Major Gregory "Pappy" Boyington
C.O. VMF-214, Black Sheep Squadron
By Stephen Sherman, Jan. 2001. Updated June 30, 2011.
"Just name a hero, and I'll prove he's a bum." - Pappy's self-assessment.
Undoubtedly the most colorful and well known Marine Corps' ace was Gregory "Pappy" Boyington, commanding officer of VMF-214.
Stories of Pappy Boyington are legion, many founded in fact, including how he led the legendary Black Sheep squadron, and how he served in China as a member of the American Volunteer Group, the famed Flying Tigers. He spent a year and a half as a Japanese POW, was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, was recognized as the Marine Corps top ace (more on that below). Always hard-drinking and hard-living, Pappy's post-war life was as turbulent as his wartime experiences.
The best biography of Boyington that I've read is Bruce Gamble's Black Sheep One: The Life of Gregory "Pappy" Boyington, released late in 2000.
Born on , young Greg had a rough childhood - divorced parents, alcoholic step-father (who Greg believed to be his natural father until he entered the Marine Corps), and lots of moves. He grew up in St. Maries, Idaho, a small logging town. Greg got his first ride in an airplane when he was only six years old. The famous barnstormer, Clyde Pangborn, flew his Jenny into town, and Greg wangled a ride. What a thrill for a little kid!
Greg's family moved to Tacoma, Washington in 1926. In high school, he took up a sport that he would practice for many years - wrestling. Especially when he had had a few too many (which was often), adult Boyington would challenge others to impromptu wrestling bouts, frequently with injurious results. He enrolled at the University of Washington in 1930, where he continued wrestling and participated in ROTC. He met his first wife, Helene there; they were married not long after his graduation in 1934. His first son, Gregory Clark Boyington, was born 10 months later.
After a year with Boeing, Greg enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. On having to supply them with his birth certificate, he only learned of his natural father at that date. He began elimination training in June, 1935, where (in the small world of Marine aviation at that time) he met Richard Mangrum and Bob Galer, both future heroes at Guadalcanal. He passed, and received orders to begin flight training at Pensacola NAS in January, 1936 with class 88-C. Here he flew a floatplane version of the Consolidated NY-2. Like another great ace, Gabby Gabreski, Boyington had a tough time with flight training, and had to undergo a number of rechecks.
Until he arrived in Pensacola, Boyington, had never touched alcohol. But here, with hard-partying fliers, and aware of his wife's "fooling around," he soon discovered his affinity for liquor. Early on, Boyington established his Marine Corps reputation: hard-drinking, brawling, well-liked, and always ready to wrestle at the drop of a hat. But he kept flying, all through 1936, slowly progressing toward earning his wings, flying more powerful planes like the Vought O2U and SU-1 scouting biplanes. At Pensacola, he also met his future nemesis, Joe Smoak, memorialized in Baa Baa Black Sheep as "Colonel Lard." He finally won his coveted wings in March, 1937, becoming Naval Aviator #5160.
Before reporting for his assignment with VMF-1 at Quantico, Virginia, he took advantage of his 30-day to return home, and reconcile with his wife Helene, who became pregnant with their second child. In those days Marine aviators were required to be bachelors; Greg's family was a secret that he kept from the brass, but he brought them with him to Virginia, installing them quietly in nearby Fredericksburg. He flew F4B-4 biplanes during 1937, taking part in routine training, an air show dubbed the "All American Air Maneuvers," and a fleet exercise in Puerto Rico.
In March of 1938, VMF-1 aviators excited took possession of the latest, hottest Grumman fighters, the F3F-2s, the last biplane fighters used by US air forces. Powered by Wright-Cyclone engines of 950 horsepower, the fat-bellied aircraft were fast and rugged. In July, he moved to Philadelphia, to attend the Marine Corps' Basic School for ten months. Apparently not motivated by the "ground-pounder" curriculum, Boyington here evidenced the weaknesses that would haunt him: excessive drinking, borrowing money (and not repaying it), fighting, and poor official performance.
His irresponsibility, his debts, and his difficulties with the Corps continued to mount throughout 1939 and 1940, when he flew with VMF-2, stationed at San Diego. One memorable, drunken night, he tried to swim across San Diego Bay, and wound up naked and exhausted in the Navy's Shore Patrol office. Despite his problems on the ground, it was during these days of 1940, flying with VMF-2, that Boyington first began to be noticed as a top-notch pilot. Whatever his other issues, he could out-dogfight almost anyone. Back at Pensacola in January, 1941, his problems mounted - he decked a superior officer in a fight over a girl (not his wife), and his creditors sought official help from the Marine Corps. Greg's career was a hopeless mess by late 1941.
Rescue came from, of all places, China. Anxious to help the Chinese in their war against Japan, the United States government arranged to supply fighter planes and pilots to China, under the cover of the Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company (CAMCO). CAMCO recruiters visited US military aviation bases looking for volunteers. As Bruce Gamble described it in Black Sheep One:The pilots were volunteers only in the sense that they willingly quit their peacetime job with the military; otherwise they were handsomely paid through CAMCO. Pilots earned $600 a month, flight leaders $675, plus a fat bonus for each Japanese plane destroyed. This was double or even triple the current military salary for pilots. ... In March, CAMCO representatives began recruiting military pilots for what would become the American Volunteer Group (AVG). ... One recruiter set up an interview room in Pensacola's San Carlos Hotel, a popular watering hole for pilots. On the night of August 4, Greg Boyington found himself in the hotel bar simply "looking for an answer." Payday had been just a few days earlier, but already he was broke. His wife and children were gone, he was deeply in debt, and many of his superiors were breathing down his neck.
The money looked very good to Boyington. Assured that the program had government approval and that his spot in the Corps was safe, he signed on the spot, and promptly resigned from the Marine Corps. While the AVG deal for pilots normally did contemplate a return to active U.S. military service, in Greg's case, his superiors took a different view. They were happy to be rid of him, and noted in his file that he should not be reappointed.
He shipped out of San Francisco on September 24, 1941, in the Boschfontein, of the Dutch Java Line. After docking at Rangoon, the AVG fliers arrived at their base at Toungoo on November 13. He flew several missions during the defense of Burma. After Burma fell, he returned to Kunming, and flew from there until the Flying Tigers were incorporated into the USAAF. His autobiography includes many war stories from his experiences with the Flying Tigers, including:
- the voyage across the Pacific, the AVG fliers' cover story of ministers
- the Sultan of Johore's palace and wives
- arrival in Rangoon, Claire Chennault and Harvey Greenlaw
- Kunming and the three AVG squadrons
- first combat in February 1942, back in Burma
- Jim Adams and Bill Tweedy, the two older colonials, living a life of ease, and entertaining the American pilots
- a mechanic offering General Stilwell a can of tomatoes, "Hey bub, you want some of these?"
- the Allied retreat from Rangoon in March 1942 and the Flying Tigers' return to Kunming
- his botched escort of Chiang Kai Chek
He clashed with the leader of the Flying Tigers, the strong-willed Claire Chennault. He quit the AVG in April 1942; Chennault gave him a dishonorable discharge, and Greg went back to the U.S.
Boyington's Flying Tiger Record
Boyington claimed to have shot down six Japanese fighters, which would have made him one of the first American aces of the war. He maintained until his death in 1988 that he did, in fact, have six kills, and the Marine Corps officially credits him with those kills. From AVG records, which were loosely kept, he was credited (paid) for 2 aerial kills. Why the discrepancy between 2 and 6? I think Bruce Gamble, in Black Sheep One got it right. Gamble notes that in a raid on Chiang Mai, Boyington was one of four pilots who were credited with destroying 15 planes on the ground. As the AVG paid for destroyed Japanese planes, on the ground or in the air, Boyington lobbied for his share of the Chiang Mai planes - 3.75, to be precise.
Later, while at Guadalcanal, he characterized his Flying Tiger record as including "six kills." For Greg Boyington, to add 3.75 ground claims to 2 aerial kills, round it off to six kills, and establish himself as one of the first American aces, was a "little white lie" indeed. But once his AVG number of six kills found its way into print, and his USMC victories started piling up, there was no going back. Dan Ford's Flying Tigers web site also had a detailed discussion of Pappy Boyington's claims with the AVG.
(As this site only includes the aces' service with United States' armed forces, Pappy's USMC total is shown as 22, whether he shot down 2, 6, or none while a Flying Tiger for the Chinese government. I have received numerous e-mails on this topic, and I concur with Bruce Gamble's analysis. Both Gamble and I consider Pappy Boyington to be a great American hero, albeit a flawed one, as Pappy himself was quick to admit. - SS)
While with the Flying Tigers, Greg also made the acquaintance of Olga Greenlaw, the XO's beautiful wife, who, in her own words "knew how to get along with a man if I like him." Apparently she and Boyington "got along." She wrote her own book, The Lady and the Tigers, in 1943.