Saturday, February 8, 2020

They found the Earthquake, Jim McGovern has come home

Legend has it that along the China coast, they sang:

"His 300 pounds shake the earth when he walks,
Yet he soars with the grace of a loon;
The legend makes claim that this beast from the East
Is known as Earthquake McGoon."  
James Bernard McGovern, Jr.  was born in February 4, 1922 in Elizabeth, New Jersey. He became a WWII Army Air Force (AAF) fighter pilot in the China-Burma-India (CBI) Theater of War and then flew C-119 transports for CIA's Air America supporting the French in their Indochina War.

McGovern’s aircraft was hit by Vietnamese ground fire on the ground and crashed in neighboring Laos. McGovern and his co-pilot were killed, the first American aviators to die in combat in Vietnam. All together, there were six sounds aboard. Only two survived the crash, and one of those died a few days later.

McGovern’s  life-long ambition was to be a pilot. He spent much time watching airplanes and built many model airplanes starting as a young boy. He enlisted in the aviation cadet program in early 1942, at the beginning of WWII.  He completed all his flight and Army training in the US and was commissioned a second lieutenant, Army Air Force (AAF).

Following his training in the US, 2nd Lt McGovern, AAF, was sent to the CBI, arriving in India in the fall 1944. He was assigned to the 118th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron (TRS) in China.

McGovern became known as "Earthquake McGoon." A squadron member gave him that name.

Wayne Johnson, also a squadron member, told this story about McGovern in 2007:

"A recent news article reported that he (McGovern) was named Earthquake McGoon by a Chinese saloon keeper. That reporter didn't have his facts straight. He was actually named that by Phil Dickey, the armament officer in our squadron, the 118th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron (TRS). Dickey loved the comic strip and would draw characters from it. Since Jim looked a bit like the Al Capp's Li'l Abner comic strip character and made a try at making moonshine, the nickname fit him well. But McGovern was more than a comic strip character.”

Johnson estimated that McGovern was "assigned" the nickname in either late December 1944 or early January 1945.

McGovern was a big fellow and apparently carried a bit of a pot belly while in China. Wayne Johnson described him this way:

"McGovern's unshapely size, black bushy eyebrows, black beard (even after a fresh shave), his fondness for Jing Bao Juice, and his attempts to make his own moonshine, made him a natural as 'Earthquake McGoon.’

"But McGovern was more than a comic strip character. He was a superb fighter pilot. He was the type of pilot that became part of the airplane. A careful pilot and one that one felt safe to fly with.”

McGovern flew for the 118 TRS until the end of WWII, mostly over China. The 23rd Fighter Group, to which the 118 TRS was assigned, returned to the US and was inactivated in 1945.

McGovern was then transferred to a AAF troop carrier squadron located in Beijing. He was discharged in 1947. Right at about this same time, 1946, Whiting Willauer, an attorney, and retired AAF General Claire Chennault set up a Chinese national airline, China Air Transport (CAT). Its job was to serve the country's transport needs. Chennault recruited McGovern to fly for CAT.

The history behind Chennault, left in the photo, and the Nationalist Chinese led by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek is fascinating. I commend it to you. Mrs. Chiang Kai-shek, seated in the middle, was in charge of the Chinese air force and tasked Chennault to build one. I will add that Chennault was an avid flier, a founder of the famous “Flying Tigers” opporsing the Japanese in China in WWII, very pro China and stridently anti-communist. Furthermore, he was very close to Chiang Kai-shek and his wife.

CAT became deeply involved in the Chinese civil war between Mao Tse-tung and his communist Chinese and Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist Chinese.

On one of his CAT flights,  McGovern was forced to land in China and was captured by the communists. He was a prisoner for six months and released. The above photo shows him shortly after his release. He too was very anti-communist.

Legend has it that his communist guards were tired of how much he ate and his sense of humor. Life, in its article, "The End for Earthquake" published in the May 24, 1954 edition, said this:

"When he crash landed a plane in Red territory and was released after six months in custody, his comrades joked that the Reds let him go because they couldn't afford to feed him."

Significant events in Asia following WWII happened in rapid succession
  • In 1945 President Harry Truman turned against Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh, a former ally against the Japanese. Truman gave France his approval to resume colonial authority over Indochina. Ho declared Vietnam’s independence. In 1946 the French tried to force their way back, the French Indochina War began, and the US provided airlift support.
  • The communists took over China in 1949, established the People's Republic of China (PRC), and Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist government moved to the island of Formosa (now Taiwan) to run what was left of the Republic of China (ROC).
  • In 1950, the Korean War kicked off. One result was CIA acquired CAT and reorganized it as CAT Inc. On the surface, it was a private airline. But in truth it was a CIA airline. The corporate-government structural actions are too confusing to summarize here. CAT Inc. became known as Air America.
Let’s focus on the French Indochina War and CIA’s CAT, Inc., Air America.

As you'll see, it's a wonder the French entered this war against Ho Chi Minh at all. About all they had was ground forces, and they were rehabilitated after the end of WWII.

The French were short on transport aircraft. They took every avenue available to get help from the US. Both the CIA and the USAF provided this support to the French.

Jim McGovern started flying C-47 flights for Air America out of Saigon in early 1951. The photo shows a CAT C-47. He used a single C-47 in Saigon to do this job. His mission was to fly supplies within Vietnam for the US Special Technical and Economic Mission, a mission to effect agrarian reform. As the days and weeks passed, however, he found himself flying more and more in support of French military forces against the Vietnamese.

His were civilian flights run by CIA. But the newly formed US Air Force (USAF) was involved in the transport business as well, and was also supporting Air America and French flight operations.

In November 1951, the US provided the French with an initial supply of 20 C-47s which would build to 116 by war's end in 1954. USAF crews delivered the aircraft, usually flying them in to Nha Trang, Vietnam from Clark Air Base, Philippines. These would be for tactical airlift. But France lacked the pilots and maintenance crews.

Since the French were short on pilots, the US turned to Air America, which by 1952, was owned by the CIA lock, stock and barrel. Air America pilots began flying a heavy schedule of transport missions for the French. These were combat missions flown by American civilians in every sense of the word. They routinely flew into combat zones, dropped supplies to the French, and dropped French paratroopers. They took their share of hostile fire.

The French also lacked the strategic airlift needed to get their troops form France to Vietnam. In April 1952 the USAF's 62nd Troop Carrier Wing (TCW) flew French forces from France to Indochina aboard C-124 Globemaster IIs. The photo shows French troops boarding a USAF C-124.

Since the French could not maintain their tactical transports, they asked for US help. President Truman sent in the first US military forces to go to Vietnam, a group of 30 Air Force maintenance troops.

The C-47s proved to be insufficient in number, so the French asked the US for C-119s, at the time, the USAF's workhorse. The US was fighting in Korea, but by late 1952-1953 the ground war there  was in a stalemate, and C-119s became available.

After the usually political dancing, President Eisenhower decided to approve sending C-119s to Indochina. However, they would have to be flown by US trained French pilots and Air America pilots, not USAF crews. The Air America pilots were able to transition to the C-119 far more quickly than French pilots could be trained, so Air America bore most of the load. The aircraft were American owned, bore French markings but retained USAF serial numbers.

The USAF 483rd Troop Carrier Group (TCG), just formed at Ashiya AB, Japan on January 1, 1953, trained French pilots and mechanics on temporary duty in Hanoi as part of "Operation Swivel Chair."

Allen Cates, a former Air America pilot and author of Honor Denied: The truth about Air America and the CIA, has provided me some advice that seems to apply best here. He said:

“The CIA was involved but so was the AF. For this operation Air America pilots interacted more with the USAF than they did with the CIA. I have a copy of one of the contracts. It clearly states the French Republic controlled the assets. The planes were loaded with ammo by Air Force personnel and fueled and maintained by Air Force personnel.


During the period 1953 until the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954, there was a tremendous amount of activity between Washington and Paris over what the US may or may not do to help. This period merits further study. Believe it or not, there were some who wanted to employ B-29 heavy bombers against the Viet Minh to include a nuclear attack.

For my part, I'll stick to events relevant to the Earthquake.

The US agreed to send the C-119 was because the French said they needed to airdrop heavy equipment, and the C-47s could not handle that job. USAF C-124 aircraft were used to medevac wounded French soldiers from Vietnam to Japan.

In April 1953, Air America pilots went to the Philippines, checked out on the C-119, and delivered the first six aircraft to Gia Lam Airfield outside Hanoi on May 4, 1953. This was called "Operation Squaw." Some 18 USAF mechanics were sent along with them.

Commanders from the USAF 315th Air Division at Tachikawa Air Base, Japan did not like these operations. As a result, the C-119s delivered to Vietnam were sent back to the Philippines where they could be called on to return to Vietnam as required. They left Vietnam on or after July 16, 1953.

 Dien Bien Phu from the air

Later in 1953, the French command decided to set up an air base deep in Vietnam, close to Laos, in order to enable improved operations against the Viet Minh operating from Laos. This base was in a valley, on a fairly large plain, surrounded by mountains, and was known as Dien Bien Phu. 

This map shows the French disposition at Dien Bien Phu by March 1954. You can compare it to the aerial view above it.

To get things started, more than 60 C-47s air dropped two paratroop battalions into the area in November 1953. Reinforcements were air dropped in later in the day.

The C-119s were initially needed to bring in the heavy equipment required to build the base and air strip. The USAF's 483rd Troop Carrier Group (TCG) out of Japan made about 22 C-119s available at their base in Japan for duty in Vietnam as needed. Twenty-four Air America pilots flew 12 of these, all C-119C models. I understand from the French Embassy in Washington that the total number of Air America pilots to fly over Dien Bien Phu was 37. This was called "Operation Squaw II."

The C-7 Caribou Association's "History of the 483rd" talks to Project "Iron Age" wherein USAF crews would fly a few C-119s into Cat Bi, Vietnam for loan periods of about five days. The Caribous wrote this:

"483rd Wing Operation Plan 4-53 sent aircraft to Air America Cat Bi, Vietnam (Haiphong area of Vietnam)  for loan periods of around five days. USAF crews were to ferry the planes to Indochina and return them to Japan as soon as specified airdrops were completed. General (Chester) Macarty, (in charge of airlift operations supporting the French), was afraid the French would misuse the planes for 'champagne and ice runs' and this short-term plan was designed to prevent such misuse. The planes would have French markings but the 483rd personnel would wear their own uniforms while performing maintenance and technical supply functions."

A USAF maintenance detachment was kept at Cat Bi to keep the 119s flying. The detachment consisted of about 121 men. They served on temporary duty at Cat Bi for about 60 days. They often had to fly aboard a 483rd aircraft to various bases in Laos to repair damaged C-119s forced to land in Laos and return them to base.

C-119s then started bringing in the heavy duty stuff, including barrels filled with napalm, in effect making the C-119 a bomber, a tactic employed during the Korean war. On occasion some USAF people were on some of these combat missions, against the prevailing rules.

Once the French got established, the Viet Minh set up shop zeroing in on targets at the base from the surrounding hills. The C-47s managed to land, but the C-119s usually had to drop their loads from the air. After a while, Viet Minh artillery was so plentiful and so persistent that all equipment and supplies had to be air dropped. Viet Minh capabilities in the area became so strong that the air transports came under heavy fire on approach and departure. French pilots could not handle the task of getting in and out, so the Air America guys took over most of the flights.

Sam McGowan, a well known and authoritative author, former USAF C-130 transport crew member, and a civilian pilot, has written a superb paper on combat airlift entitled, "Anything, Anywhere, Anytime," which includes some detailed history about the air transport support provided by the US to the French during the Indochina War between the French and Viet Minh. I commend this paper to you, and will draw some highlights from it.

McGowan wrote this about the Earthquake:

"The Air America pilots took a special interest in the Frenchmen on the ground, and often included special goodies they had bought with their own money with the supplies they dropped. When 'Earthquake' McGovern heard that the colonel in charge of the base had been promoted, he went out and bought the proper insignia and attached it to a bottle of champagne and dropped it into the camp. McGovern also took advantage of the flights to get rid of his unpaid bills - he ripped them up and tossed the pieces out the window of his Dollar Nineteen (119) as he came into 'The Slot' leading into the valley!" 

 Air America aircraft and pilots were hit by enemy fire on more than one occasion, as you can see here. McGowan wrote:

"Every mission over Dien Bien Phu was greeted by flak...On one of the drops the Air America chief pilot, Paul Holden was hit in the arm when his C-119 penetrated a wall of flak over the valley."

I’ll introduce you now to Wallace Buford. He was a USAF pilot in WWII, the Korean War, and then became an Air American pilot. 
He is the man standing next to his C-119 damaged by flak.

McGowan describes an Air America flight in which the Buford's aircraft took some fire. Paul Holden was his pilot:

"Holden ripped off his shirt and applied a tourniquet to his half-severed arm while the co-pilot, Wallace Buford, flew the airplane back to Cat Bi. When they landed, McGovern inspected the flak-riddled cockpit and remarked to Buford that 'Somebody must have been carrying a magnet.'" 

McGowan adds:

"A week later McGovern’s airplane was hit as he was pulling up after a drop. The C-119 pitched off onto one wing in the beginnings of a spin. As he was adding rudder to bring the huge transport out of the spin before it hit the ground, McGovern committed over his radio that 'I seem to be having a little trouble holding this thing.' On the way to Cat Bi he commented, 'Now I know what it’s like to ride a kangaroo.' When he landed, Buford came up and asked, 'Did you borrow my magnet?'”

Well, it looks like they might have been carrying a magnet on May 6, 1954. McGowan has written this:

"On May 6, 1954, McGovern and his co-pilot Wallace Buford flew in formation with five other C-119s, McGovern flying number two, aboard aircraft serial number 149."

Lt. Jean Arlaux, Republic of France, was aboard. This was Arlaux's first combat mission, and the first time he met McGovern. He reported:

"James McGovern, the pilot, creates an unforgettable impression on me right from the first meeting. On the airstrip of Cat Bi his figure is quite heavy. He wears carpet-slippers and a very loose Hawaiian-style shirt, colorful and flowery. He looks at me with a hearty, lovely smile and puts his arm around my shoulder. I am totally under the spell. I was not familiar with this sort of attitude, and discovered a new dimension in human relationships: friendship and informality, sincere kindness, cheerfulness and an unabated optimism in spite of the hardships and gravity of the situation. With McGovern nothing is to be worried about."

The French disposition at Dien Bien Phu, as of March 1954.

The French took up positions on a series of fortified hills. The southernmost, Isabelle, was dangerously isolated. The Viet Minh positioned their five divisions in the surrounding areas to the north and east. From these areas, the Viet Minh had a clear line of sight on the French fortifications and were able to accurately rain down artillery on the French positions.

McGovern piloted the C-119 with Buford as his co-pilot on May 6, 1954. McGovern’s target was Camp Isabelle, 5km south of the main base. He and Buford were to deliver about 12,000 lbs of supplies. Isabelle was in very bad shape. A massive artillery attack on March 30 enabled the Viet Minh to dig in and conduct trench warfare. By the end of April, the camp was out of supplies, surrounded, with no way out. As history would have it, McGovern's final mission would be on the last evening before the fall of Dien Bien Phu to the Viet Minh Communists.

Talking about the load of supplies they carried, Arlaux said this:

"Each pallet has been carefully conveyed into the rear of the plane, bundles are hooked to a ring fixed on a line, strapped with parachutes, ready to be released by a mechanical device when altitude and precise goal is properly assessed. This is difficult in the present situation, because the massive Viet Minh presence is everywhere, fighting openly or from secret hideouts, shelling from trenches, caves and hill-posted encampments taken from the French. Most of the parachuted packets missed the goal and fall into the enemy lines or get lost." 

Steve Kusak and Al Pope flew lead aboard C-119 serial 578. John Verdi flew third position with tail number 532. McGowan describes what happened:

"Kusak was leading the formation. As he was pulling up he looked back and saw the parachutes from McGovern’s load opening higher than normal. McGovern reported that he had been hit, so Kusak slowed to drop back beside the other C-119 to inspect the damage. He saw that the left wing leading edge was gone and the left engine was throwing oil. As he watched, another shell hit the right boom. The Flying Boxcar lurched and dropped off on a wing. Kusak told his friends to bail-out, but McGovern came back that he was going to try to nurse the crippled transport home. He had been shot down over China before, and had walked several hundred miles to freedom; he didn’t want to have to go through that again.

"Kusak watched as the shadow of the C-119 grew progressively larger. He knew that if they did not bail out soon, the airplane would be too low. He asked McGovern if he thought he could make it to Hanoi. 

"'Piece of cake,' came the reply. As the airplane dropped lower and lower, McGovern made one last radio transmission. 'Looks like this is it, son.' The left wingtip hit the side of a hill and the airplane began to cartwheel. It exploded as it hit the ground. The man was dead, but the legend of Earthquake McGoon would live on." 

Arlaux said the ground fire was heavy, with flak bursts everywhere. He positioned himself directly behind the two pilots, reporting that their altitude as they approached their drop zone (DZ) was 7,000 ft. He said this:

"Suddenly, before we can reach the DZ, near Isabelle, and adjust the bailing the cargo out at the right spot and time, the plane is under attack. The shell's explosions cover the engine noise of our own plane."

Arlaux echoes Kusak's description, saying the port engine was hit by the first shell, a 37mm, the oil conduit was broken, and the oil was flowing out. The second 37mm hit the (horizontal) stabilizer, "cutting it off right in its middle." As all this was going on, the three bailers kicked out the pallets.

Arlaux said McGovern immediately added power to his starboard engine, looked for an exit path, and got the craft over a 7,000 ft ridge. He then followed the Sang Ma river valley to the southeast, then turned south to the Laotian border. 

McGovern was able to nurse his airplane about 75 miles to an abandoned and remote airstrip at near Muong Het, Laos. The Air America Association has said:

"Guided by Steve Kusak and Al Pope in the lead aircraft, McGovern and Buford struggled for 40 minutes to keep their aircraft aloft long enough to attempt an emergency landing at a remote emergency landing strip near Muong Het in neighboring Laos. Tragically, just a few hundred yards short of their destination, a wing tip clipped a tree. The aircraft cart wheeled, broke in half and burned. A young French Army officer, Lieutenant Jean Arlaux, and a Malay paratrooper were the sole survivors of the crash landing. The paratrooper later died from wounds he sustained. Two other French paratroopers, Bataille and Rescorio, also perished in the crash."

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. This is an actual photo of the plane hitting the ground. Both McGovern, 32, and Buford, 28, were killed, the first American aviators to die in combat in Vietnam. This was the only C-119 lost over Dien Bien Phu.

There were four French servicemen on board, Bataille, Rescouriou, Moussa (a Malay), all seasoned paratroopers working this flight as bailers, and Lt. Jean Arlaux, flying as an advisor. Moussa and Jean Arlaux survived the crash. Arlaux said they were unconscious right after the crash and came to aboard a canoe as prisoners of Laotian soldiers. Moussa was badly hurt and died his injuries several days later. 

Lt. Arlaux was declared MIA on May 13. His pregnant wife was not told, and his name was not included in enemy announcements. A prisoner release began in September, but Arlaux would not be released until October 13, part of the last batch. He would get home in mid-December.

The outpost fell the next day to the Viet Minh. Some 8,000 French soldiers surrendered. About half would die during captivity.

Air America crews continued flying C-119 missions in Vietnam through at least October 1954. They are credited with dropping supplies to isolated French outposts and evacuating nearly 20,000 Vietnamese from the North to the South.

I’d like to talk a moment about where the Earthquake's remains were found, Muang Het,  located in the northern section of Houaphanh Province, about at the tip of the blue arrow. The Pathet Lao allies of the Viet Minh had many of their operational and recruiting roots in this province. In 1953.

In 1997, an American MIA team looking for something else found a C-119 propeller near Muang Het. 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.

I want to show you a wonderful photography taken by Bob Bourlier of McGovern's funeral and internment at Arlington National Cemetery.

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.

In closing,  here are some photos of the Earthquake ins his heyday with Air America.