A “Bad Boy Hero” of the United States Marine Corps
Pappy Boyington was a “bad boy.” Since I live where he was born (Coeur d’Alene, Idaho) and our local airport is named after him, I figured it is time to talk about this legendary flying “Ace” hero of WWII.
“The Marines I have seen around the world have the cleanest bodies, the filthiest minds, the highest morale, and the lowest morals of any group of animals I have ever seen. Thank God for the United States Marine Corps!” Eleanor Roosevelt
Colonel Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, USMC, was a hard drinking, hard living, pilot and Commanding Officer of what was known as the “Black Sheep Squadron” (VMF-214). He is described as “colorful,” yet was ultimately the recipient of both the Congressional Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross.
His squadron actually called him “Gramps” because at 31 years old, he was at least a decade older than the rest of the Marines under him. It was reportedly the press that gave him the name “Pappy.”
Family? What family?
Boyington married right out of school, and for a time worked at Boeing as a draftsman and engineer. He was a part of the ROTC program at the University of Washington. When he transferred to the US Marine Corps from the Army Reserve, he kept the fact that he was married from them, since aviators at that time had to be single. He secretly brought his family to Fredericksburg, VA.
According to reports, he didn’t even touch booze until he got to Pensacola, Florida, and trained in the 1936 Class 88-C.
Drunk and naked
Apparently he took to the alcohol, because his reputation for wrestling, drinking, and brawling was well known throughout the Corps during his career. One story says that he tried to swim across San Diego Bay, and wound up naked and exhausted in the Navy’s Shore Patrol office. He also allegedly decked a superior officer in a fight over a girl (not his wife), and his deep debts caused creditors to seek official help from the Marine Corps. He was a mess by the end of 1941.
But Boyington was a top-notch pilot, and the military knew it. He could out-dogfight most other pilots.
In late 1941, the US Government made an arrangement with CAMCO to fly for Burma that gave Boyington a chance to make some good money. According to his file, his superiors wanted rid of him anyway and made the notation that he was not good for “reappointment.” He resigned from the Marine Corps and became part of the legendary “Flying Tigers,” which was part of the 1st American Volunteer Group. He flew until the USAAF incorporated the Flying Tigers. He clashed severely with the leader of the American Volunteer Group – Claire Chennault – and ended up dishonorably discharged.
Top notch pilot
By 1942, he had “finagled” his way back into the Marine Corps, (as a Major no less), probably due to the lack of experienced pilots. He was always in the company of pretty women, even if they were married (which was a PR nightmare for the Corps).
By 1944, Pappy had shot down approximately 26 enemy aircraft, which earned him the “Ace” designation. I say “approximately” because the actual total is often disputed from his own statement to the official “22” aircraft. In the squadron’s first tour of duty in the Pacific, and flying a Vought F4U Corsair, he is reported to have shot down 14 planes in 32 days.
In a sortie over Rabaul on January 3, 1944, Boyington’s plane was shot down. He did not return to base with his squadron, so the Marine Corps classified him as “Missing in Action.” In fact, he was picked up by a Japanese submarine and became a prisoner of war at Omori Prison Camp. He was liberated from the Camp on August 29, 1945.
Even if you’re rotten to the ‘Corps’…
On September 12, 1945, he met his former squadron members at a hotel in downtown San Francisco, where they held a drinking party that was covered by Life Magazine.
Gregory Boyington was temporarily commissioned as a Colonel in the Marine Corps. Later he was given the Medal of Honor at a ceremony in Washington. The commandant of the Marine Crops bestowed the Navy Cross on him for the Rabaul raid. He was eventually commissioned as a Colonel, and retired from the Corps in 1947.
The mid 70’s television show “Baa Baa Black Sheep” or “Black Sheep Squadron” that starred Robert Conrad, infuriated his former squadron members, and damaged his relationship to them. Because it was so loosely based on the truth, they felt it was all “hogwash and Hollywood hokum.” The squadron was not made up of misfits and drunks- but that’s how they were portrayed in the show.
Today he wouldn’t have lasted
Pappy Boyington may have not been the model officer that the Marine Corps wanted, but he was an exceptional pilot. WWII saw a huge demand for experienced pilots, and he fit the bill to a “T.” During his life he had 4 wives, numerous fights, incidents of insubordination, lots of reasons to remove him from the ranks of the “Few, the Proud.” But his performances in combat were exceptional.
In modern times, Colonel Boyington would have been thrown out of the military never to return. But it was a different military in the 1940’s. In wartime, the most skilled are needed, though for whatever reason, the current Department of Defense seems to ignore that fact. But it’s men like Pappy that helped propel the United States to victory in WWII.
“There is just a split second when everything is right, for the target is going to remain anything but stationary. During this split second, the range has to be just right, the deflection has to be accurate, and the first squeeze on the trigger has to be smooth and perfect as humanly possible.” Col Gregory Boyington in his autobiography Baa Baa Black Sheep
Pappy died at the age of 75 on January 11, 1988 from lung cancer.