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France honors CIA pilots

From David Ensor

Wolf Blitzer Reports
Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Fifty-one years ago, 37 pilots for an air service secretly owned by the CIA braved heavy anti-aircraft fire to supply beleaguered French troops in the valley of Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam.

Seven survivors, now in their 70s and 80s, were awarded France's highest civilian honor, the Legion D'Honneur.

"So from the bottom of my heart, in the name of the French Republic, thank you," said French Ambassador Jean-David Levitte.

At the ceremony, former pilot Allen Pope said, "I remember those valiant members of our organization who could not be with us today. May they rest well in the true knowledge that their efforts in the final analysis of history was never in vain."

Pilot James McGovern and his co-pilot Wallace Buford were shot down.

With ammunition and food, much of it flown in by the Americans, the doomed French forces held out for nearly two months before being taken to prison camps where many more died.

"When Dien Bien Phu fell, they were just about out of ammunition. They were physically pounded for 55 days and even not wounded were dying at their guns from fatigue," remembers Pope.

Pope and fellow pilot Doug Price remember well the courage of the French but downplay their own.

"Every day [the assignment] got a little bit more dangerous because they got more guns in action -- they got a little bit more accurate," says Price.

They flew CIA-owned planes, with French markings and French cargo handlers known as "kickers." Price's plane was hit by .50 caliber antiaircraft fire:

"It went right through after the flight deck and the forward part of the cargo department and hit one of the French kickers we had ... He eventually lost a leg," says Price.

Historian William Leary says, "Al Pope and Doug Price were two of the best. They were the kind of person that you can count upon to do the most difficult, the most dangerous flying and then to keep their mouth shut about it after they did so."

"I just don't need publicity about anything," says Pope. "In fact, I'm amazed that I'm sitting here today. I chased you guys away for more than 50 years."

The CIA got exactly what it wanted from Pope -- total discretion.

Yet the agency takes the view that since the men worked for a front company, not the CIA, they are not entitled to any compensation or honors from the government.

However, Leary says, "I think their own government is a bit behind the curve in honoring what these people did. These individuals were true heroes for the United States during the Cold War and they deserve far more than they've ever gotten from the United States government."

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