A Brief History
On January 3, 1944, the top American air combat ace, Pappy Boyington, was shot down.
Digging deeper, we find Major Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, later made famous for his exploits leading “The Black Sheep” squadron flying his F4U Corsair against the Japanese in the Pacific theater in World War II.
Commanding fighter squadron VMF 214, Pappy and his “Black Sheep” were known for their penchant for getting rowdy and partying with a purpose, hence their appellation. The Corsair fighter plane they flew was vastly superior in many ways to their main opponent, the A6M Zero flown by the Japanese. The Zero could out turn the Corsair, but the Corsair was almost 50 mph faster and was much more rugged.
Although the Japanese frequently outnumbered Boyington and his Marines, the Black Sheep overwhelmingly bested their aerial foes, and Pappy had reached the special number of 26 air-to-air kills that equaled Eddie Rickenbacker’s total from World War I. At that time, this made Pappy the top American ace in any U.S. military branch.
Unfortunately for Pappy, the Zero was still a fearsome opponent. Armed with two .30 caliber machine guns and two rapid firing 20mm cannons, the Zero was possibly the most agile fighter of the war and when skillfully flown was quite a handful for the allied pilots. In a huge aerial melee over Rabaul on the same day he got his 26th kill, Pappy was shot down and parachuted safely where he was taken prisoner by the Japanese. Boyington spent the rest of the war as a POW in Japan.
When liberated from Japan at the war’s end, Pappy was sent to Washington, D.C. to receive The Medal of Honor:
MAJOR GREGORY BOYINGTON
UNITED STATES MARINE CORPS RESERVE
for service as set forth in the following CITATION:
For extraordinary heroism above and beyond the call of duty as Commanding Officer of Marine Fighting Squadron TWO FOURTEEN in action against enemy Japanese forces in Central Solomons Area from September 12, 1943 to January 3, 1944. Consistently outnumbered throughout successive hazardous flights over heavily defended hostile territory, Major 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, Major Boyington led a formation of twenty-four fighters over Kahili on October 17, and, persistently circling the airdrome where sixty hostile aircraft were grounded, boldly challenged the Japanese to send up planes. Under his brilliant command, our fighters shot down twenty enemy craft in the ensuing action without the loss of a single ship. A superb airman and determined fighter against overwhelming odds, Major 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.
He had also earned the Navy Cross (second highest U.S. award) and a Purple Heart for being wounded. At a party celebrating his safe return, Pappy was photographed and was on the cover of Life magazine, the first time someone on the cover had an alcoholic beverage in their hand! Not flamboyant enough? He also worked as a professional wrestler and referee!
The subject of articles, books and film, Boyington worked as an adviser for the 1970’s television series, Baa Baa Black Sheep, starring William Conrad as Pappy.
Another one of Boyington’s accomplishments was that he was a member of the American Volunteer Group (AVG), better known as The Flying Tigers, flying against the Japanese in China before U.S. forces could be brought to bear.
Pappy Boyington died in 1988 in his sleep, a peaceful end to a wild life. His final rest is at Arlington National Cemetery. Semper fi, Pappy!
Question for students (and subscribers): Do you have a favorite recipient of the Medal of Honor? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please check out the following:
Boyington, Gregory “Pappy”, Eric Martin, et al. Baa Baa Black Sheep: The True Story of the “Bad Boy” Hero of the Pacific Theatre and His Famous Black Sheep Squadron. Tantor Audio, 2019.
Gamble, Bruce. Black Sheep One: The Life of Gregory “Pappy” Boyington. Presidio Press, 2003.
Wukovitz, John F. Black Sheep: The Life of Pappy Boyington. Naval Institute Press, 2013.