Gregory "Pappy" Boyington (December 4, 1912 – January 11, 1988) was a United States Marine Corps officer who was an American fighter ace during World War II. For his heroic actions, he was awarded both the Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross. Boyington flew initially with the American Volunteer Group in the Republic of China Air Force during the Second Sino-Japanese War. He later commanded the U.S. Marine Corps squadron VMF-214 ("The Black Sheep Squadron") during World War II. Boyington became a prisoner of war later in the war.
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Gregory Boyington was born on December 4, 1912 in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. He grew up in the logging town of St. Maries, Idaho and in Tacoma, Washington, where he was a wrestler at Lincoln High School. He took his first flight when he was six years old, with Clyde Pangborn, who later flew the Pacific non-stop.
In 1930, Boyington entered the University of Washington, where he joined the ROTC and became a member of the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity. He was a member of the college wrestling and swimming teams, and at one time held the Pacific Northwest Intercollegiate middleweight wrestling title. Boyington graduated in 1934 with a B.S. in aeronautical engineering.
He spent his summers working in his home state in a mining camp and logging camp and with the Coeur d'Alene Fire Protective Association in road construction and lookout work.
Boyington married shortly after his graduation and worked for Boeing as a draftsman and engineer.
He had grown up using the name Hallenbeck, after his stepfather, but when he decided to apply for flight training, he obtained his birth certificate and learned his father was actually named Charles Boyington, and his parents had divorced when he was an infant. Since there was no record that Gregory Boyington had ever been married, he was free to become a cadet pilot under that name in the U.S. Marine Corps.
Boyington started his military career in college, as a member of the Reserve Officers Training Corps in which he became a cadet captain. He was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Coast Artillery Reserve in June 1934, and served two months of active duty with the 630th Coast Artillery at Fort Worden, Washington. On June 13, 1935, he enlisted and went on active duty in the Volunteer Marine Corps Reserve. He returned to inactive duty on July 16 in the same year.
On February 18, 1936, Boyington accepted an appointment as an aviation cadet in the Marine Corps Reserve. He was assigned to the Naval Air Station, Pensacola, Florida, for flight training. He was designated a naval aviator on March 11, 1937, then was transferred to Quantico, Virginia, for duty with Aircraft One, Fleet Marine Force. He was discharged from the Marine Corps Reserve on July 1, 1937 in order to accept a second lieutenant's commission in the regular Marine Corps the following day.
He was sent to The Basic School in Philadelphia in July 1938. On completion of the course, Boyington was transferred to the 2nd Marine Aircraft Group at the San Diego Naval Air Station. He took part in fleet problems off the aircraft carriers USS Lexington and USS Yorktown. Promoted to lieutenant on November 4, 1940, Boyington returned to Pensacola as an instructor the next month.
Boyington resigned his commission in the Marine Corps on August 26, 1941 to accept a position with the Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company (CAMCO). CAMCO was a civilian organization that contracted to staff a Special Air Unit to defend China and the Burma Road. The unit later became known as the American Volunteer Group (AVG), the famed Flying Tigers of China. During his months with the "Tigers", Boyington became a flight leader. He was frequently in trouble with the commander of that outfit, Claire Chennault.
As a member of the AVG 1st Squadron, Boyington was officially credited with 3.5 Japanese aircraft destroyed in the air and on the ground, but AVG records suggest that one additional "kill" may have been due to him. (He afterward claimed six victories as a Tiger, but there is no substantiation for that figure.) In the spring of 1942, he broke his contract with the American Volunteer Group and returned to the United States, where he was eventually re-instated in the Marine Corps. Boyington wrangled a major's commission in the Marines, which were in great need of experienced combat pilots. He was assigned to Marine Aircraft Group 11 of the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, where he became Executive Officer of VMF-121 operating from Guadalcanal. While assigned to VMF-121, Boyington did not shoot down any enemy planes. Later, he became Commanding Officer (CO) of Marine Fighter Squadron 214, better known by its nickname, the "Black Sheep Squadron."
The CO earned the nickname "Gramps" because, at age 31, he was a decade older than most of his men. (Nicknames of this type are common within the armed forces, especially because the commanding officer of a unit is often referred to as "the old man".) It became "Pappy" in a variation on "The Whiffenpoof Song" whose new lyrics had been written by Paul "Moon" Mullen, one of his pilots, and this version was picked up by war correspondents.
Boyington is best known for his exploits flying the Vought F4U Corsair in VMF-214. During periods of intense activity in the Russell Islands-New Georgia and Bougainville-New Britain-New Ireland areas, Boyington added to his total almost daily. During his squadron's first tour of combat duty, the major shot down 14 enemy fighter planes in 32 days. By December 27, his record had climbed to 25.
A typical daring feat was his attack on Kahili airdrome at the southern tip of Bougainville on October 17, 1943. He and 24 fighters circled the field where 60 hostile aircraft were based, goading the enemy into sending up a large force. In the fierce battle that followed, 20 enemy aircraft were shot down while the Black Sheep returned to their base without loss.
Boyington’s squadron, flying from the island of Vella Lavella, offered to down a Japanese Zero for every baseball cap sent to them by major league players in the World Series. They received 20 caps and shot down many more enemy aircraft.
He tied the American record of 26 planes on January 3, 1944 over Rabaul, but was shot down himself later the same day. The mission had sent 48 American fighters, including one division of four planes from the Black Sheep Squadron, from Bougainville for a fighter sweep over Rabaul. Boyington was the tactical commander of the flight and arrived over the target at eight o'clock in the morning. In the ensuing action, the major was seen to shoot down his 26th plane. He then became mixed in the general melee of diving,
swooping planes and was not seen or heard from again during the battle, nor did he return with his squadron. Boyington's wingman Captain George Ashmun was killed in action.
In later years, Masajiro "Mike" Kawato claimed to have been the pilot who shot down Boyington's plane. He described the combat in two books and numerous public appearances (often with Boyington), but this claim was eventually "disproven," though Kawato held to his story until his death. It is a matter of record that Kawato was present during the action in which Boyington was downed, as one of 70 Japanese fighters which engaged approximately 30 American fighters.
Following a determined but futile search, Boyington was declared missing in action. He had been picked up by a Japanese submarine and became a prisoner of war. (The submarine was sunk 13 days after picking him up.) According to Boyington's autobiography, he was never accorded official P.O.W. status by the Japanese and his captivity was not reported to the Red Cross. He spent the rest of the war, some 20 months, in Japanese prison camps. After being held temporarily at Rabaul and then Truk, where he survived the massive U.S. Navy raid known as "Operation Hailstone", he was transported first to Ōfuna and finally to Ōmori Prison Camp near Tokyo. During that time he was selected for temporary promotion to the rank of lieutenant colonel. A fellow American prisoner of war was Medal of Honor recipient submarine captain Richard O'Kane. At Ōfuna Boyington was interned with the former Olympic distance runner and downed aviator Louis Zamperini.
During mid-August 1945, after the atomic bombs and the Japanese capitulation, Boyington was liberated from Japanese custody at Omori Prison Camp on August 29. Boyington returned to the United States at Naval Air Station Alameda on September 12, 1945 and where he was met by 21 former squadron members from VMF-214. That night a party for him was held at the St. Francis Hotel in downtown San Francisco that was covered by Life Magazine. The coverage of the party marked the first time that the magazine had ever shown people consuming alcohol. Prior to his arrival, on September 6, he accepted his temporary lieutenant colonel's commission in the Marine Corps.
Shortly after his return to the U.S., as a lieutenant colonel, Boyington was ordered to Washington to receive the nation's highest honor — the Medal of Honor — from the President. The medal had been awarded by the late president, Franklin D. Roosevelt in March 1944 and held in the capital until such time as he could receive it. On October 4, 1945, Boyington received the Navy Cross from the Commandant of the Marine Corps for the Rabaul raid; the following day, "Nimitz Day," he and other sailors and Marines were decorated at the White House by President Harry S. Truman.
Following the receipt of his Medal of Honor and Navy Cross, Boyington made a Victory Bond Tour. Originally ordered to the Marine Corps Schools, Quantico, he was later directed to report to the Commanding General, Marine Air West Coast, Marine Corps Air Depot, Miramar, San Diego, California. He retired from the Marine Corps on August 1, 1947, and because he was specially commended for the performance of duty in actual combat, he was promoted to colonel.
Boyington was a tough, hard-living character who was known for being unorthodox. He was also a heavy drinker, which plagued him in the years after the war, and possibly contributed to his multiple divorces. He freely admitted that during the two years he spent as a P.O.W. his health improved, due to the enforced sobriety. He worked various civilian jobs, including refereeing and participating in professional wrestling matches.
Many people know of him from the mid-1970s television show Baa Baa Black Sheep, a drama about the Black Sheep squadron based very loosely on Boyington's memoir of the same name, with Boyington portrayed by Robert Conrad. Like Chuck Yeager in the movie The Right Stuff, Pappy had a short walk-on role, as a visiting general during the second season of the show. Many of Boyington's men were irate over this show, charging it was mostly fiction and presented a glamorized portrayal of Boyington. At least on the television show, Boyington was depicted as owning a bull terrier dog, named "Meatball." However, he was heard commenting at a 1970s Experimental Aircraft Association air show book signing that if he did have a dog at the time, it wouldn't have been such "an ugly" dog. Boyington frequently informed interviewers and audiences that the television series was fiction, and only loosely related to actual history, calling it "hogwash and Hollywood hokum".
In addition to his autobiography, Boyington wrote a novel about the AVG. Tonya is a spy story with characters who evoked actual individuals, sometimes by transposing the syllables of their names ("Ross Dicky" for Dick Rossi, for example).
While artist depictions and publicity photos often show Boyington with aircraft number 86 "LuluBelle" covered in victory flags, this was not his combat aircraft. In fact, he rarely flew the same aircraft more than a few times. It has been said that he would choose the F4U in the worst shape, so none of his pilots would be afraid of flying their own aircraft.
The publicity photo taken of Boyington in F4U-1A Corsair number 86 was taken at Espiritu Santo (code named BUTTON), in the New Hebrides on 26 November 1943. The photo was taken while VMF-214 was on R&R, between VMF-214s first and second combat tours with Boyington as the Commanding Officer. Although Boyington claimed after the war that the name of the plane in the publicity photo was "LuluBelle," in light of Bruce Gamble's analysis, it was most likely named "LucyBelle". VMF-214 had previously served two combat tours in the Solomon Islands before Boyington assumed command of the squadron.
He visited the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum Paul E. Garber Preservation, Restoration, and Storage Facility, coincidentally just as the Museum's F4U Corsair left the restoration shop. According to docents who witnessed the incident, Boyington climbed into the cockpit "for old time's sake" and attempted to start the engine. He autographed the Corsair with a magic marker in one of the landing gear wells; saying, in effect, that it was a Corsair in the best condition he'd ever seen. Years later that same Corsair hangs from the ceiling at the NASM Dulles Annex, and Boyington's autograph is visible from floor level to the sharp-eyed.
In 1957, he appeared as a guest challenger on the television panel show "To Tell The Truth".
Boyington was an absentee father to three children by his first wife. One daughter (Janet Boyington) committed suicide; one son (Gregory Boyington, Jr.) graduated from the United States Air Force Academy in 1960, and later retired from the Air Force holding the rank of Lieutenant colonel.
A heavy smoker for years, Boyington died in his sleep, possibly from cancer complications, on January 11, 1988 at the age of 75 in Fresno, California.
He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery on January 15, 1988, in plot 7A-150 with full honors accorded to a Medal of Honor recipient, including a missing man fly-by conducted by the F-4 Phantom IIs of the Marine detachment at Andrews Air Force Base. Before his flight from Fresno, VMA-214 (the current incarnation of the Black Sheep Squadron) did a flyby. They intended to perform a missing man formation, but one of the four aircraft suffered a mechanical problem.
After the burial service for Boyington, one of his friends, Fred Losch, looked down at the headstone next to which he was standing, that of boxing legend Joe Louis, and remarked that "Ol' Pappy wouldn't have to go far to find a good fight."