World War II: Colonel Gregory "Pappy" Boyington

Major Gregory "Pappy" Boyington. Photograph Courtesy of the US Naval History & Heritage Command

Early Life

Gregory Boyington was born December 4, 1912, in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. Raised in the town of St. Maries, Boyington's parents divorced early in his life and he was raised by his mother and an alcoholic stepfather. Believing his step-father to be his biological father, he went by the name Gregory Hallenbeck until graduating from college. Boyington first flew at age six when he was given a ride by famed barnstormer Clyde Pangborn. At age fourteen, the family moved to Tacoma, WA. While in high school, he became an avid wrestler and later gained admission to the University of Washington.

Entering UW in 1930, he joined the ROTC program and majored in aeronautical engineering. A member of the wrestling team, he spent his summers working in a gold mine in Idaho to help pay for school. Graduating in 1934, Boyington was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Coast Artillery Reserve and accepted a position at Boeing as an engineer and draftsman. That same year he married his girlfriend, Helene. After a year with Boeing, he joined the Volunteer Marine Corps Reserve on June 13, 1935. It was during this process that he learned about his biological father and changed his name to Boyington.

Early Career

Seven months later, Boyington was accepted as an aviation cadet in the Marine Corps Reserve and assigned to Naval Air Station, Pensacola for training. Though he had not previously shown an interest in alcohol, the well-liked Boyington quickly became known as a hard-drinking, brawler among the aviation community. Despite his active social life, he successfully completed training and earned his wings as a naval aviator on March 11, 1937. That July, Boyington was discharged from the reserves and accepted a commission as a second lieutenant in the regular Marine Corps.

Sent to the Basic School in Philadelphia in July 1938, Boyington was largely uninterested in the mostly infantry-based curriculum and performed poorly. This was exacerbated by heavy drinking, fighting, and failure to repay loans. He was next assigned to Naval Air Station, San Diego where he flew with the 2nd Marine Air Group. Though he continued to be a discipline problem on the ground, he quickly demonstrated his skill in the air and was one of the best pilots in the unit. Promoted to lieutenant in November 1940, he returned to Pensacola as an instructor.

Flying Tigers

While at Pensacola, Boyington continued to have problems and at one point in January 1941 struck a superior officer during a fight over a girl (who was not Helene). With his career in shambles, he resigned from the Marine Corps on August 26, 1941, to accept a position with the Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company. A civilian organization, the CAMCO recruited pilots and staff for what would become the American Volunteer Group in China. Tasked with defending China and the Burma Road from the Japanese, the AVG became known as the "Flying Tigers."

Though he frequently clashed with the AVG's commander, Claire Chennault, Boyington was effective in the air and became one of the unit's squadron commanders. During his time with the Flying Tigers, he destroyed several Japanese aircraft in the air and on the ground. While Boyington claimed six kills with the Flying Tigers, a figure accepted by the Marine Corps, records indicate that he may actually have scored as few as two. With World War II raging and having flown 300 combat hours, he left the AVG in April 1942 and returned to the United States.

World War II

Despite his earlier poor record with the Marine Corps, Boyington was able to secure a commission as first lieutenant in the Marine Corps Reserve on September 29, 1942 as the service was in need of experienced pilots. Reporting for duty on November 23, he was given a temporary promotion to major the next day. Ordered to join Marine Air Group 11 on Guadalcanal, he briefly served as the executive officer of VMF-121. Seeing combat in April 1943, he failed to register any kills. Late that spring, Boyington broke his leg and was assigned to administrative duties.

The Black Sheep Squadron

During that summer, with American forces requiring more squadrons, Boyington found that there were many pilots and aircraft dispersed around region not being utilized. Pulling these resources together, he worked to form what would ultimately be designated VMF-214. Consisting of a mix of green pilots, replacements, casuals, and experienced veterans, the squadron initially lacked support personnel and possessed damaged or distressed aircraft. As many of the squadron's pilots had previously been unattached, they first wished to be called "Boyington's Bastards," but changed to "Black Sheep" for press purposes.

Flying the Chance Vought F4U Corsair, VMF-214 first operated from bases in the Russell Islands. At age 31, Boyington was nearly a decade older than most of his pilots and earned the nicknames "Gramps" and "Pappy." Flying their first combat mission on September 14, the pilots of VMF-214 quickly began accumulating kills. Among those adding to their tally was Boyington who downed 14 Japanese planes a 32-day span, including five on September 19. Quickly becoming known for their flamboyant style and daring, the squadron conducted a bold raid on the Japanese airfield at Kahili, Bougainville on October 17.

Home to 60 Japanese aircraft, Boyington circled the base with 24 Corsairs daring the enemy to send up fighters. In the resulting battle, VMF-214 downed 20 enemy aircraft while sustaining no losses. Through the fall, Boyington's kill total continued to increase until he reached 25 on December 27, one short of Eddie Rickenbacker's American record. On January 3, 1944, Boyington led a 48-plane force on a sweep over the Japanese base at Rabaul. As the fighting began, Boyington was seen downing his 26th kill but then became lost in the melee and was not seen again. Though considered killed or missing by his squadron, Boyington had been able to ditch his damaged aircraft. Landing in the water he was rescued by a Japanese submarine and taken prisoner.

Prisoner of War

Boyington was first taken to Rabaul where he was beaten and interrogated. He was subsequently moved to Truk before being transferred to Ofuna and Omori prisoner camps in Japan. While a POW, he was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions the previous fall and the Navy Cross for the Rabaul raid. In addition, he was promoted to the temporary rank of lieutenant colonel. Enduring a harsh existence as a POW, Boyington was liberated on August 29, 1945 following the dropping of the atom bombs. Returning to the United States, he claimed two additional kills during the Rabaul raid. In the euphoria of victory, these claims were not questioned and he was credited with a total of 28 making him the Marine Corps' top ace of the war. After being formally presented with his medals, he was placed on a Victory Bond tour. During the tour, his issues with drinking began to reemerge sometimes embarrassing the Marine Corps.

Later Life

Initially assigned to Marine Corps Schools, Quantico he was later posted to Marine Corps Air Depot, Miramar. In this period he struggled with drinking as well as public issues with his love life. On August 1, 1947, the Marine Corps moved him onto the retired list for medical reasons. As a reward for his performance in combat, he was advanced to the rank of colonel at retirement. Plagued by his drinking, he moved through a succession of civilian jobs and was married and divorced several times. He returned to prominence during the 1970s due to the television show Baa Baa Black Sheep, starring Robert Conrad as Boyington, which presented a fictionalized story of VMF-214's exploits. Gregory Boyington died of cancer on January 11, 1988, and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Colonel Gregory "Pappy" Boyington." ThoughtCo, Sep. 9, 2021, Hickman, Kennedy. (2021, September 9). World War II: Colonel Gregory "Pappy" Boyington. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Colonel Gregory "Pappy" Boyington." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 23, 2023).