VIETNAM & LAOS
May 4, 1954
Dien Bien Phu
CIVIL AIR TRANS
Wallace A Buford
James 'Earthquake McGoon' McGovern died in Laos plane crash in 1954|
He was the classic soldier of fortune -- an ex-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 the "Li'l Abner" comic strip.
Now, 48 years after his cargo plane was shot down during a desperate, last-ditch supply mission over Dien Bien Phu, a U.S. military team is seeking to recover the bodies of James B. McGovern, alias "McGoon," and his copilot, Wallace A. Buford.
Between 1945 and 1959 other Americans died in the fight against communism in Indochina, though some were only recently recognized as combat deaths. On May 6, 1954, James B. McGovern and his co-pilot, Wallace A. Buford, went down in southern Laos with their Fairchild C-119 "Flying Boxcar" after the aircraft was hit by groundfire over northern Vietnam.
McGovern, a World War II fighter ace, had served in the Fourteenth Air Force in China under the leadership of the legendary Maj. Gen. Claire Chennault, the founder of the Flying Tigers. At the end of the war, Chennault retired from the Army Air Forces and remained in China. He founded a civilian airline known as Civil Air Transport (CAT), which supported Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist government during the Chinese Civil War. When Chiang and his government evacuated the mainland for Taiwan in 1949, they were mostly airlifted out by CAT.
Many of CAT's pilots had flown for Chennault during World War II, including McGovern -- a larger-than-life figure who weighed in at 260 pounds and preferred the roomier cockpit of the C-119 over the more cramped fighters. Hard-living and hard-drinking, he was nicknamed "Earthquake McGoon" after a character in the popular comic strip Li'l Abner. Once during the Chinese Civil War, McGovern ran out of fuel, made an emergency night landing on a dry riverbed and was captured by Chinese Communist forces. Six months later he returned to CAT, having talked his way out of captivity.
On the day McGovern and Buford were shot down, the two, along with their French flight engineer and two cargo handlers -- a Frenchman and a Thai -- had been attempting to deliver an artillery piece rigged for airdrop to the beleaguered French garrison at Dien Bien Phu, when they took multiple hits from anti-aircraft rounds. With one engine on fire, McGovern turned toward Laos, shadowed by another CAT C-119. After covering 75 miles and approaching 4,000-foot mountains, he radioed the trailing pilot for help in finding level ground to land. After a last radio transmission, his C-119 plowed into a Laotian hillside. The two pilots and the flight engineer were killed instantly, but the two cargo handlers were thrown clear.
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