One of World War II’s most quixotic figures, United States Marine Corps aviator and fighter ace Gregory “Pappy” Boyington is as fascinating today as he was then. His combat career taking on and taking down Japanese airmen began even before America was thrust into the war when he left the Corps to join the famous “Flying Tigers” volunteer outfit in 1941. Boyington rejoined the Marines in 1942 and flew in the South Pacific where he led the legendary Black Sheep Squadron, shot down 26 Japanese airplanes, and earned a Medal of Honor plus a Navy Cross. Then he was shot down and given up for dead, only to reemerge at war’s end from a Japanese POW camp. He was emaciated but alive and still full of pep.
A “Character” In Uniform
Gregory Boyington, who grew up Gregory Hallenbeck, was born from Sioux and Irish stock in Idaho in 1912. He took his first flight at age six and was hooked. After graduating high school in 1930, he went to the University of Washington where he joined the Army ROTC. Boyington also made the swimming and wrestling teams. He took various jobs in college, from parking cars to working road construction and in logging and mining camps in summer. After graduating with an aeronautical engineering degree in 1934, he got a job with Boeing and got married soon thereafter.
Boyington also applied for flight training under a military reserve program but discovered that married men were ineligible. A dramatic discovery salvaged his dreams of flying, however. Until then, Gregory had assumed that the man who had raised him, Ellsworth Hallenbeck, was his father. A copy of his birth certificate revealed that his biological father was actually Charles Boyington, who had divorced Gregory’s mother when he was a baby. There was no record of a Gregory Boyington being married, so he applied to a U.S. Marine Corps flight training program under that name and joined the Marine Reserves.
He became a Naval Aviator in 1937 and joined the active Marine Corps as a second lieutenant a few months later. Boyington was what could best be described as a “character” and a free thinker – traits that are not exactly a great fit for military service. In uniform, he discovered that his willingness to circumvent the rules and regulations, as well as his frequently outrageous conduct, got him in plenty of hot water with his superiors time after time. As he admitted years later, he was often “his own worst enemy.”
In the pre-war years, promotions were slow in coming, and Boyington needed more than his first lieutenant’s salary to take care of his growing family. So he resigned his commission in 1941 and signed up as a mercenary with the American Volunteer Group, better known as “The Flying Tigers,” to fight for China and protect the vital Burma Road from the Japanese. Per Boyington: “The AVG was paying $675 per month with a bonus of $500 for every confirmed scalp you knocked down. In 1941 that was the same as making $5,000 a month [in 1988 dollars]. And with an ex-wife, three kids, debts, and my lifestyle, I really needed the work.”
Boyington was a hard-charging and hard-living warrior, traits that caused him and some other Flying Tigers to rub their commander, Claire Chennault, the wrong way. As he put it decades later: “[Chennault] was less than pleased with some of our antics, such as shooting down the telephone lines with our .45s on the train to our billets, holding water buffalo races and rodeos in the street, or shooting up the chandeliers in a bar when they quit serving us. Some of the ground crew had been caught smuggling guns for profit, and that went over like a mortar round. Our radioman had even purchased a wife from her father, and we tried like hell to keep Chennault from finding out.”
The Birth of a Legendary Squadron and Leader
Boyington was in nearly constant trouble with his boss, but that did not stop Chennault from seeing his subordinate’s leadership potential, so he made him a flight leader. During his time with the Flying Tigers, Boyington shot down two Japanese airplanes and was credited with destroying another 1.5 on the ground. He also survived a plane crash, walking away with torn knees and a gashed head, and took a Japanese bullet to the shoulder on another occasion. A few months after America was thrust into WWII, Boyington broke his contract with Chennault, and despite the latter’s best efforts to keep him in the China-India-Burma Theater, returned to the U.S. to rejoin the Marines.
Promoted to Major, Boyington was deployed to Guadalcanal in early 1943 as executive officer of Marine Fighter Squadron (VMF) 122. In July 1943, he was made commander of VMF-112, and in September, he was put in charge of Marine Fighter Squadron 214. It was with VMF-214 that Boyington became “Pappy,” and his legend took off. The men initially wanted to name their squadron “Boyington’s Bastards,” but officials refused on grounds that civilian papers would never print it. So they settled on “Black Sheep” instead. For their insignia, they chose a shield with a black sheep surrounded by twelve stars and crowned with their airplane, the F4U Corsair, with a heraldic bar sinister denoting illegitimacy, or bastardy.
Boyington’s men initially nicknamed him “Gramps” then later changed him to “Pappy” in accordance with a contemporary song because, at age 31, he was a decade older than most of his Marines. The Black Sheep were in combat for 84 days, during which they destroyed or damaged 203 Japanese airplanes, including 97 confirmed aerial kills. They also strafed, bombed, destroyed numerous enemy ground installations, and sank several supply ships and troop transports. For exceptional heroism in action, the squadron earned a Presidential Unit Citation.
As their commander, Boyington not only led the Black Sheep but led the way in taking on and aggressively tangling with the Japanese. In one exploit against the Kahili airfield in Bougainville, where 60 enemy airplanes were based, Boyington led 24 fighters in circling the Japanese to goad them into coming out en masse. When they did, the Black Sheep shot down 20 enemy planes without losing any of their own. During his first 32 days of combat, Boyington personally shot down 14 enemy airplanes. On his best day, he downed five Japanese in a single mission. By December 1943, his confirmed kill record had risen to 25.
On January 3rd, 1944, Boyington led 48 fighters on a sweep over Rabaul and tied Eddie Rickenbacker’s WWI record, as well as WWII’s then-highest American record, by downing his 26th Japanese plane. Unfortunately, it proved to be his last kill, as he was shot down a few minutes later. A massive search failed to locate Boyington, and he was declared Missing in Action (MIA). Unbeknownst to his comrades, Boyington had survived. Although peppered with shrapnel to his groin, arms, and shoulders, and with a massive laceration to his scalp, a bullet in a calf, and a nearly severed left ear, he had managed to parachute from his flaming Corsair into Rabaul’s harbor.
A Legend’s Near-Miraculous Survival
An injured Boyington was strafed in the water by four Zeroes, all of which fortunately missed before he was picked by a Japanese submarine and made a POW. What followed were 20 months of brutal imprisonment, during which he was mistreated, beaten, and often went hungry or starved, resulting in the loss of nearly 70 pounds. His ordeal finally came to an end on August 29th, 1945, when he was liberated and taken back to the United States. There, he was greeted by surviving Black Sheep who threw him a party in a San Francisco hotel that was covered by Life Magazine and appeared on its October 1st, 1945 issue. Soon thereafter, he was ordered to Washington, D.C to receive a Medal of Honor at the White House from President Truman. Its citation stated in relevant part that in the period September 12th, 1943 to January 3rd, 1944:
“…Major Boyington struck at the enemy with daring and courageous persistence, leading his squadron into combat with devastating results to Japanese shipping, shore installations and aerial forces. Resolute in his efforts to inflict crippling damage on the enemy, Major BOYINGTON led a formation of twenty-four fighters over Kahili on October 17, and, persistently circling the airdrome where sixty hostile aircraft were grounded, boldly challenged the Japanese to send up planes. Under his brilliant command, our fighters shot down twenty enemy craft in the ensuing action without the loss of a single ship. A superb airman and determined fighter against overwhelming odds, Major BOYINGTON personally destroyed 26 of the many Japanese planes shot down by his squadron and by his forceful leadership developed the combat readiness in his command which was a distinctive factor in the Allied aerial achievements in this vitally strategic area.”
The hard-living Boyington was notorious for being a heavy drinker. Alcoholism caused him many problems in his professional and private lives and contributed to multiple divorces – he got married four times. The booze, marital difficulties, heavy indebtedness, and a reputation for being a troublemaker precluded a career in the Marine Corps after WWII. So Boyington retired on August 1st, 1947, with the rank of Colonel. He then worked a variety of civilian gigs, including refereeing and participating in professional wrestling matches. He also wrote an autobiography, Baa Baa Black Sheep, which was published in 1958, plus a novel about the Flying Tigers.
Baa Baa Black Sheep was made into an NBC series, albeit a significantly fictionalized one, that aired for two seasons from 1976 to 1978, and in which Boyington was portrayed by actor Robert Conrad. In 1981, Boyington participated in a Black Sheep Squadron reunion hosted by the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. The event, attended by 18 surviving VMF-214 veterans, included the unveiling of a restored F4U-1 Corsair that their commander autographed with a marker pen on a landing well. It hangs today from the ceiling of the museum’s Dulles Airport Annex, and Boyington’s signature is visible from the ground.
The flying, the Japanese, the copious booze consumption, and years of heavy smoking did not keep Boyington from reaching his biblical threescore and ten years. However, the tobacco habit caught up with him eventually, and he died of lung cancer in 1988, at age 77. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors due a Medal of Honor recipient. His grave is close to that of boxer Joe Louis. As a friend remarked at the funeral when he noticed the proximity to the pugilistic legend’s headstone: “Ol’ Pappy wouldn’t have to go far to find a good fight.”
Sources and Further Reading
Aviation History Magazine, May 2001 – WWII Ace Pappy Boyington Recalls War, Prison and Flying
Boyington, Gregory – Baa Baa Black Sheep (1958)
Encyclopedia Britannica – Pappy Boyington
Fortitudine, Bulletin of the Marine Corps Historical Program, Volume 35, Number 1, 2010 – Boyington and Combat Leadership
Gamble, Bruce – The Black Sheep: The Definitive Account of Marine Fighting Squadron 214 in World War II (1998)
Gamble, Bruce – Black Sheep One: The Life of Gregory ‘Pappy’ Boyington (2000)
Wukovitz, John F. – Black Sheep: The Life of Pappy Boyington (2011)