Earthquake McGoon and the Battle of Dien Bien Phu: A legendary hero and the shadows of a forgotten war

“Earthquake McGoon” (Robert B. McGovern Jr.) in his P51 Mustang flying with U.S. Air Corp 75th “Tiger Shark” Squadron. KIA flying French marked CIA 
C-119 Flying Boxcar at Battle of Dien Bien Phu on May 6, 1954.

Following the end of the war and reoccupation of Indochina by the French, the Communist Viet Minh, who had come to dominate the northern half of Vietnam, began to agitate for independence. This led to eight years of war, ending with the Battle of Dien Bien Phu and French withdrawal in 1954. The U.S. had just fought a three-year war (1950-1953) against North Korean Communists to stop them from overrunning the Republic of South Korea. President Eisenhower and the CIA did not want to be directly involved, but they rightly believed that a Communist government in North Vietnam meant trouble for peace and freedom in Southeast Asia.

My first days on active duty as a USAF intelligence officer at Strategic Air Command headquarters near Omaha, Nebraska, from 1961-1964, were under the tutelage of two field grade USAF intelligence officers who had been pilots in World War II and Korea. Following the Korean War, they had somehow been engaged in CIA aviation activities in Indochina. They never mentioned the CIA, but they sometimes reminisced about their attempt to stave off French defeat at Dien Bien Phu, in northern Vietnam near the border of Laos. They frequently mentioned a legendary American pilot also involved in helping the French at Dien Bien Phu—“Earthquake” McGoon. My impression was that the fate of their legendary comrade, Earthquake McGoon, was unknown. Presumably, they were flying unmarked or French marked C-119 “Flying Boxcars” delivering French and Foreign Legion parachute troops, weapons, and supplies into the beleaguered French Union outpost.

In 1953 and 1954, North Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap had faced a technically superior French Union Army concentrated around Hanoi and other major population centers. His strategy for driving out the French was to create many military diversions in the outer periphery of French military concentrations, forcing the French to divide their forces to maintain control of the countryside. By these means he hoped to lure a major French force far enough from support to cut it off and annihilate it. With the French already involved in a costly civil war in Algeria, he correctly calculated that the French people were so war-weary that a major military catastrophe in Indochina would collapse the resolve of French political leaders to maintain a presence in Indochina. Meanwhile French Communists and Socialists in France and the French National Assembly were working hard to undermine the French public’s support for the war in Indochina.

In November 1953, seeking to cut off Viet Minh supply routes to and from Laos, the French dropped over 5,100 paratroopers on an old Japanese airfield and military base surrounded by mountainous terrain near the border of Laos and northwestern Vietnam. The name of the valley and small village near there was Dien Bien Phu. By March 1954, the French expeditionary force—which could only be supplied and reinforced by air—had grown to nearly 12,000 men. Giap viewed the isolated French garrison at Dien Bien Phu as a fortuitous opportunity to implement his military and political strategy and subsequently invested the surrounding mountains with nearly 100,000 men. This was a remarkable military feat in itself, but most astonishing to the French was that this enormous Viet Minh force was well equipped with Soviet and Chinese heavy artillery and nearly 200 antiaircraft guns. On March 13, the Viet Minh began their assault on Dien Bien Phu with a tremendous artillery barrage. In the next fifty-seven days of hell, the French brought in another 4,000 men, but by May 6, despite heroic efforts, logistical support and reinforcement became almost impossible. On May 7, with little ammunition left, the remaining 11,700 French troops, almost half of them French Foreign Legionnaires, including 4,500 wounded, were overrun and captured. Fewer than 5,000 French POWs were ever returned.

The resulting military catastrophe and accompanying Leftist political agitation in France broke the French political will as expected. On June 18, the leftist Radical Party’s Pierre Mendes France was elected by France’s National Assembly to the office of Prime Minister, having Communist Party Deputies helping to form his majority. He negotiated an agreement to withdraw French forces from Indochina and to establish the Communist government of Ho Chi Minh as the ruler of Vietnam, north of the seventeen parallel. Over one million people fled to South Vietnam.

On the day before the fall of Dien Bien Phu, Earthquake McGoon, whose real name was James B. McGovern, Jr., had dropped a Howitzer artillery piece to beleaguered French troops on the ground. As he turned from the drop area, however, his C-119 Boxcar was hit twice by a Viet Minh Communist 37-mm anti-aircraft gun. One hit knocked out his left engine, and the other badly damaged the huge horizontal stabilizer on the C119’s split tail, making it difficult to keep in the air. He managed to fly the aircraft 75 miles, but just a few hundred yards before reaching a landing strip in Laos, his wingtip clipped a tree. Moments before impact, McGovern was heard to say over the radio, “Looks like this is it, son.” According to a CIA report, the aircraft cart-wheeled, split in half, and burst into flames. McGovern and his co-pilot, Wallace (Wally) Buford, and two French paratroopers were killed. Two others were thrown clear of the crash, a Malay paratrooper and a French officer. The Malay paratrooper died of injuries. The French officer survived.

McGovern’s nickname “Earthquake McGoon,’ came about because of his six-foot, 260-pound frame, large personality, and the first four letters of his last name—McGo. It was obviously inspired by the character, “Earthquake McGoon,” in the newspaper comic strip by Al Capp, which ran from 1934 through 1977.

McGovern graduated from high school in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and went directly to work for Wright Aircraft Engineering in Patterson, New Jersey. He enlisted in the Army Air Corp in 1942 and by 1944 was flying a P-51 Mustang with the famous Lieutenant General Claire Chennault’s 14th Air Force in China. As a pilot of the 75th “Tiger Shark” (formerly Flying Tigers) Squadron, McGovern was credited with shooting down four Japanese “Zeros” and destroying five more on the ground. In December 1949, he crash-landed an aircraft in Quangxi Province in China, and he and his passengers were captured by Communists. He was released by the Communists, however, in May 1950.

McGovern and his co-pilot, Wallace Buford, were the only two American combat deaths in the French-Indochina War.

McGovern’s remains were found in a shallow unmarked grave in Laos in 2002. In 2005, McGovern and Buford were posthumously awarded, along with six other surviving Americans, the Legion of Honor with the rank of Knight (Chevalier) by French President Jacques Chirac for their actions in supplying French Union forces during the 57-day siege of Dien Bien Phu. Laboratory DNA experts at the Joint POW/MIA Command confirmed the identity of McGovern’s remains in 2006. James B. McGovern, Jr., aka “Earthquake McGoon” was buried at Arlington National Cemetery on May 24, 2007.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR   –  Mike Scruggs, Author and Columnist

a.k.a. Leonard M. Scruggs

 Mike Scruggs is the author of two books: The Un-Civil War: Shattering the Historical Myths; and Lessons from the Vietnam War: Truths the Media Never Told You, and over 600 articles on military history, national security, intelligent design, genealogical genetics, immigration, current political affairs, Islam, and the Middle East.

He holds a BS degree from the University of Georgia and an MBA from Stanford University. A former USAF intelligence officer and Air Commando, he is a decorated combat veteran of the Vietnam War, and holds the Distinguished Flying Cross, Purple Heart, and Air Medal. He is a retired First Vice President for a major national financial services firm and former Chairman of the Board of a classical Christian school.

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