James B. McGovern, Jr. – Captain, United States Army Air Force

Central Intelligence Agency Operative

NEWS RELEASES from the United States Department of Defense
May 23, 2007

DoD Assists in Identification of Missing Vietnam-Era CIA Pilot

The Department of Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO) announced today that the remains of an American civilian pilot, missing in action from Vietnam while flying for Civil Air Transport, a proprietary of the CIA, have been identified and returned to his family for burial with full military honors.

He is James B. McGovern Jr. of Elizabeth, N.J.He will be buried tomorrow at Arlington National Cemetery near Washington, D.C.

On May 6, 1954, McGovern, along with his co-pilot, First Officer Wallace A. Buford, and four French servicemen, departed Haiphong, Vietnam, in their Civil Air Transport C-119 on what was to be the last supply drop to the besieged French forces at Camp Isabelle-the remaining French holdout in the battle of Dien Bien Phu.As the aircraft approached the drop zone, it was hit by anti-aircraft fire.The pilots attempted to fly southwest to the relative safety of Laos, but crashed along the Song [River] Ma in Houaphan Province.Only two of the Frenchmen survived and were taken prisoner by Lao forces.One of them died within a few days, and the other was released and returned to France a few months later.McGovern, Wallace and two of the French servicemen were not recovered.

Between 1997 and 1998, joint U.S.-Lao People’s Democratic Republic (L.P.D.R.) teams, led by the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), traveled to Houaphan Province two times to investigate the incident.They interviewed several Laotian citizens who recalled the crash.The citizens said that three of the crewmen who died in the impact had been buried near the crash site.When the team surveyed the site, they found small fragments of aircraft wreckage, but did not locate any grave sites.

In 2002, another joint U.S.-L.P.D.R. team excavated the site.They found crew-related equipment and aircraft wreckage, including an aircraft data plate dated 8-21-52, but found no human remains.A few months later, another team revisited the site and recovered human remains from an isolated burial.

Among other forensic identification tools and circumstantial evidence, scientists from JPAC and the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory also used dental comparisons and mitochondrial DNA in the identification of McGovern’s remains.

For additional information on the Defense Department’s mission to account for missing Americans, visit the DPMO Web site athttp://www.dtic.mil/dpmo/or call (703) 699-1169.

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 Major General 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.

Wednesday October 25, 2005
Family Feud Delays CIA Flier’s Funeral

A feud among relatives of the CIA pilot known as “Earthquake McGoon” _ one of the first two Americans killed in the Vietnam conflict _ has scuttled plans for burial in his native New Jersey this weekend, a nephew said Tuesday.

James B. McGovern III, of Forked River, New Jersey, said none of his four sisters would agree to give him legal status as pilot James B. McGovern Jr.’s primary next of kin. That would have allowed the body to be flown from Hawaii for a military-style funeral the nephew had planned for Saturday.

“They wouldn’t even take my phone calls,” he said.

Earthquake McGoon should be laid to rest in a cemetery in Somerset, New Jersey, where his younger brother, John – who is also McGovern III’s father – is buried, the nephew said. The pilot’s former flying colleagues in Asia during and after World War II are trying to arrange for a grave in Arlington National Cemetery.

McGovern III said it was “all out of my hands now.”

He said the CIA told him that if the family can’t settle the matter, the agency might take the matter to court.

The agency will help transfer the remains when the family’s wishes are known, said CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano. He believed the agency was not planning legal action.

A sister of McGovern III, Nancy Burlas, of Oxford Township, New Jersey, refused to discuss the matter. “I’m not getting involved in this,” she said by telephone.

The other sisters, who live in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, did not return telephone calls.

McGovern Jr., a 260-pound fighter plane and cargo pilot, was an accomplished World War II aviator who signed on with Civil Air Transport, the forerunner of the CIA’s “Air America” operation in southeast Asia. An American saloon owner in China dubbed him “Earthquake McGoon,” after a hulking hillbilly character in the comic strip “Li’l Abner.”

McGovern was killed at age 31 when his C-119 Flying Boxcar was shot down on a resupply mission for besieged French troops at Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam, on May 6, 1954. The crippled plane struggled 75 miles into northern Laos before crashing.

McGovern, who had no children, and co-pilot Wallace Buford, 28, were the first of nearly 60,000 Americans killed in combat in Indochina in the two decades before Saigon’s fall to communist troops in 1975.

Peter Miller, an anthropologist leading a search team from the Hawaii-based Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, discovered an unmarked grave at the village of Ban Sot in 2002. The skeletal remains, positively identified last month by forensic experts, will stay for now in the custody of the unit, which specializes in finding and identifying the remains of missing troops, a spokeswoman said.

Buford’s remains have not been found.

October 19, 2006

NEW YORK –More than half a century after he died in the flaming crash of a CIA-owned cargo plane and became one of the first two Americans to die in combat in Vietnam, a legendary soldier of fortune known as “Earthquake McGoon” is finally coming home.

The skeletal remains of James B. McGovern Jr., discovered in an unmarked grave in remote northern Laos in 2002, were positively identified on Sept. 11 by laboratory experts at the U.S. military’s Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command in Hawaii.

They will be flown back to the mainland next week for a military funeral in New Jersey on October 28, 2006, said McGovern’s nephew, James McGovern III, of Forked River, New Jersey.

“Bottom line, it’s closure for my family and a great feeling,” McGovern said.

Six feet and 260 pounds — huge for a fighter pilot — McGovern carved out a flying career during and after World War II that made him a legend in Asia. An American saloon owner in China dubbed him “Earthquake McGoon,” after a hulking hillbilly character in the comic strip “Li’l Abner.”

He died on May 6, 1954, when his C-119 Flying Boxcar cargo plane was hit by ground fire while parachuting a howitzer to the besieged French garrison at Dien Bien Phu. “Looks like this is it, son,” McGovern radioed another pilot as his crippled plane staggered 75 miles into Laos, where it cartwheeled into a hillside.

Killed along with “McGoon,” 31, were his co-pilot, Wallace Buford, 28, and a French crew chief. Two cargo handlers, a Frenchman and a Thai, were thrown clear and survived.

Ho Chi Minh’s communist forces captured Dien Bien Phu the next day, ending a 57-day siege that had captured the world’s attention. It signaled the end of French colonial power in Indochina, and helped set the stage for the 15-year “American war” that ended with the fall of the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese government in 1975.

Although civilians, the swashbuckling McGovern and Buford, an ex-World War II bomber pilot, were the first Americans to die in combat in the Asian country where war would later take nearly 60,000 American and more than a million Vietnamese lives.

It was no mystery in 1954 that the United States was supporting colonial France against Vietnam’s communist-led rebellion, and “McGoon” was already famous for his exploits when he was killed.

The only secret was that his employer, a charter airline called Civil Air Transport, or CAT, “was owned by the CIA — lock, stock and barrel,” Felix Smith, a retired CAT pilot and McGovern friend, said in an interview in 2002. (It was not until the 1990s that the CIA-CAT connection was finally declassified.)

The CIA is arranging for James McGovern III to fly to Hickam Air Force Base near Honolulu and escort his uncle’s remains home, he said.

The CIA did not immediately return a call for comment.

Dr. Thomas Holland, director of JPAC’s Central Identification Laboratory, said McGovern was the only the second person ever identified through “nuclear” DNA from a male relative – a particularly difficult task with bones that are decades old. The first was another Southeast Asia casualty identified recently. Most cases rely on mitochondrial DNA, from female relatives.

McGovern first went to China in 1944, as a fighter pilot in the 14th Air Force’s “Tiger Shark” squadron, descended from the famous Flying Tigers. According to Smith, he was credited with shooting down four Japanese Zero fighter planes and destroying five on the ground.

At war’s end in 1945, McGovern signed on with CAT, which was under contract to Chiang Kai-Shek’s Chinese Nationalist regime, then fighting a civil war against Mao Zedong’s communists.

Captured by communist troops after a forced landing, “McGoon” was freed six months later. Colleagues joked that his captors simply got tired of feeding him.

CAT moved to Taiwan after Chiang’s 1949 defeat. In 1950 it was secretly acquired by the CIA, and continued to fly commercially as a cover for clandestine activities. Three years later it was detailed by the Eisenhower administration to Indochina, flying supply missions for the French with its planes’ insignia painted out.

Ultimately, CAT morphed into Air America, the “CIA airline” that operated in Laos and South Vietnam during America’s Vietnam War.

McGovern’s exact fate was unknown until a French visitor learned of the crash during a 1959 visit to the Laotian village of Ban Sot. That report was suppressed by the CIA, Smith said, but after a private historian found it in French files years later, a group of former CAT pilots led by Smith persuaded the CIA to back a search effort.

In 1997, an American MIA team investigating an unrelated case found a C-119 propeller at Ban Sot, and a JPAC photo analyst spotted possible graves in aerial photos. Excavation in 2002 uncovered remains that turned out to be McGovern’s.

JPAC experts are still seeking the remains of co-pilot Buford, one of 35 civilians among 1,797 Americans still unaccounted for in Indochina.

James McGovern III said his namesake uncle will be buried with military honors in Basking Ridge, next to his brother John, a former sportswriter who died in 2001.

James McGovern III said that as a Purple Heart recipient in World War II, his father was eligible for burial at Arlington National Cemetery, but had expressed hope of one day lying next to his long-lost brother.

“All those years were enough of a separation,” James III said.

23 May 2007:

Fifty-three years after he was shot down on a desperate cargo-delivery flight over Vietnam, a legendary pilot and soldier of fortune known as Earthquake McGoon will be buried Thursday at Arlington National Cemetery.

The burial plan was announced by the Pentagon on Wednesday.

Earthquake McGoon, whose real name was James B. McGovern Jr., was one of the first two Americans killed in the Vietnam conflict. His remains were recovered from an unmarked grave in a remote northern Laos village in 2002 and identified last year by forensic experts at the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command’s laboratory at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii.

But a family fued among relatives in New Jersey, in part about burial plans, stalled his interment. Meanwhile, former colleagues of McGovern in World War II and Indochina tried to arrange an Arlington burial to coincide with a planned “final reunion” of pilots who flew in China and French Indochina with Civil Air Transport, a postwar airline secretly owned by the CIA.

McGovern, who weighed 260 pounds and was nicknamed after a hulking character in the hillbilly comic strip “Li’l Abner,” was killed May 6, 1954, while air-dropping an artillery piece to the trapped French garrison at Dien Bien Phu. His C-119 “Flying Boxcar” cargo plane, crippled by anti-aircraft fire, continued 75 miles into Laos and crashed on a hillside.

The crash also killed his co-pilot, Wallace Buford, and a French flight engineer. Three other French Legionnaires survived the crash and were captured by communist troops, but one died later. The remains of Buford, of Kansas City, Missouri, were never found.

Dien Bien Phu fell to Ho Chi Minh’s communist-led revolutionary army the next day, dooming the French colonial regime in Indochina.

McGovern and Buford, both civilians at the time, were the first two Americans killed in fighting in Vietnam, where ensuing warfare would kill nearly 60,000 Americans and more than a million Vietnamese over the next two decades.

Earthquake McGoon was a flamboyant figure who became famous in the early 1950s for his escapades. As a member of an Air Force squadron descended from the famed Flying Tigers, he shot down four Japanese planes and destroyed others on the ground.

His adventures included being captured by communist Chinese troops who freed him because he called them “liars” for not letting him go; winning a clutch of dancing girls in a poker game; and setting free a group of Japanese POWs on a beach rather than follow orders to “dump cargo” after he developed engine trouble.

Possible graves were spotted in the Laotian village of Ban Sot in the late 1990s by an analyst for the Hawaii-based POW/MIA Accounting Command, which searches for missing Americans in Asia and elsewhere.

In 2002, a JPAC team led by anthropologist Peter Miller found one of the graves contained remains that were later identified by forensic experts as those of McGovern.

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