I recently attended the funeral of an old friend; someone I have known as a neighbor for many of the years Utah has been my home. Not only was this renewal of family connections with his wife and offspring pleasant and refreshing, but the entire tasteful and respectful service was both touching and educational. I learned things about my old friend I had never known, in part, I suppose, because he was one of those humble, unassuming people who quietly go about living a life of everyday work and public service without fanfare or show. I’m not sure I even knew that he was a veteran of Marine Corps service; he was one of those quiet veterans. Although undoubtedly as proud as almost all Marines are it was apparently so personal and private a matter with him, that even in death, his family saw to it that the official Marine Corps Honor Guard carried out there salute in a private setting, prior to and apart from public funeral services. That is just the kind of guy he was.
In a family tribute delivered by his son, himself a former airline captain, I learned that my friend had served as an enlisted man with VMF-214, one of the most famous fighter squadrons America ever put in the air, legendary during an earlier era in WWII as the “Black Sheep Squadron”, led then by another legend, Colonel Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, and active in every war since then.
All of this remembering took me back to the hero-worship of my boyhood when “Pappy” Boyington’s picture hung on my bedroom wall, along with those of Colin P. Kelly, Richard Bong and Tommy McGuire. Impatient with his country’s hesitancy to fight the Axis, Boyington had resigned his Marine Corps commission to travel to China where he flew P-40s and Brewsters against the Japanese with Chenault’s “Flying Tigers” (The American Volunteer Group). After Pearl Harbor, and with several aerial victories already under his belt, he was welcomed (reluctantly some say) back into the Marine Corps as a Major, heading to the Pacific to fly F4U Corsairs against the Japanese.
As Commander of Marine fighter squadron VMF-214 he and his equally-non-conformist and party-loving followers named their unit the “Black Sheep”, an identification which soon became well-known both at home and with the enemy they met in the air. By coincidence, their Marine Air Group 13 flew out of the same fields my brother’s unit, Marine Air Group 27 used at Henderson Field on Guadalcanal, and later the island of Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides, so I had a special incentive to follow his exploits.
Rabaul on the island of New Britain was the Japanese “Gibraltar” of the Pacific with a powerfully protected harbor and some of Japan’s best pilots in 1943-44. It was against this target and these defenders that the “Black Sheep” matched skills every day, and it was in that venue that Boyington was credited with 26 additional air victories, to bring his verified total to 28, one of only three Americans to attain that high water mark. He was a generous leader though, sharing “Ace” status with five of his squadron mates, always choosing to fly the least airworthy fighter on the base as the group deployed for each sortie. Some of their most dangerous missions were against ground and harbor targets requiring them to endure accurate and determined ground fire at low altitudes, and on January 3rd, 1944, “Pappy” was shot down at sea. Picked up by a Japanese submarine, he spent the remainder of the war in a POW camp outside Tokyo. He would not learn until his release as an emaciated victim of starvation and cruel treatment that he had already been approved by President Roosevelt to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
One cannot pay homage to VMF-214 and its sister squadrons without mentioning the Vought F4U “Corsair”, one of the greatest examples of aviation genius to come out of WWII. Designed initially for Navy Carrier-based operations, it ultimately became synonymous with Marine Corps fighting squadrons. With its unmatched Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Twin Wasp radial 18-cylinder engine the “Corsair” became the first American fighter to exceed 400 mph. The same engine would eventually power many other famous aircraft including the AAF’s P-47 “Thunderbolt”. By the end of the “Corsair” era in 1953, the 12,571 F-4Us in its 16 model variations would represent the longest production run of any piston-engine fighter aircraft in U.S. history.
Colonel Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, USMCR (Retired) died in 1988 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. A descendent of Sioux ancestry and born in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho, the Boise Airport was named in his honor. If the “Black Sheep Boys” who knew and flew with him were around today, they would attest that above all other honors, he was revered by those who served under him.
Lt. Colonel Gregory “Pappy” Boyington briefs his “Black Sheep” Squadron members prior to a mission.
U.S. Marine Corps Historical Museum
With its classic gull-wing profile, this Vought F4-U “War Bird” is still flying today. Al Cooper Photo