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Gregory 'Pappy' Boyington (December 4, 1912 – January 11, 1988) was a highly decorated American combat pilot who was a United States Marine Corps fighter ace during World War II. He received both the Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross. He earned his soubriquet on account of being some 10 years older than the other squadron pilots
Boyington was initially a P-40 Warhawk combat pilot with the legendary 'Flying Tigers' (1st American Volunteer Group) in the Republic of China Air Force in Burma at the end of 1941 and part of 1942, during the military conflict between China and Japan, and the beginning of World War II.
In September 1942, he rejoined the Marine Corps (he had been an aviator before the war). In early 1943, he deployed to the South Pacific and began flying combat missions as a Marine F4U Corsair fighter pilot. Though powerful and heavily armed, the Corsair gained a reputation as a notoriously difficult plane to fly.
In September 1943, he took command of U.S. Marine Corps fighter squadron VMF-214, which some claim was named the Black Sheep by Boyington himself. In January 1944, Boyington, outnumbered by Japanese Zero planes, was shot down into the Pacific Ocean after downing one of the enemy planes. He was captured by a Japanese submarine crew and was held as a prisoner of war for more than a year and a half. He was released shortly after the surrender of Japan, and a few days before the official surrender documents were signed.
He was born on December 4, 1912 in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. Sometimes he is erroneously quoted as being born in 1906. 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 was a member of the ROTC and joined the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity. He was on the college wrestling and swimming teams, and for a time he held the Pacific Northwest Intercollegiate middleweight wrestling title. He spent his summers working in Washington in a mining camp and at a logging camp, and with the Coeur d'Alene Fire Protective Association in road construction. He graduated in 1934 with a B.S. in aeronautical engineering.
Boyington married shortly after graduation and worked as a draftsman and engineer for Boeing.
In 1935 he applied for flight training under the Aviation Cadet Act, but he discovered that it excluded married men. Boyington had grown up using the name Gregory Hallenbeck, after his stepfather. When he obtained a copy of his birth certificate, however, he learned his father was actually Charles Boyington and that his parents had divorced when he was an infant. Since there was no record that someone named Gregory Boyington had ever been married, he enrolled as United States Marine Corps aviation cadet using that name. That is just a single example of Boyington's lifelong habit of kicking the traces whenever faced with officialdom!
Boyington had begun his military training as a member of the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC), at the University of Washington, where he became a cadet captain. He was commissioned a second lieutenant in the US Army Coast Artillery Reserve in June 1934, and then served two months of active duty with the 630th Coast Artillery at Fort Worden, Washington.
U.S. Marine Corps
On June 13, 1935, he managed to transfer to the Marine Corps Reserve. He returned to inactive duty on July 16 that 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 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.
Boyington attended the Basic School in Philadelphia from July 1938 to January 1939. On completion of the course, he was assigned 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 first lieutenant on November 4, 1940, Boyington returned to Pensacola as an instructor in December.
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 firm that contracted to staff a Special Air Unit to defend China and the Burma Road. This later became known as the American Volunteer Group (AVG), the famed Flying Tigers in Burma. During his time with the Tigers, Boyington became a flight leader. He was frequently in trouble with the commander of the outfit, Claire Chennault. Boyington was officially credited with 2 Japanese aircraft destroyed in the air and 1.5 on the ground, but AVG records suggest that one additional ground "kill" may have been due to him. (He afterward claimed six victories as a Tiger, but there is no substantiation for that figure, and aircraft destroyed on the ground normally do not count as victories.) In April 1942, he broke his contract with the American Volunteer Group and returned on his own to the United States.
U.S. Marine Corps
On September 29, 1942, he rejoined the Marine Corps and managed to gain a major's commission. The Marine Corps needed experienced combat pilots and in early 1943, he was assigned to Marine Aircraft Group 11 of the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing and deployed to the South Pacific as Executive Officer of Marine Fighter Squadron 122 operating from Guadalcanal until April 1943. While assigned to VMF-122, Boyington did not gain any victories. He became commander of Marine Fighter Squadron 112 from July to August 1943. In September 1943, he became Commanding Officer (CO) of Marine Fighter Squadron 214, better known by its nickname, the 'Black Sheep Squadron'.
Boyington initially received the nickname 'Gramps', because at age 31, he was a decade older than most of the Marines serving under him. The name was changed to '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 in 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, he shot down 14 enemy fighter planes in 32 days. By December 27, his record had climbed to 25.
A typical feat was his attack on Kahili airdrome at the southern tip of Bougainville on October 17, 1943. Boyington 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 more than that number of enemy aircraft.
On January 3, 1944, he tied World War I ace Eddie Rickenbacker's record of 26 enemy planes destroyed, before he was himself shot down. On that mission, forty-eight American fighters, including four planes from the Black Sheep Squadron, were sent on a sweep over Rabaul. Boyington was tactical commander of the flight and arrived over the target at eight o'clock AM. He was seen to shoot down his 26th plane, but he then became mixed in the general melee of dogfighting planes and was not seen or heard from 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. He described the combat in two books and numerous public appearances (often with Boyington), but this claim was eventually 'disproven'. though Kawato repeated his story until his death. Kawato was present during the action in which Boyington, as one of 70 Japanese fighters which engaged about 30 American fighters.
Prisoner of War
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 Prisoner of War 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, where he was met by 21 former squadron members from VMF-214. That night a party for him that has entered the annals of legend was held at the St. Francis Hotel in downtown San Francisco and 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.