NEW YORK – A bureaucratic and family entanglement is threatening to delay or even cancel this weekend’s scheduled burial of the legendary fighter pilot “Earthquake McGoon,” who was killed in a flaming crash in Indochina 52 years ago.

James B. McGovern III, a nephew and namesake of “McGoon,” said Monday that the CIA had asked for legal proof that he is the “primary next of kin” of the famed flier, in order for the remains to be flown from Hawaii in time for Saturday’s military funeral.

But that can’t happen unless his four sisters – with whom he has had less than cordial relations – sign papers granting him that legal status, James III said. He said he was not optimistic that they would do so.

“They think I’m a nutcase, but all I want is some closure for the family,” he said. “Their inaction is causing more trouble than any action they could take.”

One of the sisters, Nancy Burlas, of Oxford Township, N.J., said she did not wish to discuss the case: “I’m not getting involved in this.” The other sisters could not be reached for comment.

The remains of “McGoon,” whose real name was James B. McGovern Jr., were recovered from an unmarked grave in northern Laos in 2002 and identified last month by forensic experts at the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command’s laboratory at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii.

Meanwhile, James III said, a group of former colleagues of “McGoon” in World War II and later with Civil Air Transport, or CAT, a CIA-owned airline, in French Indochina, want to block the New Jersey interment so he can be buried at Arlington National Cemetery next Memorial Day – to coincide with a planned “final reunion” of the airmen who flew in China and French Indochina.

The new obstacles arose as James III was preparing to fly to Hawaii at CIA expense to escort home his uncle’s remains. He said the CIA informed him by telephone on Monday that the flight was on hold, but the interment cannot take place as planned unless the body reaches the Basking Ridge, N.J. funeral home by Friday.

“Everything was all set up for the Saturday service and now they pull the rug out from under us,” an embittered James III said in an interview from his home in Forked River, N.J. He said he has already spent close to $14,000 to arrange the burial and ceremony that would include military honors, a flyover and even a motorcycle gang doing an honorary ride.

“Earthquake McGoon,” who weighed 260 pounds and was nicknamed after a hulking character in the hillbilly comic strip “Li’l Abner,” was killed May 6, 1954, while dropping supplies to the besieged French garrison at Dien Bien Phu. His C-119 cargo plane, crippled by ground fire, continued 75 miles into Laos and crashed on a hillside. The crash also killed his co-pilot, Wallace Buford, and a French flight engineer.

The CIA said the matter was up to McGovern’s survivors. “The family needs to make a determination as to who is the legal next of kin authorized to handle Mr. McGovern’s remains,” said agency spokesman Tom Crispell.

Lt. Col. Rumi Nielson-Green, a JPAC spokeswoman, said the search unit had received instructions to “hold custody” of the remains pending resolution of the next-of-kin question.

Dien Bien Phu fell to Ho Chi Minh’s communist-led revolutionary army the next day, dooming the French colonial regime in Indocnina.

McGovern and Buford, both civilians at the time, were the first two Americans killed in fighting in Vietnam, where ensuing warfare would kill nearly 60,000 Americans and more than a million Vietnamese over the next two decades.

The adventures of “McGoon” included being captured by communist Chinese troops who freed him because he called them “liars” for not letting him go; winning a clutch of dancing girls in a poker game; and setting free a group of Japanese POWs on a beach rather than follow orders to “dump cargo” after he developed engine trouble.

The disruption of James McGovern III’s plan to bury his uncle stems from differing views on what his father, John McGovern, wanted done with his older sibling’s remains if they were ever found. John, a former sportswriter, died in 2001.

According to James III, his father, a Purple Heart recipient entitled to interment at Arlington, preferred to be buried in New Jersey next to “McGoon.” But members of the CAT pilots’ group have lobbied lawmakers to clear the way for their ex-comrade, whose eligibility for Arlington was unclear, to be buried there.

Wayne “Whitey” Johnson, 85, of Silver Bay, Minn., who flew P-51 Mustangs with “McGoon” in China during World War II, said John McGovern once told him he wanted his brother to go to Arlington and that “Earthquake” himself once told him, “If they ever do me in, Whitey, try to get me into Arlington.”

“With what he contributed to his country, that would be a very fitting place for his remains,” Johnson said.

Garry McKenna, an Atlanta, Ga., businessman and a first cousin of “McGoon,” who backs the CAT pilots on the issue, said he was sympathetic toward James McGovern III, but “these CIA pilots were his friends, and I think Arlington is where he ought to be.”


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