James "Earthquake McGoon" McGovern Funeral
May 24, 2007

(Information and funeral photos courtesy of Mr. Robert Bourlier)

This coming Memorial Day Weekend (May 24, 2007), the remains of 118th TRS pilot James "Earthquake McGoon" McGovern will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

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, the Chinese air force unit of American volunteers formed to fight the Japanese in the months before the U.S. entered World War II.

According to Smith, McGovern was credited with shooting down four Japanese Zero fighters and destroying five on the ground.

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. He gained the nickname "Earthquake McGoon," after a hulking hillbilly character in the comic strip "Li'l Abner" (originally rumored to be coined by a saloon owner in China).

At war's end in 1945, McGovern stayed on in China flying for Civil Air Transport (CAT), which was under contract to Chiang Kai-shek's Chinese Nationalist regime, then fighting a civil war against Mao Tse-tung'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.

During the battle for Dien Bien Phu the French contracted with CAT to air drop supplies to the troops. On the day prior to the French surrender, May 6, 1954, McGovern and his "flying boxcar" were shot down 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. Some consider him the first US casualty of the 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, said Felix Smith, former CAT pilot and friend of McGovern. 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.

The skeletal remains were positively identified on September 11, 2006 by laboratory experts at the U.S. military's Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command in Hawaii.

Eulogy delivered at Arlington National Cemetery by Wayne "Whitey" Johnson
24 May 2007

Lt. James B. McGovern, Jr
"Earthquake McGoon"

In volume one of our history book, Chennault's Flying Tigers, the story entitled "Earthquake McGoon" starts with this statement: "There were a lot of characters in the China war but James B. McGovern was one of the more picturesque.  He started out rather mild but as his bulk and reputation grew he became known as Earthquake McGoon".  A recent news article reported that he was named Earthquake McGoon by a Chinese saloon keeper.  That reporter didn't have his facts straight.  He was actually named that by Phil Dickey, the armament officer in our squadron, the 118th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron.  Dickey loved the comic strip and would draw characters from it.  Since Jim looked a bit like the Al Capp's Li'l Abner comic strip character and made a try at making moonshine, the nickname fit him well.  But McGovern was more than a comic strip character.  He was a superb fighter pilot.  He was the type of pilot that became part of the airplane.  A careful pilot and one that one felt safe to fly with.

As WWII came to an end and American forces were rapidly leaving China, the Chinese communists saw their opportunity to take over the country.  General Chennault warned that unless America continued to provide aide to the National government,  the communists would not only take over China but all of the Far East.  America was not interested, so Chennault formed his own airline to assist the Nationalist government, the Civil Air Transport (CAT).

This was Earthquake's opportunity.  He not only loved to fly but he believed in a cause.  He joined Chennault's CAT airline for he was convinced that Chennault was correct, that unless we supported the nationalist the communists would take over and be the scourge of the Far East.

Some reporters called him a mercenary.  He was well paid but not nearly enough for the hazardous missions he was required to fly.  Those missions to him flying to the aid of the Nationalist and the French were no different than the missions he flew in WWII against another enemy of our country.

He was a dedicated patriot who gave as Lincoln said, "gave that last full measure of dedication to duty" he gave his life in the cause of freedom".

On his last trip home he called me and said "Whitey, if they do me in over there, try to have me planted at Arlington".  So after more than fifty years, he has his wish to be interred at Arlington National Cemetery with other of the Nation's great patriots who have served their country so well.  He, like so many others resting here, gave his life to free others from the yoke of the oppressor.

May he now rest in peace.

The woman receiving the flag is McGovern's niece, Therece Johnston. At the reception area prior to the funeral were pilots from the 118th TRS but also about a dozen men from Air America with whom McGovern worked in the late 1940s and early 1950s. All together about 50 people showed up. His ashes were placed in the Columbarium, court #8.

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