Gregory R. Boyington
was born in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, in 1912, to parents of part
American Indian ancestry. His ambition to be a pilot began at
the age of eight, when he took his first airplane ride from the
famous Clyde Pangborn, who in 1931 became the first to fly non
stop from Japan to the U. S. To say Boyington was the most colorful
character to pin on the eagle, globe, anchor, and gold wings
would be an understatement. The partying, "tell it like
it is," irreverent, Boyington was loved by his subordinates
and contemporaries while being hated by some of his superiors.
Judging the way he lived, one might presume he got where he was
by clawing his way up the ranks the hard way. In fact, he graduated
with a degree in aeronautical engineering from the University
of Washington in 1934. He was a member of the Huskies swimming
and wrestling teams and one year was the Northwest Intercollegiate
middleweight wrestling champion. Following graduation, he served
briefly as a reserve officer in the Army's Coast Artillery before
joining Boeing Aircraft in Seattle as an aeronautical engineer.
In February 1936, Boyington quit his job at Boeing and enrolled
in the new Naval Cadet program. Although cadets were required
to be single, the maverick Boyington was secretly married throughout
flight training. He received his wings and commission on March
11, 1937 at Pensacola. He served with Aircraft One at Quantico
before attending Basic School at Philadelphia. Boyington's next
assignment was with VMF-2 at San Diego. As the best pilot in
the squadron, he defeated the Navy's best pilot in the annual
gun camera competition. He acquired the nickname "Rats"
due to his resemblance to a cartoon character of the time called
eneral Ratoff. Some of his old friends referred to him as "Rats"
for the rest of his life.
Next Boyington was sent to Pensacola as
an instructor. Due to his hell raising, high living lifestyle,
his expenses exceeded his pay. Claire Chennault visited Pensacola
in the summer of 1941 recruiting pilots for the American Volunteer
Group. Since Boyington hated administrative work, he saw his
career in the Marine Corps going nowhere. He also considered
the AVG as an opportunity to get out of debt, so he joined up.
The AVG became known as the Flying Tigers in China. Boyington
became an ace by shooting down six Japanese planes. When the
Army arrived in China in the middle of 1942, the AVG disbanded.
Although the Flying Tigers were the most experienced American
combat pilots, they received shameful treatment from the U. S.
Army. When the Navy and Marine pilots signed up with the AVG
in 1941, their secret contracts stated they could return to their
former services in the event the U.S. entered the war. Chennault
reneged on his promise. The Navy and Marine pilots of the AVG
were given the choice of joining the Army or paying their own
way home. Boyington chose the latter when he was offered a commission
as a Second Lieutenant in the Army Air Forces. Needless to say,
Boyington's opinion of Chennault after that was unprintable.
He did not leave China with an overwhelming admiration for Chiang
Kai-shek either, coming to the conclusion that Madame Chiang
was the real power and the Generalissimo was just a figurehead.
When Boyington returned to the U.S. in
July 1942, he was treated even worse. Marine headquarters told
him to go home to Seattle and await orders. Boyington was in
limbo. He exhausted all his savings getting home and was not
yet on the Marine payroll. In desperation, he took one of his
old college jobs parking cars at $.75 an hour to make ends meet.
After three months passed, he went over
everyone's head and sent a letter to the Under Secretary of the
Navy informing him of the situation. Three days later he received
orders and a promotion to major. A year later, he learned the
reason for the delay. He and the other nine Marine members of
the AVG were being stonewalled by a high ranking Marine officer
who unearthed an old order, dated in 1939, that stated anyone
who leaves the Marine Corps in time of national emergency could
be classified as a deserter. Boyington described this officer
as: "a renowned son-of-a-bitch, who attained his promotions
by other means than endangering his life. This officer was well
known in the Marine Corps for the sure-fire method of his own
personal promotion, by cleverly and continuously knifing any
officer who shows signs of some ability."
In short order, Boyington received refresher
training and was sent to Espiritu Santo as assistant operations
officer of the Marine airstrip. In May 1943, he joined the F4F
equipped VMF-222 where he escorted dive-bombers but failed to
encounter any enemy aircraft. While VMF-222 was being re-equipped
with the Corsair, Boyington broke his ankle in a football game.
While recovering from his injury, he performed various administrative
duties for several squadrons. He then persuaded the group commander,
the legendary Col. Sandy Sanderson, into letting him reorganize
VMF-214 with replacement and unassigned pilots. ' At 30 years
of age, Boyington was the oldest Marine commanding officer of
a fighter squadron. His pilots, therefore, referred to him as
"Grandpappy" or "Gramps" which was shortened
to just "Pappy" by the press. Boyington liked the nickname.
His reputation was legendary and his pilots named the squadron
"Boyington's Bastards." When the press pointed out
this name could not be printed back home it was changed to "Boyington's
Black Sheep." Meanwhile, a new group commander who did not
like Boyington replaced Sanderson. Boyington had a run-in with
this overweight officer during flight training in Pensacola and
referred to him as "Col. Lard." The first thing Col.
Lard did was to forbid Boyington to drink during the squadron's
deployment to the forward combat area.
In VMF-214's first aerial combat on September
12, 1943, the squadron shot down 11 aircraft with Boyington getting
five. Before the squadron went into rest and recreation leave
in Australia on October 24, Boyington's total had risen to 20.
When VMF-214 returned to combat at the
end of November, Col. Lard relieved Boyington as C.O. BGen. "Nuts"
Moore, the wing commander, interceded in Boyington's behalf,
countermanded the order, and gave Col. Lard a severe chewing
out in the process. On December 27, Boyington shot down his 25th
aircraft - one short of the then present U.S. record jointly
held by Eddie Rickenbacker in World War I and fellow Marine Joe
Foss. On January 3, 1944, after getting his 26th victory, Boyington
and his wingman were separated from the rest of the squadron
by weather. Boyington downed two more Japanese before he and
his wingman were both shot down by an overwhelming number of
Japanese fighters. He was wounded in the shoot down, taken prisoner
and spent the rest of the war in captivity. During Boyington's
leadership of VMF-214, the squadron was credited with 197 Japanese
aircraft destroyed, probably destroyed, or damaged at the cost
of 12 pilots missing in action.
Incredibly, Boyington had not received one major decoration up
to his capture - his superior, Col. Lard, had not recommended
him for any. The Army had tried to award him the Silver Star
for defending Army bombers, but this was rejected by Marine higher
ups who told the Army that the Marines were quite capable of
decorating their own. No Americans had witnessed Boyington being
shot down and he was reported as missing and presumed dead. He
was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross.
Even that did not come until the Ed Sullivan radio show brought
his exploits to the public's attention. Following the end of
the war, Boyington was found alive in Japan. Enroute home, a
special board promoted him to LCol. Back in the States, he went
on an extensive Victory Bond Drive and received the Medal of
Honor from President Harry Truman.
The 20 months of mistreatment in Japanese
captivity left him in poor physical condition. He was medically
retired as a full colonel from the Marine Corps in 1947, only
receiving a small pension due Medal of Honor holders. Although
Boyington's war with the Japanese was over, his battle with the
demons of alcoholism continued. For many years, he held a number
of undistinguished jobs far below the potential of a man with
his education. He even worked as a professional wrestling referee.
During these bad times, he also had a couple of failed marriages.
In 1958, his best selling, candid autobiography, Baa Baa Black
Sheep was published. A few years later, he narrated the 1960's
television series Danger Zone. The heavy smoking Boyington suffered
from emphysema and almost died in 1966. In the 1970s, a TV series
based on his book aired as The Black Sheep Squadron. Following
the publicity gained, the now sober Boyington became a regular
on the speaking and air show circuit.
Boyington had four wives. One of his three children was an Air
Force pilot who flew the F-4 Phantom in Viet Nam - a fact he
was quite proud of. He was a great combat leader and pilot, remaining
as the highest-ranking Marine ace of all time with 28 confirmed
victories. Living his life out in Fresno, California Boyington
died in 1988 and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery near
the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. In the final line of Baa
Baa Black Sheep he wrote: "If this story were to have
a moral, then I would say: `Just name a hero and I'll prove he's
a bum.' " That statement could not have been further from