WASHINGTON — Allen L. Pope risked life and limb to fly CIA supply missions in 1954 to besieged French forces in what is now Vietnam. But the thing he recounts most vividly is not the danger he faced. It's the bravery of the French troops.
"They never raised the white flag," he says. "There were men without hands, men without legs, men without feet, men that were blinded. They were catching hell."
They caught it at Dien Bien Phu, a cluster of villages in a valley ringed by mountains near the Laotian border. Communist rebels on higher ground pummeled the French with artillery in an epic battle that marked the end of French colonial rule in Indochina and foreshadowed the U.S. experience in Vietnam.
This week, nearly 51 years after the fall of Dien Bien Phu, the seven surviving American pilots who braved those perilous skies -- but later were essentially disowned by the CIA -- will be awarded the Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur, or Legion of Honor, France's highest award for service.
Six of the seven will gather at the official residence of French Ambassador Jean-David Levitte for a ceremony to commemorate an important chapter in the history of U.S.-French relations.
"It's a nice gesture on their part," says Douglas R. Price, a Rockville Centre, N.Y., native who was 29 years old when he flew 39 airdrop missions to Dien Bien Phu in April and May 1954 as a civilian employee of Civil Air Transport, a flying service whose undeclared owner was the CIA.
"There has been a lot of friction between the governments lately," he said, alluding to the leading role France played in opposing the Bush administration's decision to go to war in Iraq. "Maybe they're making a gesture, hoping that they can get things back together again."
The gesture will exceed any public thanks these now-elderly Americans have received from their own government, which sent them into harm's way in unarmed C-119 "Flying Boxcar" cargo planes with the understanding that if captured or killed they would not be acknowledged as agents of the U.S. government.
"I was a covert employee. We were expendable," says Roy F. Watts, a native of Colville, Wash., who now lives in Callao, Va. He unsuccessfully sued the government for extended disability and retirement benefits based on his 16 years of flying covert missions in Asia for the CIA.
The CIA argues that the men technically were not government employees since they worked for a CIA front company.
The CIA has not specifically honored the 37 pilots who flew the Dien Bien Phu missions, although in June 2001 the spy agency issued a Unit Citation Award in recognition of all who served with Civil Air Transport and its secret successor, Air America, which ended operations in 1976.
William M. Leary, a retired University of Georgia history professor who has written extensively about covert CIA air operations in Asia, says the French Legion of Honor was well earned.
"The pilots of Civil Air Transport flew a variety of deeply covert and often hazardous missions for the CIA, sometimes at the cost of their lives," Leary says. "They were the true secret soldiers of the Cold War."
It was a private citizen, Erik Kirzinger, of Madison, N.C., who initially suggested the French gesture. His uncle, Norman Schwartz, was a Civil Air Transport pilot who died when his C-47 aircraft was shot down over China in November 1952 while on a secret CIA transport mission.
In September 2003, Kirzinger wrote to Levitte, the French ambassador in Washington.
"France needed help and the United States didn't ignore your call," he wrote. "In today's politically charged climate it is important to bear in mind that there have been times when our two great countries have been there for each other, and no doubt will be there again in the future."
Of the 37 pilots who flew resupply missions into Dien Bien Phu, two were killed in action. They were James B. "Earthquake McGoon" McGovern, and co-pilot Wallace A. Buford -- the first Americans killed in combat in Vietnam. Their C-119 cargo plane was approaching Dien Bien Phu on May 6, 1954, when it was hit by ground fire and crash-landed in neighboring Laos.
All these years later, it may be hard to fully appreciate what motivated men like Allen Pope, then 25, to risk all in support of a French war in a faraway land.
For Pope, the now 76-year-old pilot whose memory of Dien Bien Phu is seared by gruesome images of wounded French troops, the motivation for joining France's fight is easily explained.
"I'm a communist fighter. I was born and raised to be against the communists."