I’m not too good at remembering details. I guess you could say I am more of a big picture person. With every good book I read rather than the facts, I am left with impressions. If I took a test on the facts I would probably fail but ask me about an emotional interaction with the book and my answer would earn a high score.
In China Pilot I learned about a chapter in history previously unknown to me. I appreciate feeling a little less dense about the world but when I put China Pilot back on the shelf, my heart was with Earthquake McGoon, a larger-than-life figure to whom I grew attached. When he died I cried because the world lost such a humor-filled, light-hearted man. It just seems there should be more Earthquake McGoons. I don’t say that about very many people.
Thank you Jack for the book recommendation and thanks to Felix Smith for making the effort to put your life into ink and thus allowing me to know another good friend.
The following story on Earthquake McGoon is from Check-Six.com
James B. McGovern, Jr. was born on February 4, 1922, in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Growing up, his brother recalled in a 1999 interview that, “I didn’t know what I wanted to be, but all he ever talked about was becoming a pilot,” he said. Having graduated high school in 1940, the young McGovern got a job working at Wright Aircraft Engineering Company in Patterson, NJ, and trained at the Casey Jones School of Aeronautics. After the United States entered World War II, the five-foot nine-inch tall, then-180 pound, aircraft mechanic enlisted in the Army Air Corps on May 21st, 1942, to learn to fly.
Once in a lifetime you know someone who deserves special dispensation from the Fates to live forever. Earthquake McGoon was my candidate. Felix Smith
Arriving in China in November of 1944, James McGovern joined the 14th Air Force – 23rd Fighter Group’s 75th “Tiger Shark” squadron, part of the Flying Tigers volunteer group. He was credited with shooting down four Japanese Zero fighters and destroying five on the ground.
At war’s end in 1945, Major General Claire Chennault, founder of both the Flying Tigers and the 14th Air Force, recruited McGovern and other veteran pilots for his next enterprise, a commercial airline called Civil Air Transport (CAT). Under contract to Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist regime, CAT flew civilian and military missions during China’s civil war, and would later help evacuate thousands of refugees to Taiwan before the Communist victory in 1949.
Having bulked up during the war to 260 pounds, the ex-fighter pilot liked the roomy cockpits of CAT’s war-surplus C-46 transports but still sometimes used a wicker chair instead of the standard pilot’s seat.
A saloon owner and ex-sailor, Ed F. Gingle, but known to most in the Orient as “Pop”, dubbed the big aviator “Earthquake McGoon”, after a hulking hillbilly wrestler character in the then-popular “Li’l Abner” comic strip. “It didn’t bother him. He was a character himself, and I think he thrived on it,” John McGovern, his younger brother, said.
During a flight in December of 1949, McGovern ran out of fuel, made an emergency night landing in a riverbed and was captured by Chinese Communist troops. When he turned up safe six months later, other pilots joked that his captors “got tired of feeding him.” But McGovern had argued his way out, saying “You keep saying you’re going to release me but you haven’t, so I don’t believe anything you say. You’re liars.” So, the Chinese soldier let McGovern go free in May of 1950.
Civil Air Transport moved to Taiwan in 1949 and a year later was secretly acquired by the CIA, which continued its commercial service as a cover for clandestine activities.
The First Indochina War…
In 1953, France asked the administration of President Dwight Eisenhower for American help in fighting a Communist rebellion in colonial Indochina. Soon, CAT was there, flying supply missions with French insignia painted over the company logo.
The world was so illogical, he seemed to believe, that only a fool would take it seriously. – Felix Smith
Wallace “Wally” Buford, who had flown B-24 bombers during World War II and C-119s in Korea, and a recipient of two Distinguished Flying Crosses and the Purple Heart, was studying for an engineering degree in 1953 when he saw a notice that the government was seeking experienced C-119 pilots. So, he signed up.
A year later, McGovern and Buford, 28, were among two dozen Americans who earned about $3,000 a month air-dropping supplies to the besieged French garrison at Dien Bien Phu.
On May 6, 1954, their unarmed C-119 Flying Boxcar, #149 (originally U.S. Air Force tail number 49-149, as it was on loan to the French Air Force from the USAF’s 314th Troop Carrier Wing), and five other C-119s, took off from Haiphong’s Cat Bi Airport. McGovern’s plane was carrying a parachute-rigged Howitzer artillery piece to aid the French soldiers at Camp Isabelle – the southernmost firebase of Dien Bien Phu.
The first aircraft in the flight, flown by Steve Kusak, safely dropped its load on Isabelle. But as McGovern approached the drop zone, however, his aircraft was hit twice by 37mm anti-aircraft fire, in both the left engine and stabilizer. “I’ve got a direct hit,” other pilots heard McGovern say.
James McGovern, the pilot, creates an unforgettable impression on me right from the first meeting. On the airstrip of Cat Bi his figure is quite heavy. He wears carpet-slippers and a very loose Hawaiian-style shirt, colorful and flowery. He looks at me with a hearty, lovely smile and puts his arm around my shoulder. I am totally under the spell. I was not familiar with this sort of attitude, and discovered a new dimension in human relationships: friendship and informality, sincere kindness, cheerfulness and an unabated optimism in spite of the hardships and gravity of the situation. With McGovern nothing is to be worried about.” Lt. Jean Arlaux
Immediately, the French crew of “kickers” in the aircraft’s rear, named Jean Arlaux (on his first combat mission), Bataille, Moussa (a Malayasian), and Rescouriou, dropped their cargo, as McGovern shut down the burning engine, and climbed over the mountains surrounding the fort.
With one engine afire, McGoon nursed the aircraft another 75 miles southward, into Laos. Approaching 4,000-foot mountains, he radioed fellow C-119 pilot Steve Kusak for help in finding level ground. “Turn right,” said Kusak, who was directing McGovern towards an airstrip near the Nam Ma River.
Forty minutes after being hit, McGovern made his last radio transmission, “Looks like this is it, son.” His crippled C-119 Flying Boxcar cartwheeled into a Laos hillside near the Sang Ma river in Houaphan Province. The crash killed McGovern, Buford, and two of the French crewmen instantly. But two of the cargo handlers, French Lieutenant Jean Arlaux and Private Moussa, were thrown clear and survived, but were captured by the Vietminh. Moussa died a few days later of his injuries.
McGovern & Buford were the first two Americans to die in combat in Vietnam. The day after the crash, the garrison at Dien Bien Phu surrendered, ending the 57-day siege. No effort were made to recover McGovern or Buford’s remains then.
In the May 24, 1954, edition of Life magazine, an article called “The End for Earthquake” ran, detailing the pilot’s shoot-down, and displaying photographs that would become all too common in the years of conflict that would follow.