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James “Earthquake McGoon” McGovern

James “Earthquake McGoon” McGovern
McGovern

As a follow up of the mtDNA Haplogroup H tutorial, lets take a look at a fun topic and see how anthropologists have used mtDNA to help solve historical questions.  Let's examine some historical figures who may have belonged to Haplogroup H, one of the largest European Haplogroups.  

Case Study #1:  Decendents of Maria Theresa
Case Study #2:  Empress Feodorovna
Case Study #3:  James "Earthquake McGoon" McGovern  <<== You are here
Case Study #4:  Luke the Evangelist

As part of our Haplogroup H series we will review this case study about a World War II fighter ace and CIA pilot who died in combat in Vietnam. 

Case #3:  James “Earthquake McGoon” McGovern

Who was he?

James McGovern was a World War II fighter ace who died in a plane crash in Laos on May 6, 1954 when the Civil Air Transport plane that he was flying to provide ammunition to French troops was hit by groundfire.  McGovern and Buford (an American co-pilot) and two French Corporal Chiefs were killed instantly, making McGovern and Buford the first two Americans to die in combat in Vietnam. 

The source of his nickname:

At six feet and 260 pounds, McGovern was considered large for a fighter pilot, prompting his nickname “Earthquake McGoon” after the fierce and primitively charismatic (hulking hillbilly) wrestler from the popular Li’l Abner comic strip.

What were the anthropologists trying to find out? ie why was his DNA tested?

Between 1997 and 2002, multiple investigations of the site of incident were done by different teams (including joint US-Lao teams); however, only small fragments of aircraft wreckage were found, but no human burial sites were located.  In 2002, while investigating an unrelated crash near the Ban Sot area, the JTF-FA team discovered an old C-119 (the type of plan that McGovern was flying) propeller.  A few months later, human remains of a single individual were discovered from an unmarked grave, leading to speculation that the grave may have belonged to James McGovern.

The main purpose of the project was to determine whether the remains belonged to James McGovern.

Who’s Who in researching this project:

  • Irwin et al from Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory, Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, Rockville, USA.
  • Holland et al from Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command - Central Identification Laboratory, Hawaii, USA

Top peer reviewed research publications for genetic identification of James McGovern:

This table lists the most significant papers for the James McGovern case and the DNA tests that were performed to identify his remains in peer reviewed journals.  Links are provided to access the original articles.

These papers provide the extent of what is known today about the DNA of James McGovern and provides answers to the question of whether the remains discovered in the grave belong to the James McGovern.

Name of Scientific Article Scientific Journal
DNA Identification of “Earthquake McGoon” 50 Years PostmortemIrwin et alArmed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory, Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, Rockville, USA Click here to read abstract J Forensic Sci.  2007 Sep; 52(5):  1115-8.

As further information becomes available, this table will be updated.

Solving the case: Collecting DNA samples

The first step in solving the case involved collecting DNA samples from the remains and locating living relatives of James McGovern for DNA testing. 

  1. The remains:  DNA was extracted from the left femur obtained in the excavation (putative McGovern).
  2. The relatives:  DNA samples were collected from living relatives of James McGovern including: 1 maternal cousin (McGovern’s mother’s sister’s son), 1 sister-in-law, 4 nieces (daugthers of sister-in-law), 1 nephew (sone of sister-in-law)

The relationship of each individual tested in relation to James McGovern are shown in the pedigree below:

The DNA testing process:

Mulitple DNA testing types were performed on the remains and the relatives.  To follow are the DNA test types used in this study:

  1. mtDNA HVR1 and mtDNA HVR2 sequencing - to confirm maternal lineage
  2. mtDNA SNP testing - to supplement the HVR1 and HVR2 results by improving the discrimination power of the test
  3. Autosomal STR testing - to confirm relationships
  4. Y-DNA STR testing - to confirm paternal lineage

The goal of the various test types is to firmly establish the identity of the remains by looking for proof of relationship along the maternal and paternal lines to known descendents of McGovern’s family.

Results of the DNA tests:

Individual Tested mtDNA HVR1 and HVR2 Results mtDNA Coding Region Results Y-DNA STR Results
Remains (putative James McGovern) Same as Maternal Cousin of McGovern, different from Buford maternal reference,16519 +ve 3010 +ve     4793 –ve    10211 –ve   5004 –ve   7028 –ve   7202 –ve   12852 –ve   4580 –ve   477 –ve   14470 –ve     Same as Paternal Nephew of McGovern
Maternal Cousin of McGovern (female) Same as Remains, different from Buford maternal reference, 16519 +ve 3010 +ve     4793 –ve    10211 –ve   5004 –ve   7028 –ve   7202 –ve   12852 –ve   4580 –ve   477 –ve   14470 –ve     Not tested (females do not have Y-DNA)
Paternal Nephew of McGovern (male) Not tested Not tested Same as Remains
Buford’s maternal reference Different from Remains, different from Maternal Cousin of McGovern Not tested Not tested

Summary of Results:

The results of the DNA tests were able to confirm the following:

  1. The mtDNA profile of the Remains was identical to the mtDNA profile of McGovern’s Maternal Cousin.
  2. The Y-DNA STR haplotype of the Remains was identical to the Y-DNA STR haplotype of McGvoern’s Paternal Nephew.

Based on statistical analysis of data available, the likelihood ratio that the Remains belong to a male individual who is related to McGovern’s living family members is 96,900, thus successfully establishing that the remains are indeed those of McGovern who died in 1954.

According to Dr. Thomas Holland (director of JPAC’s Central Identification Laboratory), McGovern was the second person ever identified by their laboratory through forensic analysis of Y-DNA.  Most cases involving old and highly degraded samples tend to rely on mtDNA analysis since mtDNA is far more stable than Y-DNA when examining extremely old or degraded samples. 

The Aftermath:

A military funeral was held in New Jersey on October 28, 2005 to honor this well-known US military pilot. 

Haplogroup Analysis:

Although the original researchers did not intend to determine the haplogroup of James McGovern, amateur genetic genealogists have stated that McGovern belonged to Haplogroup H.  Let’s take a look at how they have arrived at this conclusion:

Step 1:  To begin, click here to download the mtDNA Haplogroup Map.  You will need to use this map to follow along in this discussion.

Step 2:  Identify the presence and absence of McGovern’s mtDNA markers on the map.  Starting from the CRS, move outwards and cross off all markers that McGovern does not have, circle all of the markers that he does have and put a question mark next to the markers that have not been tested:

Based on the coding region results, McGovern is negative for the marker 7028, thus excluding him from all haplogroups except Haplogroup H.  The absence of markers in his HVR1 (except for 16519), and the absence of coding region marker 4580 further suggests that McGovern belongs to Haplogroup H. 

Can we determine his subclade?

If McGovern is truly a member of Haplogroup H, let’s see if we can find out which Subclade of H he belongs to.  To proceed, click here to download and print the H Subclade map, as you will need it to follow along with this discussion.

Again, circle the markers that McGovern does have and cross out the markers that McGovern definitely does not have.  In this case, we will leave all unknown markers untouched.

McGovern is positive for the coding region marker 3010, which is a defining marker for Subclade H1.  However, he is negative for 477, indicating that he is not from sublineage H1c, and he is negative for 12858, indicating that he is not likely H1c2.  Other coding results indicate that McGovern is negative for 5004, indicating that he is not likely H4; he is negative for 4793, indicating that he is not likley H7; and he is negative for 14470, indicating that he is not likely H10. 

Based on the known DNA markers results for McGovern obtained to date, it is safe to conclude that he is very likely a member of Haplogroup H.  If he is indeed a member of Haplogroup H, his most likely a descendent of Subclade is H1.  However, in order to confirm his Subclade, a Subclade test would be required to examine markers 1638, 6776, 13101, 4310, 8448, 3936, 14872, 11377, 6352, 1039, 3915, 13708, 14869 and 8494 to exclude the possibility of other H Subclades, including H2, H3, H8, H9, H11, H12, H13, H14, H15, H16, H17, H18, H19, and H21.  Other markers that would be useful to examine are 6365, 8271, 3796, 9066 and 9150 to determine which further sublineage of H1 he belongs to.

To follow are other notable people in history who belonged to mtDNA haplogroup H:

Descendents of Maria-Theresa
Luke the Evangelist
Empress Feodorovna

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