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CIVIL AIR TRANSPORT (CAT)

Private American air company used by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to help the French Air Force during the latter part of the Indochina War. The CAT emerged in the wake of the Pacific War when General Claire Chennault teamed up with veterans of his famous Flying Tigers in China to create the Civil Air Transport (CAT). Between 1946 and 1949, its main task was to assist Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist forces in their fight against Chinese communists. With the defeat of the nationalists in 1949 and faced with bankruptcy due to the loss of operations on the mainland, CAT leaders looked to other markets and financial sources in order to keep their company afloat.

The arrival of the Cold War in Asia, the intensification of the Indochina War, and the increased American commitment to holding the line against communism there worked in CAT’s favor in two ways. First, the intensity of the battles between the French and the forces of Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) in Indochina increased the French demand for air and firepower. However, because of commitments in Europe, the French government found it difficult to commit sufficient air forces to Indochina. Second, American Cold-War commitments in Asia led Washington to approve and to finance the CIA’s purchase of the CAT for running clandestine operations throughout the region. In August 1950, the American intelligence service purchased the CAT for less than one million dollars. The CAT continued, however, to function as a private company; only its highest-ranking directors, such as Claire Chennault, knew of the company’s new relationship with the CIA and the covert nature of some of its missions.

However, CAT’s attempts to penetrate the Indochina war market between 1950 and 1952 encountered considerable resistance from French political authorities suspicious of American political and commercial motivations. It was only in 1953, when the intensity of military operations on the battlefield and the inability of the French Air Force to respond adequately, that General Henri Navarre pushed through a deal with the CAT. President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed off on the project in March 1953, authorizing the company to provide pilots to fly 12 new C-119’s (“Flying Boxcars”). During operation Squaw I, CAT pilots helped supply French troops during the battle of Na San in Laos in 1952, and played an important role in supplying the besieged French camp at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 during operation Squaw II. Between 13 March and 6 May 1954, American pilots in the CAT flew some 682 missions over the valley of Dien Bien Phu, but not without suffering losses. On 6 May, enemy fire brought down a CAT-piloted C-119 in Laos, killing the legendary American pilot James McGovern.

While Squaw II’s mission officially ended in July 1954, CAT’s activities in Indochina did not. Following the signing of the Geneva Accords dividing Vietnam provisionally into a communist state in the north and a non-communist one in the south, CAT pilots helped transport some 20,000 Vietnamese civilians leaving the north as part of Opération Cognac. In May 1959, as the DRV reactivitated the Ho Chi Minh Trail passing through Laos, CAT was renamed Air America and would help the CIA operate clandestine missions in Laos in particular. See also GROUPEMENT DE COMMANDOS MIXTES AEROPORTES; SERVICE ACTION.