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Pappy Boyington
10.05.2018 57395064063

"If this story were to have a moral, then I would say, 'Just name a hero and I'll prove he's a bum.'"

Gregory "Pappy" Boyington was a part-Sioux, part-Irish World War II fighter ace who could drink any man under the table, routinely kicked the crap out of his enemies in back-alley fistfights, cold-cocked at least two superior officers, and still somehow found time to blast a couple dozen Japanese Zeroes out of the air with his quad-mounted .50-cals.  He was the first American fighter ace of World War II, flew two of the coolest fighter aircraft of the war, held officer positions in a couple of the United States’ most famous fighter squadrons, and is probably one of the only human beings in military history to personally accept a Medal of Honor that had originally been issued to him posthumously

Greg Boyington was born on December 4, 1912 in the general vicinity of Coer d’Alene, Idaho.  His parents divorced when he was young, and Boyington honestly had a pretty rough life as a kid, but when he was six he was lucky enough to catch a ride with a barnstormer pilot – and that experience changed his life forever.

You see, back in the early days of airplanes, you had these dudes called "barnstormers", who would basically just travel around the countryside putting on air shows where they’d do these bonkers, life-threatening stunts.  One of these guys was known as "Upside-Down" Pangborn, who, as you might imagine, was pretty well-known for flying upside down in a dang biplane like a freaking lunatic.  Here’s a fun picture of Pangborn hitting the deck when he slipped while trying to climb a ladder from the wing of his freaking mid-flight airplane into the backseat of a dang moving car:



But, yeah, sure, why not let your six-year-old kid take a ride in the back seat of this dude’s airplane?  What could go wrong?  (It’s worth noting, though, that Pangborn somehow survived falling off of his airplane, and in 1931 he’d be part of the crew that completed the first ever non-stop flight across the Pacific Ocean… so… yay?)

From the moment Greg Boyington was wheels-down from his flight with Pangborn, he was obsessed with planes.  He built and collected model planes, went to any air show he could, and eventually learned to fly and got his pilot’s license.  In 1926 he moved to Tacoma, and then from there he enlisted in the University of Washington, where he did ROTC and played on the UW wrestling, boxing, and football teams.    In 1935 he enlisted in the Marine Corps as an aviator, and quickly earned a reputation as a dude you super totally did not want to step to.  In addition to being easily one of the best pilots the USMC had to offer, he was also a hardcore troublemaker on the ground as well.  He loved to get drunk, gamble, and challenge his buddies to wrestling matches in the middle of crowded bars.  He kicked the crap out of townies whenever they messed with him.  One time he got super hammered, stripped naked, and tried to swim across the San Diego Bay in the middle of the night (he eventually had to be fished out of the river by his comrades).  Another time he punched a superior officer in the fucking face in an argument over a girl, even though Boynton was married at this point and the girl in question was super totally not his wife.

But, even though some of this stuff is awesome and/or hilarious, what it honestly came down to is that Gregory Boyington was a Warrior without a fight.  And that isn’t really a great combination sometimes.  He eventually found himself broke, in debt, drinking too much, and getting into trouble with all the wrong people.  Things were looking pretty dark.

That’s when the war came knocking, and Gregory Boyington finally got the fight he’d been waiting for his entire life.



In August 1942 (four months before Pearl Harbor) Boyington resigned his commission with the Marine Corps to take a position with a new aviation unit known as the American Volunteer Group – a unit we know today as the Flying Tigers.  The AVG was essentially the first American PMC – it was a unit of volunteer pilots and mechanics who took a contract from Chiang Kai-Shek’s Chinese Nationalist Army to help fight against the Japanese invasion of China.  In Fall 1942 Boyington and other pilots boarded transport ships in San Francisco and headed for Rangoon under the guise of saying they were going to be preachers, or medics, or something else innocuous (Boyington, of course, would never have passed for a minister, so his cover was that he was going to be a commercial air pilot for KLM Airlines).  Once he arrived in Burma, he headed to his posting and got ready to start slagging Zeroes into flaming chunks of twisted metal and burning aircraft fuel.

The Tigers flew Curtiss P-40 Warhawks were painted with the famous "shark mouth" nose art that we all know and love.  The Warhawk wasn’t as maneuverable in a turn as the Japanese air superiority fighter, the Mitsubishi A6M "Zero", but it was better in a dive, had heavier machine guns, and its armor-plated cockpit and self-sealing fuel tank gave it a defensive advantage against its adversary.  The Japanese pilots, however, had one big advantage over the Americans – combat experience.  Boyington himself wrote, "I can tell you from firsthand experience that the best men ever to fly a plane in combat were the Japanese, especially the Imperial Navy pilots. Those guys were no joke. If you screwed up you were done for, end of story."



But Boyington didn’t screw up.  In the Winter of 1941-42, he went cockpit-first into combat on a daily basis against the toughest pilots in the world and always lived to tell the tale – even on a couple of occasions when his plane crashed in the jungle and he had to hoof it back to base through unfamiliar territory.  During his first few months he recorded six enemy aircraft kills, which would make him the first U.S. fighter ace of World War II – although (sigh) I have to mention that there’s some dispute here, as there always freaking is when you’re talking about combat kills of any type, and some people complain that he only had two and not six or whatever blah blah blah, you know the drill.  Regardless of the numbers, the undisputable truth remains that Flight Leader Boyington spent many of his nights avoiding Japanese bombing raids, most of his days terrorizing the skies in P-40 fighterss that were becoming more beat-up and less reliable by the day, and the rest of his time getting into trouble, pissing off everyone around him, and kicking the crap out of strangers who tried to screw with him.  He buzzed Chiang Kai-Shek’s personal luxury box so low at an airshow one time that the Chinese President, his wife, and Boyington’s commanding officer all fell out of their chairs (pretty sure this is where the "Ghost Rider requesting flyby" scene came from tbh).  He met the Sultan of Jahore, which is pretty cool, and he also may or may not have slept with one (?) of the Sultan’s (multiple) wives – which is way cooler.  He was also known to pull out his 1911 and shoot out the chandeliers of bars that were dumb enough to 86 him for partying too hard.  Boyington got into dozens of fights, was thrown out of plenty of establishments, slept with his XO’s wife, and routinely got formally reprimanded by his commanders, but clearly none of this seemed to bother the American fighter pilot:  "I received more than my share of threats of court-martial… although technically we were civilians, so those threats went in one ear and out a Scotch bottle."



Eventually Boyington pissed off his commander a little too hard, and in 1943 he got into a heated argument with his commander that ended up getting Boyington dishonorably discharged from the Flying Tigers.  Which, honestly, is kind of badass if you think about it.  Luckily for him, the United States was formally in World War II at this point, so the grizzled old fighter ace just immediately walked into a recruiting office, swore the Oath of Allegiance, and was posted as a Lieutenant in Marine Fighter Squadron VMF-122. 

In true Boyington fashion, within a couple weeks of being reinstated to the USMC, he got into a huge argument with his CO and almost got discharged again. 

Before that happened, though, Boyington had a malfunction in his aircraft during a training exercise, lost control of the plane, and slammed hard into the tarmac.  The massive crash shattered his leg in multiple places, jacking it up so intensely that there was a slight chance he might have to have had it amputated.  Doctors initially told Boyington that he’d never walk again.

By August 1943 he was already back in the cockpit. 



At this point in the war, the U.S. was in the heat of the fighting against the Japanese all across the Pacific, and the fighting had left many Marine aviation units shattered and fragmented.  Boyington was coming back from injury himself, and his mission was pretty simple – take whatever available men and equipment you can find, form them up into a fighter squadron, and hurl it into the fray as quickly as possible.

The unit he came up with would become perhaps the most famous Marine Corps aviation squadron in American history:  VMF-214, the Black Sheep Squadron.

(The men from the unit, of course, had originally wanted to call themselves "Boyington’s Bastards," but Public Affairs was like, "yeah, uh… no", because public affairs people hate anything that could even remotely be considered fun).



The Black Sheep Squadron initially consisted of 26 pilots, including some Royal Canadian Air Force vets, a Los Angeles police officer, and a couple Marine pilots who had already earned themselves a couple enemy aircraft kills during the war.  They were equipped with the Vought F4U Corsair, one of the most badass aircraft of the Pacific Theater, and shipped out to the front to try their hand at annihilating some Japanese aircraft.  Boyington, who was now known among his men as "Gramps" or "Pappy", because at thirty years old he was by far the oldest man in the unit (I'm reminded of Julius Caesar weeping at the statue of Alexander), flew his first mission with the Marine Corps on September 14, 1943,  when his squadron escorted a group of dive bombers on a raid against a Japanese supply base.  Two days later, Pappy Boyington became one of the very few American aviators to ever become an "Ace in a Day" – meaning he killed five dang enemy aircraft in a single mission.  For most other badass aviators, getting Ace in a Day is the kind of thing that I'd write an entire article about, detailing every bank, turn, and machine gun burst in excruciating detail.  But Pappy Boyington's story is so over-the-top bonkers insane that it barely warrants an entire paragraph among the list of exploits in his life.  Just know this – the was outnumbered, under attack, and facing an overwhelming force of some of the most battle-hardened, experienced fighter pilots in the world, and he walked away with five more Japanese flags painted on the nose art of his Corsair.

VMF-214 continued attacking Japanese bases as part of the Bougainville Campaign, which was the Allied American and Aussie mission to re-take the Northern Solomon Islands by striking out from bases in the Papua New Guinea region.  And as Marine Corsairs dove, banked, and opened fire all throughout the skies above the region, you might as well have called the place Pappy New Guinea because the freaking Black Sheep Squadron was walloping asses up and down the Pacific.  On October 17, 1943, 25 Marine Corsairs engaged and killed 20 enemy Zeroes without losing a single man.  Another time, Pappy was leading his flight group when he got a radio signal from a Japanese aircraft, hailing the Marines in English, pretending to be an American ship and asking Boyington to identify his location.  Boyington's b.s. meter was off the charts, though, and he wasn't about to fall for that weak sauce.  He told the Japanese pilot exactly where he was… except he gave the position at 5,000 feet lower than the altitude the Marines were flying.

When the Japanese squadron showed up for their ambush, the Marines dove down with the sun at their backs and wiped out twelve Zeroes in just minutes of dogfighting.



In 84 days of combat over the Solomon Islands, Pappy Boyington and the pilots of the Black Sheep Squadron were constantly outnumbered, fighting in enemy territory, and attacking heavily defended ships and ground installations.  They needed to keep the Japanese from resupplying forward bases though, and the Marines weren't about to back down from a good fight.  Over that three month span, VMF-214 amazingly confirmed 197 enemy planes destroyed or damaged, plus dozens of Imperial Japanese ships, transports, and ground based targets.  Boyington himself recorded an amazing 22 enemy kills, and if you counted the 6 he claimed with the Flying Tigers (which is I guess a weird call because he technically wasn't serving in the United States military when he received those kills, plus that debate I mentioned earlier, etc., etc., etc.) would have been more than any other American pilot in U.S. history.



Boyington never did break Eddie Rickenbacker's American record of 26 kills though, because in January of 1944 his luck finally took a sharp turn in an unfavorable direction.  Swarmed by Zeroes in the skies above the heavily-defended Japanese base at Rabaul Harbor, Boyington suddenly found himself surrounded by enemy forces, with machine gun rounds zipping around him from every direction.  He killed three enemy planes, but lost his wingman in the process, when suddenly an enemy Zero strafted Boyington's Corsair, shooting it out of the sky.  Boyington was wounded in the head, shoulder, and leg as his plane splashed down into the ocean.  He was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross and the Medal of Honor for his heroism under intense enemy fire, and was remembered back home in American newspapers for his unbelievable last stand against impossible odds.

Except… Pappy Boyington wasn't dead.


I heard you were dead.
Yeah, I get that a lot.


Boyington actually survived the crash, survived being strafed in the water by a couple of butthurt Zeroes, and then eventually got picked up by a Japanese submarine and taken as a prisoner of war.  Boyington survived the sub being blown out of the water 13 days later, but still ended up in a Japanese prison camp anyway.  He was interrogated, beaten up, transferred around, and eventually stuffed into a one-person-sized cell with six other dudes (it was the same prison camp as the Unbroken guy).  Boyington was beaten, interrogated, and lost 80 pounds in the ordeal, and he had to do the entire thing while DT'ing off booze, and being tortured by the Empire of Japan while detoxing alcohol sounds like it is probably high on the list of the most horrible things any person could possibly experience.

Finally, after months of cruel imprisonment, the camp was liberated on August 28, 1945, and Pappy personally received that Navy Cross and MOH that had been awarded to him after his supposed death.  He even got back into a plane and blew up two more Zeroes before the war finally came to an end a few weeks later.  Boyington was part of the parade in NYC that celebrated the end of the war, wrote a best-selling book about his life, got married a couple times, and spent the later part of his life refereeing pro wrestling matches.  The airport in his hometown was renamed Pappy Boyington Field, there's a memorial to him at the University of Washington, and they even made a TV series based off Boyington's memoir – Boyington himself was played by Robert Conrad from Wild Wild West (he's the character that Will Smith portrayed in the 1990s remake movie), and Boyington personally even appeared on the show as a guest star every once in a while.  The Black Sheep Squadron was the first TV appearance of John Larroquette, who was in JFK with Kevin Bacon, so not only did Pappy Freaking Boyington kill 31 enemy aircraft in World War Two, receive a Medal of Honor, survive his own supposed death, and write a best-selling book, but he also has a Bacon Number of two.

Pappy Boyington fought cancer for two decades before finally succumbing in January 1988 at the age of 75.  He is currently buried in Arlington National Cemetery, next to boxing legend Joe Louis.


Receiving the MoH from President Truman.






NY Times Obit

Interview with HistoryNet

University of Washington

Pappy Boyington Field




Boyington, Gregory.  Baa Baa Black Sheep.  New York: Bantam Books, 1977.

Gamble, Bruce.  Black Sheep One.  New York: Ballantine Books, 2000.

Walton, Frank E.  Once They Were Eagles.  Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 1986.

Wukovitz, John F.  Black Sheep: The Life of Pappy Boyington.  Annapolis, MD: US Naval Institute, 2013.

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Tags: 20th century | Athlete | Aviation/Pilots | China | Fighter Ace | Medal of Honor | Military Commander | United States | US Marine Corps | War Hero | WWII

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