The Battle of Dien Bien Phu, May 6th, 1954, Air Mission
As recounted by Dominique Chao-Arlaux and her father Colonel Jean Arlaux
First Published in the CAT Bulletin, Volume 29 No. 1, Jan/Feb/Mar 2004
My father, Col. Jean Arlaux, is the sole survivor of the last flight of James McGovern and Wallace Buford, the Civil Air Transport pilots who lost their lives flying supplies to the French Union Expeditionary forces held out at Dien Bien Phu. Though for nearly fifty years my father kept his Indochina experiences private, recently he shared his recollections with Dr. William Leary and a pair of documentary producers who traveled to Paris to interview him. I would like to share my father's story with the CAT Association.
A Testimony from a Survivor, Paris, Feb.7, 2004
Fifty years after the historical landmark of May the 7th, '1954, a lone survivor, Colonel Jean Arlaux, gives his personal testimony during an interview organized by an American TV producers working on a documentary about the siege at Dien Bien Phu. The broadcast is scheduled in early May on Discovery Wings Channel.
The 50th anniversary will take place in May 2004. It has a deep interest for historians, veterans and their families. Many books, reviews and magazine articles recount the DBP battle, movies too, especially at this period prior to the celebration of the 50th anniversary.
The famous James "Earthquake McGoon" McGovern mission is mentioned in many of them. Often the names of the 2 American aircrew, James McGovern and Wallace Buford, and the 4 French soldiers are mentioned, among them the then young officer- in-second, then Lt. Jean Arlaux, my father.
Colonel Arlaux has been approached many times by historians and journalists and has always declined requests for interviews. He did not want to stir the past. To his great surprise one day in the summer of 2003 Colonel Arlaux receives a copy of a book titled: "Perilous Missions: Civil Air Transport and CIA Covert Operations in Asia" sent from the USA by its author, Dr. William Leary. A chapter of his book recounts the McGovern air mission over Isabelle in which the young Lt. Jean Arlaux was part. Dr Leary, when stationed in the Far East with the U.S. Air Force when he met James McGovern. So, Dr. Leary and Colonel Arlaux are linked somehow by this formidable character of the pilot they both knew if only briefly. My father is now retired living in the small town of La Rochelle, on the west coast of France. The courteous offering of his book and his kindness deeply touched the Colonel, who then, at Dr. Leary's gentle encouragement, accepted the invitation to tell about his experiences. The most difficult obstacle was then overcome -- Colonel Arlaux would eventually give his testimony as a participant of the mission, and this to an American audience. One wish though, that I should be his translator, it is a matter of confidence and father and child love.
A deep link unites my father and I. I was born in 1954, early November, and seen the first time by my father after he returned to France from captivity in various Lao jungle camps, in December, after 5 months of total blackout about his status. We find ourselves linked together sharing in a way something in common: a real story of hope and pains.
I enthusiastically accept the role as translator, happy at last to know my father's story in French Indochina, and thrilled to be a link connecting 2 continents, related to a 3rd one, Asia, where events to be recollected take place, that is Southeast Asia. I have been living in Asia for 23 years and presently reside in Hong-Kong. I am the wife of a Chinese entrepreneur, born in Peking in 1948 and brought up in Taiwan after the Communist takeover. My studies at the Paris Oriental Language Institute and numerous trips in Asia regions make me quite familiar with the Asian cultures and the 20th century turmoil's history of this part of the world. I feel apt enough to understand and transmit accurately my father's recount. My two children, when school schedule permits, will help me sometimes in my translation work.
On the other side of the ocean, in the meantime and unflinchingly, Erik Kirzinger, from North Carolina, is doing his own work as well. Actually, he is the tenacious instigator of these circumstances that will lead to the actual meeting in Paris. Erik initiated the first exchanges with my father, which continue a half-year of fruitful and friendly relationships between my father, Dr Leary, Erik and me.
Erik's own family has its own share of grief in another CAT operation in Asia, and as a result, he leads his personal battle to have the heroes come out of the shade and silence. His adamant determination to force public officials to honor the memory of the forgotten heroes and acknowledge their unselfish sacrifice is fruitful. Erik conceived the idea of a painting representing the air scene over DBP on May 6th which is why he contacted my father. The painting will depict the doomed Fairchild C-119 aircraft, tail number 149, piloted by McGovern and Buford, after it was hit twice by the Viet Minh anti aircraft batteries only a few seconds before reaching Isabelle Drop Zone. This painting, executed by an accomplished artist, Jeff Bass, will be unveiled in May and donated to the CIA Museum. My father kindly cooperates by giving useful information on the configuration of the plane, the battle situation, field and air, and the artist follows his advice accordingly.
A pair of documentary producers from the US, Douglas Paynter and Bruce Cooke, are working on a documentary for the Discovery Wings Channel. They contacted my father asking for a live interview, to which the Colonel responds positively.
Doctor Leary and myself will fly respectively from America and China for this occasion. Erik Kirzinger, for family reasons, cannot join us, unfortunately. My father, Dr. Leary and me will meet first, prior to the formal interview. Dr Leary is eager to know more about the Colonel and asks many questions regarding the air mission with McGovern. From the start open words of remembering and recounting come naturally. My father gains confidence and serenity then and feels ready for the interview scheduled tomorrow.
Saturday 1100: Dr. William Leary and myself are present in the backstage, providing the last advice and warmest support before the interview starts, set in this cozy little Parisian hotel room, rue des Ecoles, in the historical heart of the city. The atmosphere is tense, every one is aware of the gravity and intensity of the situation. Words will be fully thought about, they will try to convey at its best the reality of a tragic episode of the battle in which valiant men lost their lives for a cause. Silent spaces between words have their emotional intensity too, of remembering, reviving a past that for 50 years has been totally buried and recovering, the time one or two deep breaths from the painful memory. The past has to be faced but composure must be maintained too. The young generation is listening too and needs to learn from the past and from these men, remember events of course, but the face and the attitude of a soldier also, and this is very important for the Colonel.
14:30: And then the interview is over. Colonel Arlaux is happy, relieved and hopeful that his personal testimony will help future student of the Cold War in their research about Indochina. The interview, stored first on video tapes, will be aired later on cable TV. Eventually a copy will be given to the CAT / Air America® Archives.
Dien Bien Phu, May 6th, 1954
The Last Mission – The First Step into the Legend
Three Hours of My Life with a Hero: James McGovern
As recounted by Colonel Jean Arlaux
May the 6th, eve of the final battle at Dien Bien Phu, last step of the Castor military campaign started November 20th, 1953, a vast operation with 15,719 French forces involved, under the command of Colonel de Castries, the 56th day of a fierce battle with the Viet Minh.
It is early in the afternoon. In Haiphong, stationed on the Cat Bi airstrip, 6 planes have started their engines and ready for take-off. Destination: Dien Bien Phu. Target: Isabelle encampment. Operation: Drop Zone supply bailing out. Isabelle, the last standing sentinel, courageously fighting, commanded by Col. Lalande, an outstanding character of the French Foreign Legion. DBP, 350km to the northwest in the French colonial province of High Tonkin, near the Lao border. The French want to keep the region safe from the enemy advance. DBP is a 20km square piece of land in between hills, a 17km long by 7km wide valley. Down the center of the valley flows the Nam Youm River, each side of which French army have positioned encampments, such as Gabrielle, North, Isabelle to the south. DBP is linked to the outside by 2 roads, RP 41 to the east, Pavie to the west, and a now abandoned airstrip, between the river and the 6 Huguette redoubts. DBP is a peaceful village in a pastoral valley surrounded by forested low mountains, peopled by the poppy growers and traders the Meos living in the highlands, and Thai peasants, cultivating rice and raising animals, in the lowlands. DBP, provincial capital of the French border administration, close to Lao and China, a strategic location that the French colonial government even envisioned to be an appropriate capital for the Tonkin province.
The battle is raging, it is May 6th. I am not completely aware of the real situation back there. News is scarce. Monsoon season has begun with its tedious day-long rains causing disastrous mud slides, collapsing of defense bunkers and flooding of trenches. The rain adds its part to the manned operated organized and carefully planned destruction. DBP, the final stake of the war, is where Viet Minh and French are desperately fighting for the final and decisive victory. French soldiers, the elite of the Legionnaires and others expeditionary corps are trapped in their trenches or are besieged in those encampments named with females names such as Isabelle, Eliane, Huguette, Eliane, Beatrice, Dominique...
The Viet Minh massively outnumber the French by thousands. They are hiding in 400 km of tunnels, limestone cliff caves, slowly but inexorably asphyxiating the French positions in their slow but relentless advance, heavily equipped in artillery and men, led by the charismatic General Giap and backed by the Chinese and Russian killing hardware.
Each camp is determined to hold high the victory torch and put a conclusive term to this endless war, at whatever cost. The future of 2 cultural worlds, the eastern and the western, is at its turning point. The heart of history is beating, and a final mortal blow has to be inflicted on one of the protagonists, in order to seal once for all an overdue outcome. It is not a matter of days but of hours. The anxious capitals of the world are holding their breaths.
We are the second in line, a Fairchild-Packet C-119, tail number 149. The cargo plane is piloted by James McGovern, appropriately nicknamed "Earthquake McGoon". The copilot is Wallace Buford. James McGovern has set records in air mission. He is a WW2 Far East war veteran and has a good experience of the area. Wallace Bufford is fairly new to CAT. They are civilians flying for CAT, assigned by the CIA, to fly food and ammunitions supplies to the French expeditionary corps besieged in the hole of Dien Bien Phu. That day the encampment of Isabelle, 5km south of DBP, near the RP Pavie, is the mission target, we are to deliver 6000kgs of supplies. Each pallet has been carefully conveyed into the rear of the plane, bundles are hooked to a ring fixed on a line, strapped with parachutes, ready to be released by a mechanical device when altitude and precise goal is properly assessed. This is difficult in the present situation, because the massive Viet Minh presence is everywhere, fighting openly or from secret hideouts, shelling from trenches, caves and hill-posted encampments taken from the French. Most of the parachuted packets missed the goal and fall into the enemy lines or get lost.
The 3 bailers on the C-119 are French servicemen. Bataille, Rescouriou and Moussa, well-trained paratroopers, wearing olive drab uniforms, red berets, boots. Myself, then second-lieutenant, accompany them as an adviser, or rather an observer. I have no jumping experience. It is my first war act.
I am 24 years old, graduated from the prestigious and conservative cadet school of Saint-Cyr. I landed in Saigon April 27th and was assigned to 5th unit of CRA (Air Supply Company), then was reassigned to the 6th unit and rushed to Haiphong on the 3rd of May to assist an air supply mission as an observer. The captain at the air base recommends me to fly with an American crew, great people he says. So, no hesitation, I choose an American crew. Quick briefing about the current situation in the hole of DBP, then first encounter with the American crew, 6th of May, on the tarmac.
James McGovern, the pilot, creates a 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. "This time, this is it, son," as he would say to a desperate Steve Kusak, who was piloting his aircraft above us a few hours later and urging him to jump out.
Yes, we would make it, no problem, and we all believe in him, sincerely, truly. McGovern, with the back of his hand, had dispelled all the tension, frustration and resentment I experienced during the last weeks. His co-pilot, Wallace Bufford, stands beside him, reserved and silent. His quiet and discreet presence counter-balances the commotion provoked by James.
The engines are started now. We have taken our seats in the plane, all is ready. The plane takes off around 15:20, between Kusak the leader, tail number 578, and John Verdi in 3rd position, tail number 532.
The sky is blue, air is warm, perfect weather for the visibility. Engines are making a rattling noise though, which in a way occupies our minds and evacuates all fear or anxiety. Now that we approach DBP things are changing -- the air is filled with puffs of smoke caused by the flak bursts, the ground is covered with white astrawn parachutes canopies, vegetation is getting scarce as we get near to the mountainous region of DBP. The battle is fierce, obviously the Vietminh artillery is in full deployment. I am sitting in the cockpit just behind the pilot. Radio messages are received and sent. I understand that all is running smoothly. We will reach Isabelle soon. I can see DBP in the distance ahead.
Suddenly, before we can reach the DZ, near Isabelle, and adjust the bailing the cargo out at the right spot and time, the plane is under attack. The shell's explosions cover the engine noise of our own plane.
We are flying at an approximate altitude of less than 7000 feet, the only possibility left at such a risky situation: hell is underneath and in the air too, bombs explode in the air, so we have to reach a fairly high altitude, which of course impedes the visibility and disrupt the targeting schedule of our pallets droppings.
Our plane flies over a massive artillery attack, suddenly launched in the afternoon.
A 37mm anti aircraft shell hits the left engine -- oil leaks out of the tank, the oil conduit is broken. From the open hole on the damaged body a thin coiling cord of clear oil is coming out, but no smoke, no flames. A second 37mm shell hits the stabilizer, cutting it off right in its middle. I rush to the cargo area and I am relieved to find that my bailers have already kicked out the whole cargo of ammunitions and other supplies. Right decision, no danger of explosion now. My men are quiet, relaxed and wait for the next.
McGovern has to keep his aircraft on the move in spite of the port propeller stopped at operating pitch (cross-position) and the frozen engine. He has to find a direction too, away from the battlefield. He maneuvers the aircraft in order to add more power to the right engine and fly over the natural obstacle of a 7000-foot ridge. We have no choice but to follow the river valley of the Sang Ma, to the southeast, and then proceed to the south, crossing over the Vietnam-Lao border on the way. The plane is descending slowly. We are below parachuting altitude now. Anyway, the idea of bailing out never crossed our mind. We are convinced that our pilot will land, roughly obviously, but safely, it is without any doubt. All is calm in the back of the planes, we 4 men are just standing or sitting with our parachutes on, silent.
I pray with one of them, Moussa, a Muslim from Malaysia. He asked me to join me in my prayers, and both of us share in our hands the Holy Virgin medallion I always wear since I left France for Vietnam. It has been blessed during a Catholic mass performed in Paris, a few days before my departure for war. This medal is very precious for me and will help me all along the way.
Using information given by radio messages from Kusak's plane above, McGovern plans to land on an abandoned airstrip close to the Nam Ma River. It is spotted precisely at 104-04E, 20-51N. McGovern has made his decision: emergency landing is close at hand. He will make it, for sure. We will make it as Wallace does not contradict him in his plans.
"This time, this is it, son" are James' last words transmitted on the radio. Destiny has its last words too and has decided otherwise.
After 40 minutes of incredibly difficult but successful flight, the plane's control is lost. The left wing hits a tree in its attempt to reach the airstrip a mere half-mile away. The plane crashes on the ground, cartwheels, breaks off into 2 parts and starts burning. The crash occurs at 17:54, near the village of Muong Het, a few yards away from the Nam Het river bank.
The 2 pilots are immediately killed on the spot, along with 2 kickers. Myself and Moussa loose consciousness. A few days after the crash, we recover and find ourselves in a canoe taken as prisoners by Lao soldiers. Moussa , severely wounded, will die a few days later. That day 196 tons of supplies, the largest drop in 8 days, have been bailed out, by 50 C119's and C-47's.
Later in the evening, at 2100, the final assault is given. At 2300, it is the end. Isabelle, after a failed sortie, will stop firing in the early hours of May the 8th.
May the 13th I will be officially declared missing in action. My wife, then pregnant with my second child, Dominique, will not have any news about me till my liberation, October the 13th. Throughout my captivity the idea that my wife does not know about me, dead or alive, will be mostly painful, more than the hardships of hunger, diseases, solitude or uncertainty.
At the end of September all prisoners are released. Lists of prisoners names are no longer aired on the radio. Mine is not announced. Ironically, it will be engraved on a memorial, along with the names of dead soldiers.
Nevertheless, hope will never be abated. I will be among the last prisoners to be liberated October the 13th after 5 months of captivity in the Lao jungle. In mid-December I reach Marseilles, my parents will meet me, my wife could not make the journey, too far, too emotional, and she has a new born baby to take care, my daughter Dominique.
Many years after I will officially be granted the "Croix de la Legion d'Honneur," as a mark of gratefulness and recognition offered to courageous soldiers of all causes, who accept to risk and even to sacrifice their life for the benefit of mankind.
My most sincere hope now is that the 2 American pilots who flew the C-119 that day of May the 6th and sacrificed their life for France will be at last officially and duly honored as heroes by the French nation, as a mark of respect and gratitude.
James McGovern, Wallace Buford, Adieu.