On May 6, 1954, legendary pilot James B. “Earthquake McGoon” McGovern met his fate. An aircraft belonging to Civil Air Transport, a CIA proprietary airline, flown by McGovern was shot down by Communist anti-aircraft fire. McGovern and his flight officer, Wallace “Wally” Buford, were flying supplies to French forces at Dien Bien Phu in northern Indochina. McGovern, Buford, and four others aboard were killed in the crash. They were among the first American fatalities in the conflict in Indochina that would last until 1975.
Several conflicting accounts of Earthquake's last flight exist and the exact details are still not fully known and exist amid much myth and legend.
The Creation of Civil Air Transport
After World War II, it became apparent that war-ravaged Nationalist China would need help getting back on its feet. Maj. Gen. Claire Chennault and Whiting Willauer decided to form an airline that would support the Chinese Nationalist military during the civil war and haul relief supplies to those in need.
Chennault was known for commanding the American Volunteer Group, or “Flying Tigers,” who provided air support to the Republic of China during their war against Imperial Japan before American entry into World War II. Chennault went on to command the 14th U.S. Army Air Force in China after the United States entered the war.” When forming his postwar airline, Chennault recruited former “14th Air Force pilots like McGovern.
The China National Relief and Rehabilitation Air Transport was established on October 25, 1946. It literally served as the air transport arm of Chiang Kai-shek’s forces between 1946 and 1949 and ferried troops all over China. They also flew supplies and ammunition to aid the Nationalists.
When the Nationalists were defeated in 1949, CAT evacuated thousands of Chinese to Taiwan.
In 1950, the CIA bought CAT. The name of the airline changed to Civil Air Transport (CAT) in January 1959. Under the CIA, CAT was a commercial freight and passenger airline—indistinguishable from Pan American Airways, TWA, or any other international carrier at the time. However, the Agency used the airline in clandestine missions through Asia. When American involvement in Southeast Asia increased in the late 1950s, CAT was renamed Air America.
CAT accomplished some impressive feats during the First Indochina War. It was during the Battle of Dien Bien Phu that two men—McGovern and Buford—were the first Americans casualties of what would become known as the Vietnam War.
James B. McGovern Jr.
McGovern was born on February 4, 1922 in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Family members recall that all he talked about while growing up was becoming a pilot. McGovern graduated from high school in 1940 and worked at the Wright Aircraft Engineering Company in Patterson, New Jersey, before enlisting in the U.S. Army Air Corps in May 1942. He arrived in China in November 1944 and joined the 14th Air Force, 23rd Fighter Group, 75th "Tiger Shark" squadron—the former Flying Tigers. McGovern was a successful fighter pilot with several enemy aircraft to his credit.
McGovern’s nickname—“Earthquake McGoon”—was inspired by a larger-than-life character in the comic strip “Li’l Abner.” The nickname suited McGovern because he was a large man—6 feet tall and 260 pounds—with a big personality.
McGovern’s flight officer, Wallace "Wally" Buford of Ogden, Utah, also had a notable flying record, having flown B-24 Liberator bombers during World War II and C-119s in the Korean War. Buford was the recipient of two Distinguished Flying Crosses and the Purple Heart.
While studying for an engineering degree in 1953, Buford saw a job notice that the government was seeking experienced C-119 pilots. One year later, he joined two dozen other American CAT pilots, providing air support to French forces in Indochina.
Dien Bien Phu
The Battle of Dien Bien Phu was the climatic battle of the First Indochina War (1946-1954) between French military forces and those of the Communist Viet Minh. Americans working for CAT played a crucial role in the last days of this battle.
In late 1953 the French created a major military base at Dien Bien Phu, located in a deep mountain basin in Tonkin Province in remote northwestern Vietnam. The base was intended to block Communist supply lines in neighboring Laos. It also would present a tempting target for Viet Minh attacks that the French could easily destroy with their superior firepower.
Instead, Viet Minh forces quickly isolated and besieged the French garrison scattered across five separate firebases in January 1954. By early April, the garrison had to rely entirely on air supply. Although President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff had considered—and then rejected—American military intervention in Indochina, they did agree to employ aircraft belonging to CAT to airdrop vital supplies.
The CAT flights, known as Operation Squaw I and Operation Squaw II, involved a dozen Fairchild C-119 cargo aircraft repainted in French Air Force colors. During the siege, 37 CAT pilots flew 682 missions out of the airbase at Cat Bi near Haiphong between March 13 and May 6, 1954.
It soon became evident that the weapons, munitions, and medicines flown to the garrison were falling into enemy hands outside the ever-shrinking perimeter. Nevertheless, many CAT pilots continued to fly, some making 40 or more runs to the base even as their aircraft encountered withering anti-aircraft fire.
The Final Flight
On the afternoon of May 6, 1954, six CAT C-119s departed Cat Bi airbase for Dien Bien Phu. One flown by McGovern and Buford carried desperately needed ammunition for paratroopers holding out at an encampment named Isabelle, the last of the five firebases in the valley still in French hands. The first aircraft in the CAT convoy safely dropped its load, but as McGovern approached the drop zone, the port engine sustained damage from a 37-mm anti-aircraft round. Soon after, a second hit damaged the horizontal stabilizer, severely impairing his ability to maintain flight.
Guided by the pilots in the lead aircraft, McGovern and Buford struggled for 40 minutes to keep their aircraft aloft on one engine—long enough to attempt an emergency landing at a remote landing strip 75 miles to the southwest in Laos. Just a few hundred yards short of the landing strip, however, a wing tip clipped a tree. The aircraft cart wheeled, broke in half, and burned. McGovern and Buford died in the crash along with two French paratroopers. One Malay paratrooper and a French officer, Second Lieutenant Jean Arlaux, were injured and captured by Lao soldiers. The Malay paratrooper died from his injuries, leaving Arlaux as the sole survivor.
The remaining French forces at Dien Bien Phu surrendered the next day after Viet Minh forces overran the Isabelle base.
Putting a Legend to Rest
McGovern’s death was publicized in newspapers and magazines at the time, but most details remained shrouded in secrecy for decades—especially the fact that CAT was an Agency proprietary. Although the May 24, 1954 edition of Life magazine carried an article entitled "The End for Earthquake" that described the shootdown, McGovern’s remains were not recovered for nearly 50 years.
In the late 1990s, a Department of Defense team investigating an unrelated crash noted an old C-119 propeller in a Laotian village. The team assumed the propeller was of French origin until they heard about McGovern and began to search for news clippings about the crash. Former CAT pilots soon launched a letter-writing campaign, lobbied Congress, former intelligence officials, and Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet to support a recovery effort.
Investigators revisited northern Laos and exhumed skeletal remains from an unmarked grave near the village of Ban Sot in December 2002. DNA testing in 2006 confirmed that the remains were those of McGovern.
On February 24, 2005, French Ambassador Jean-David Levitte posthumously awarded the Legion of Honor to McGovern, Buford, and surviving CAT pilots on behalf of France for their actions at Dien Bien Phu.
On May 24, 2007, Earthquake McGoon was interred in Arlington National Cemetery. Buford’s remains were never recovered.