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U.S. Launches Belated Hunt for Missing Fliers

Soldiers of fortune were ferrying supplies to the French in Laos when they were shot down in 1954. Their employer was, indirectly, the CIA.

November 24, 2002|Richard Pyle | Associated Press Writer

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 a comic strip.

Now, 48 years after his cargo plane was shot down on 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 co-pilot, Wallace A. Buford.

"Looks like this is it, son," was McGovern's last radio message as his crippled C-119 Flying Boxcar cartwheeled into a Laos hillside on May 6, 1954. The crash killed McGovern, 32; Buford, 28, and a French crewman. Two cargo handlers -- a Frenchman and a Thai -- were thrown clear and survived.

The next day, Ho Chi Minh's Viet-Minh revolutionary forces overran the last French strongholds at Dien Bien Phu, ending a siege that had captured world headlines for nearly three months.

McGovern, Buford and Life magazine photographer Robert Capa -- killed later that month -- were the only Americans to die in the conflict that doomed French colonialism in Indochina and set the stage for Vietnam's "American war" a decade later.

The death of swashbuckling "Earthquake McGoon" was big news in 1954, his grinning face splashed across newspapers and magazines. But most details remained shrouded for decades in Cold War secrecy -- especially the fact that the pilots' airline, Civil Air Transport, or CAT, was owned by the Central Intelligence Agency.

But this month, after numerous delays, a 10-member team from the Hawaii-based Joint Task Force-Full Accounting, assisted by Laotian officials and hired workers, began excavating the site of three suspected graves near the Laotian village of Ban Sot.

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Any remains found will go to the Army's Central Identification Laboratory Hawaii (CILHI) for forensic study and identification -- a process that could take months. The lab directs JTF-FA search operations, providing experts to its field teams.

Slowed by intermittent bad weather, the Laos search so far has yielded only bits of wreckage and flight-suit remnants, U.S. officials said. The dig is expected to end Tuesday.

Pho Sai, a Laotian Foreign Ministry official for U.S. affairs, said the chances of finding human remains appears slim after so many years.

"We are praying for them and helping them find the bones," Pho Sai said in a telephone interview from Bangkok. "As Buddhists, we believe that if they find the bones or any part of the body and take them home, it would help the victim's loved ones feel at peace."

The Americans' supporting role at Dien Bien Phu was "never a security issue," even before the widely publicized crash, says Felix Smith, a retired CAT pilot and friend of McGovern. "The only factor that was secret was that the CIA owned CAT -- lock, stock and barrel."

A French officer learned from Ban Sot villagers in 1959 about three graves in the area, but CIA officials stifled his report.

"They indicated in a vague way that they feared a lawsuit if they gave the relatives false information ... therefore, no one notified McGovern's or Buford's relatives," Smith said.

By the time the French report was discovered by a private historian years later, some family members had died or moved.

The U.S. State Department and the Vietnamese government declined comment. A CIA spokesman said he could not immediately comment.

Diplomatic agreements in 1992 enabled the United States to finally begin searching in earnest for some 2,000 Americans still missing in Indochina. By that time, the CIA had begun declassifying some files from the 1950s era, including material on its role in French Indochina.

In a 1999 interview, McGovern's brother, John, of Hawley, Pa., called it "ridiculous ... a joke" that secrecy had been maintained for so many years.

The "McGoon" case came to light again in October 1997 when a JTF-FA team investigating an unrelated crash near Ban Sot saw an old C-119 propeller in the village. It was assumed to be French until William Forsyth, the agency's top researcher, heard about McGovern from a former pilot and dug out old news clippings about the Dien Bien Phu crash.

A year later, Forsyth -- whose specialty is aerial photo analysis -- spotted three "probable graves" in a 1961 photo of the Ban Sot area. But with Vietnam War MIAs taking precedence, CILHI and JTF-FA officials moved Case 3036 to the back burner with other "Cold War losses."

There it stayed until a group of ex-CAT pilots, led by Smith, launched a letter-writing campaign and lobbied Congress and former intelligence officials to have the case upgraded for immediate action. Retired spy Dudley Foster, who once served in a liaison role with CAT, persuaded CIA Director George Tenet to back the effort.

With Case 3036 given new priority, JTF-FA investigators revisited Ban Sot, where in July they interviewed four witnesses who had seen the 1954 crash and three who pointed out burial sites.

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