Californians and the Military
Colonel Gregory R. "Pappy" Boyington
Medal of Honor Recipient
by M.L. Shettle, Jr.

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 the truth.
Copied with the permission of the author from United States Marine Corps Air Stations of World War II.
Search our Site!
Search the Web Search California Military History Online
View My Stats
Visitors since 8 December 1998
Questions and comments concerning this site should be directed to the Webmaster
Updated 23 June 2017