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June 28, 2023

Profiles of Valor: LtCol Gregory ‘Pappy’ Boyington (USMC)

“There is only a hairline’s difference between a Navy Cross and a general court-martial.”

For two years while I was in college, there was an NBC series called “Black Sheep Squadron.” It was very loosely based on the exploits of World War II Marine fighter ace Major Greg “Pappy” Boyington, commanding officer of VMF-214 — a squadron of “misfits” that fought in the Solomon Islands and Bougainville campaigns from 1943 to 1945.

The show was of particular interest to me for three reasons. First would be that the fighter flown by Boyington and VMF-214 was the deadly Vought F4U-1A Corsair, which had an 11:1 kill ratio — and was the plane flown by my father and my uncle. Second, I wanted to follow in the footsteps of both my grandfather and father after college as a fighter pilot. And third, the brashness and brawn of Pappy Boyington was infectious.

The opening credits to the show read: “In World War II, Marine Corps Major Greg ‘Pappy’ Boyington commanded a squadron of fighter pilots. They were a collection of misfits and screwballs who became the terrors of the South Pacific. They were known as the Black Sheep.”

Fact is, they were a very effective and legendary collection of Marine aviators.

Boyington was a native of Coeur D'Alene, Idaho, and he later went to high school in Tacoma, Washington. He graduated as an Army ROTC cadet from the University of Washington in Seattle and was assigned to various Army reserve units until transferring to the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve. He went to Naval Air Station Pensacola for flight training, earning his wings in 1937. He spent two additional years training before becoming an NAS Pensacola flight instructor in 1940.

Boyington resigned his Marine commission in August 1941 before Pearl Harbor in order to fly combat missions with a civilian company that contracted pilots to the Special Air Unit to defend China and the Burma Road. They were better known as the American Volunteer Group, the famed Flying Tigers in Burma. Boyington was a flight leader with the Tigers and saw substantial combat in 1942 after the Japanese invasion. He also developed a reputation as a maverick and was frequently butting heads with commander Claire Chennault. While with the Flying Tigers, he was officially credited with two Japanese aircraft kills in the air and one and a half on the ground.

In April 1942, he broke his contract with the American Volunteer Group and rejoined the Marine Corps, commissioning as a Major. In 1943, he deployed to the South Pacific, taking command of VMF-214 and leading combat missions in the F4U Corsair.

The Corsair was deadly in his hands, but it was infamously dangerous when inexperienced pilots were on the stick. The Navy had initially rejected the use of the Corsair for aircraft carrier-based operations because its large wing span made it difficult for successful launch and recovery on the smaller decks of aircraft carriers of that era. It was also very temperamental, and the sudden torque unleashed from the fighter’s powerful R-2800 engine and its 13-foot, 4-inch propeller when throttling up on approach could cause the plane to invert when banking left at slow speeds. The sheer size of that propeller accounted for the Corsair’s “gull wing” configuration, and fighter’s landing gear tended to create bounce when slamming onto a deck, making it hard to control.

The first Corsair squadron had more than a dozen fatalities, earning the F4U the nickname “Ensign Coffin” and “Ensign Eliminator” because it was very difficult to see the carrier deck on approach over the aircraft’s lengthy fuselage ahead of the cockpit — an important detail. For that reason, the fighter was initially allocated for land-based Marine units.

Boyington rarely flew the same aircraft for more than a few missions and often chose the F4U that was in the worst condition so that his pilots would not be distracted by the condition of the aircraft. He earned the nicknames “Pappy” and “Gramps” because, at age 31, he was a decade older than than most of the Marine pilots in his squadron.

He was credited with 22 kills in F4Us of his 28 total, including six in an AVG P-40. On January 3, 1944, he tied World War I ace Eddie Rickenbacker’s record of 26 enemy planes destroyed. He later observed: “The air battle is not necessarily won at the time of the battle. The winner may have been determined by the amount of time, energy, thought and training an individual has previously accomplished in an effort to increase his ability as a fighter pilot.”

He added, “The definition of flying is: hours and hours of dull monotony sprinkled with a few moments of stark horror.”

In January 1944, badly outnumbered by Japanese Zeros, he downed one of them but was then shot down. He was captured by an Imperial Japanese Navy submarine crew and was held as a POW for the remaining 20 months of the war.

After the war, then-LtCol Boyington was ordered to Washington to receive the Medal of Honor. He is also the recipient of the Navy Cross, Purple Heart, and POW medals, among other awards. He observed, “I was told by ‘Chesty’ Puller years ago, there is only a hairline’s difference between a Navy Cross and a general court-martial.”

According to his Medal of Honor Citation: “For extraordinary heroism and valiant devotion to duty as commanding officer of Marine Fighting Squadron 214 in action against enemy Japanese forces in the central Solomons area from 12 September 1943 to 3 January 1944. Consistently outnumbered throughout successive hazardous flights over heavily defended hostile territory, Maj. Boyington struck at the enemy with daring and courageous persistence, leading his squadron into combat with devastating results to Japanese shipping, shore installations, and aerial forces. Resolute in his efforts to inflict crippling damage on the enemy, Maj. Boyington led a formation of 24 fighters over Kahili on 17 October and, persistently circling the airdrome where 60 hostile aircraft were grounded, boldly challenged the Japanese to send up planes. Under his brilliant command, our fighters shot down 20 enemy craft in the ensuing action without the loss of a single ship. A superb airman and determined fighter against overwhelming odds, Maj. Boyington personally destroyed 26 of the many Japanese planes shot down by his squadron and, by his forceful leadership, developed the combat readiness in his command, which was a distinctive factor in the Allied aerial achievements in this vitally strategic area.”

Post-war, he was assigned to the Marine Air West Coast, Marine Corps Air Station, Miramar, San Diego, California, retiring in 1947. He spent the rest of his working life working a variety of occupations. He had a couple of walk-on roles in “Black Sheep Squadron” episodes. He died in 1988 at age 75. His bronze statue greets all who enter the “Pappy Boyington Airport” in Coeur D'Alene.

A signed copy of his 1958 autobiography, Baa Baa, Black Sheep, sits on the shelf above me as I write this profile, and it is both an inspiration and treasure. Next to it is my Father’s then-classified F4U pilot operation manual.

Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, your example of valor — an American Patriot defending Liberty for all — is eternal.

Semper Vigilans Fortis Paratus et Fidelis
Pro Deo et Libertate — 1776


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The Patriot Post and Patriot Foundation Trust, in keeping with our Military Mission of Service to our uniformed service members and veterans, are proud to support and promote the National Medal of Honor Heritage Center, the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, both the Honoring the Sacrifice and Warrior Freedom Service Dogs aiding wounded veterans, the National Veterans Entrepreneurship Program, the Folds of Honor outreach, and Officer Christian Fellowship, the Air University Foundation, and Naval War College Foundation, and the Naval Aviation Museum Foundation. "Greater love has no one than this, to lay down one's life for his friends." (John 15:13)

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