Friday, January 03, 2014

TFH 1/3: Major Gregory "Pappy" Boyington, USMCR

Gregory Boyington was born in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho on December 4, 1912. His childhood was split between living in St. Maries, Idaho and Tacoma, Washington. He began attending the University of Washington in 1930, where he was also a member of the Reserve Officers Training Corps. After college graduation in 1934 with a degree in aeronautical engineering, he received a commission as a United States Army Second Lieutenant and was placed into the Coastal Artillery Reserve.

He later left the Army, and was accepted into the United States Marine Corps Reserve as an aviation cadet on February 18, 1936. He received his "Wings of Gold" as a Naval Aviator on March 11, 1937 and his Marine officer's commission.

Boyington resigned his commission on August 26, 1941 to join the quasi-military 1st American Volunteer Group being formed by the Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company for war service in Asia along side the China Air Force: the famous "Flying Tigers". Boyington flew with the Flying Tigers into the spring of 1942, by which he had been credited with 3.5 aerial victories (3 kills, 1 assist) when he broke his contract to return to the United States.

His wartime service wasn't done though, not by a long shot.

At Boyington's return home, the Marine Corps was desperate for experienced combat aviators as the service swelled its ranks for their fight versus Japan across the wide expanse of the Pacific Ocean. He applied for and was recommissioned into the Marines and designated with the rank of Major (he skipped Captain, had been a First Lieutenant previously) due to his combat experience in China. His first posting was as the Executive Officer of Marine Fighting Squadron 121 (VMF-121) during the Guadalcanal Campaign.

In August 1943, Boyington, then without a squadron, gathered together 27 fellow pilots - some combat veterans, some new trainees - all without assignments and got permission to form a new unit as its commander. They were designated as the second incarnation of Marine Fighting Squadron 214 (VMF-214). Boyington's new command gathered shot-up Vought F4U Corsair fighters no longer wanted by other units and got them back into service.

The aviators of VMF-214 wanted to nickname themselves to establish their "unwanted" status. The first suggestion was "Boyington's Bastards", but that was ruled out by the chain of command as being inappropriate. They then decided they'd go to war as the "Black Sheep", meaning more or less the same thing.

At age 31, Major Boyington was by far the oldest man in the squadron. His Marines began calling him "Gramps", which became the nickname "Pappy" by which he was eventually known.

After just four weeks of stand-up, the "Black Sheep" started fighting in the skies of the Solomon Islands and New Guinea campaigns on September 12, 1943. For the next 84 days, they became one of the most tenacious, combat-successful fighting units in aviation history.

VMF-214 was credited with the destruction of 203 enemy aircraft, including 97 air-to-air kills and producing nine "aces" (five or more aerial victories). They also sank multiple Japanese ships and were relentless in attacking ground targets as well.

The "Black Sheep" were famous for circling Japanese air bases, taunting the enemy into coming up into the skies to challenge them. One such occurrence of that tactic over Kahili on October 27, 1943 saw VMF-214 shoot down 20 of the enemy without a single loss.

On January 3, 1944, during an attack on Rabaul, the "Black Sheep" found themselves fighting against insurmountable odds versus a larger Japanese force. During that day's battle, Boyington shot down his 26th enemy aircraft of the war, tying the record for kills by a single American pilot, but his own plane succumbed to enemy fires. His fate was unknown, and he was listed as missing in action.

In actuality, Boyington survived being shot down and was captured by the Japanese. His capture was never reported to the International Red Cross, as it should have been, and unbeknownst to the United States, he spent the next 20 months until war's end as a prisoner of war. He was freed from the Omori Prison Camp in Japan on August 29, 1945, just four days before Japan's official surrender on September 2.

Upon his liberation and return to the United States, Pappy Boyington learned that in absentia he had been promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and that for his indomitable courage in command of the "Black Sheep", he had already been awarded the two highest decorations he could have been: the Medal of Honor for the period September 12, 1943 to January 3, 1944 and the Navy Cross specifically for the day he was shot down, January 3, 1944.

His Navy Cross was presented to him by General Alexander Vandegrift, Commandant of the Marine Corps and himself a combined Medal of Honor and Navy Cross recipient, on October 4, 1945. The next day, Pappy Boyington received the Medal of Honor from President Harry S. Truman at the White House.

Rank and organization: Major, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, Marine Squadron 214
Place and date: Central Solomons area, from 12 September 1943 to 3 January 1944
Entered service at: Washington. Born: 4 December 1912, Coeur D'Alene, Idaho

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.

The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Navy Cross to Major Gregory "Pappy" Boyington (MCSN: 0-5254), United States Marine Corps Reserve, for extraordinary heroism and distinguished service in the line of his profession as Commanding Officer and a Pilot of Marine Fighting Squadron TWO HUNDRED FOURTEEN (VMF-214), Marine Air Group ELEVEN (MAG-11), FIRST Marine Aircraft Wing, during action against enemy aerial forces in the New Britain Island Area on 3 January 1944. Climaxing a period of duty conspicuous for exceptional combat achievement, Major Boyington led a formation of Allied planes on a fighter sweep over Rabaul against a vastly superior number of hostile fighters. Diving in a steep run into the climbing Zeros, he made a daring attack, sending one Japanese fighter to destruction in flames. A tenacious and fearless airman under extremely hazardous conditions, Major Boyington succeeded in communicating to those who served with him, the brilliant and effective tactics developed through a careful study of enemy techniques, and led his men into combat with inspiring and courageous determination. His intrepid leadership and gallant fighting spirit reflect the highest credit upon the United States Naval Service.

Pappy Boyington remained in the Marine Corps until his retirement on August 1, 1947. As a final tribute to his wartime service, he was promoted to Colonel on that date. His exploits became known wider by Americans thanks to the 1970s television series Baa Baa Black Sheep, which was loosely based on his memoir of the same name.

At his death on January 11, 1988 at age 75 in Fresno, California, his passing was honored by a flyby of the "Black Sheep" there before his remains were transported to Arlington National Cemetery where he today rests in peace.

The "Black Sheep" still fly today. The squadron is now known as Marine Attack Squadron 214 (VMA-214) and they fly the McDonnell Douglas AV-8B Harrier II from their home base of Marine Corps Air Station Yuma in Arizona. The squadron is part of Marine Aircraft Group 13, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, I Marine Expeditionary Force.

In tribute to their sister service's greatest heroes, the United States Navy has often named warships for Marine Medal of Honor recipients. Shockingly, there has never been a vessel named for Colonel Boyington. It would well behoove the Secretary of the Navy to be mindful of that as he decides the names for future Arleigh Burke-class destroyers or Freedom and Independence-class littoral combat ships. In all honesty, shouldn't we have gotten a USS Boyington before a USS Gabrielle Giffords?

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