Thu, Feb 17, 2005 - Page 7 News List

France to honor CIA's Dien Bien Phu pilots

AP , WASHINGTON

In the spring of 1954, Allen Pope risked life and limb to fly covert Central Intelligence Agency resupply missions to besieged French forces in what is now Vietnam. But the thing he recounts most vividly is not the dangers he faced. It's the heroism of the French troops he was helping.

"This is what I'll always remember: the way they fought. There were men without hands, men without legs, men without feet, men that were blinded," he says. "They were catching hell."

They caught it at Dien Bien Phu, a cluster of villages in a valley ringed by mountains near the Laotian border. Communist rebels on higher ground pummeled the French with artillery in an epic battle that marked the end of French colonial rule in Indochina and foreshadowed the US involvement in Vietnam.

Next week, nearly 51 years after the fall of Dien Bien Phu, the seven surviving US pilots who braved those perilous skies -- but later were essentially disowned by the CIA -- will be awarded the Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur, or Legion of Honor, France's highest award for service.

Six of the seven will gather at the official residence of French Ambassador Jean-David Levitte for a Feb. 24 ceremony to commemorate an important chapter in the history of US-French relations.

"It's a nice gesture on their part," says Douglas Price, who was 29 years old when he flew 39 airdrop missions to Dien Bien Phu in April and May 1954 as a civilian employee of Civil Air Transport, a flying service whose undeclared owner was the CIA.

"There has been a lot of friction between the [US and French] governments lately," he said, alluding to the leading role France played in opposing the Bush administration's decision to go to war in Iraq. "Maybe they're making a gesture, hoping that they can get things back together again."

The gesture will exceed any public thanks these now-elderly Americans have received from their own government, which sent them into harm's way in unarmed C-119 "Flying Boxcar" cargo planes with the understanding that if captured or killed they would not be acknowledged as agents of the US government.

"I was a covert employee. We were expendable," says Roy Watts.

He unsuccessfully sued the government for extended disability and retirement benefits based on his 16 years of flying covert missions in Asia for the CIA.

The CIA argues that the men technically were not government employees since they worked for a CIA front company.

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