McGovern’s. He was buried with honors at Arlington Cemetery on 24 May 2007. Pieces of his 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.