Gregory “Pappy” Boyington (December 4, 1912 – January 11, 1988) was an American combat pilot who was a United States Marine Corps fighter ace during World War II. He received both the Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross.
Boyington was initially a P-40 Warhawk fighter pilot with the legendary “Flying Tigers” (1st American Volunteer Group) in the Republic of China Air Force in Burma at the end of 1941 and part of 1942, during the military conflict between China and Japan, and the beginning of World War II.
In September 1942, he rejoined the Marine Corps (had been an aviator before the war). In early 1943, he deployed to the South Pacific and began flying combat missions as a Marine F4U Corsair fighter pilot. In September 1943, he took command of U.S. Marine Corps fighter squadron VMF-214 (“Black Sheep”).
In January 1944, Boyington, outnumbered by Japanese “Zero” planes, was shot down into the Pacific Ocean after downing one of the enemy planes. He was captured by a Japanese submarine crew and was held as a prisoner of war for more than a year and a half. He was released shortly after the surrender of Japan, and a few days before the official surrender documents were signed.
The television series Baa Baa Black Sheep was inspired by Boyington and his men in the “Black Sheep” squadron. It ran for two seasons in the late 1970s.
Born on December 4, 1912 in northern Idaho at Coeur d’Alene, Boyington is erroneously quoted as being born in 1906. He moved to the logging town of St. Maries at age three and lived there until age twelve, then lived in Tacoma, Washington, where he was a wrestler at Lincoln High School.
He took his first flight at St. Maries when he was six years old, with Clyde Pangborn, who later flew the Pacific non-stop.
After graduation from high school in 1930, Boyington attended the University of Washington in Seattle, where he was a member of the Army ROTC and joined the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity. He was on the Husky wrestling and swimming teams, and for a time he held the Pacific Northwest Intercollegiate middleweight wrestling title.
He spent his summers working in Washington in a mining camp and at a logging camp, and with the Coeur d’Alene Fire Protective Association in road construction. He graduated in 1934 with a B.S. in aeronautical engineering.
Boyington married shortly after graduation and worked as a draftsman and engineer for Boeing in Seattle.
In the spring of 1935, he applied for flight training under the Aviation Cadet Act, but he discovered that it excluded married men.Boyington had grown up as Gregory Hallenbeck, and assumed his stepfather, Ellsworth J. Hallenbeck, was his father.
When he obtained a copy of his birth certificate, however, he learned that his father was actually Charles Boyington, a dentist, and that his parents had divorced when he was an infant. Since there was no record that someone named Gregory Boyington had ever been married, he enrolled as U.S. Marine Corps aviation cadet using that name.
Boyington had begun his military training in college as a member of Army ROTC and became a cadet captain. He was commissioned a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Coast Artillery Reserve in June 1934, and then served two months of active duty with the 630th Coast Artillery at Fort Worden, Washington.
On June 13, 1935, he managed to transfer to the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve. He returned to inactive duty on July 16 that year. On February 18, 1936, Boyington accepted an appointment as an aviation cadet in the Marine Corps Reserve. He was assigned to Naval Air Station, Pensacola, Florida, for flight training.
Boyington was designated a Naval Aviator on March 11, 1937, then transferred to Quantico, Virginia, for duty with Aircraft One, Fleet Marine Force. He was discharged from the Marine Corps Reserve on July 1, 1937 in order to accept a second lieutenant’s commission in the regular Marine Corps the following day.
Boyington attended the Basic School in Philadelphia from July 1938 to January 1939. On completion of the course, he was assigned to the 2nd Marine Aircraft Group at the San Diego Naval Air Station.
He took part in fleet problems off the aircraft carriers USS Lexington and USS Yorktown. Promoted to first lieutenant on November 4, 1940, Boyington returned to Pensacola as an instructor in December.
Boyington resigned his commission in the Marine Corps on August 26, 1941, to accept a position with the Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company (CAMCO). CAMCO was a civilian firm that contracted to staff a Special Air Unit to defend China and the Burma Road.
This later became known as the American Volunteer Group (AVG), the famed Flying Tigers in Burma. During his time with the Tigers, Boyington became a flight leader.
He was frequently in trouble with the commander of the outfit, Claire Chennault. Boyington was officially credited with 2 Japanese aircraft destroyed in the air and 1.5 on the ground, but AVG records suggest that one additional ground “kill” may have been due to him.
(He afterward claimed six victories as a Tiger, but there is no substantiation for that figure, and aircraft destroyed on the ground normally do not count as victories.) In April 1942, he broke his contract with the American Volunteer Group and returned on his own to the United States.
Boyington was a tough, hard-living character known for being unorthodox. He was also a heavy drinker, which plagued him in the years after the war, and possibly contributed to his multiple divorces.
He freely admitted that during the two years he spent as a P.O.W. his health improved, due to the enforced sobriety. He worked various civilian jobs, including refereeing and participating in professional wrestling matches.[1
Many people know him from the mid-1970s television show Baa Baa Black Sheep, a drama about the Black Sheep squadron based very loosely on Boyington’s memoir, with Boyington portrayed by Robert Conrad.
Like Chuck Yeager in the movie The Right Stuff (1983), Pappy had a short walk-on role, as a visiting general for two episodes in the first season (“The Deadliest Enemy of All: Part 2” and “The Fastest Gun”) and one episode in the second season (“Ten’ll Get You Five”) of the show.
Many of Boyington’s men were irate over the show, charging it was mostly fiction and presented a glamorized portrayal of Boyington. On the television show, Boyington was depicted as owning a bull terrier dog, named “Meatball”.
However, he was heard commenting at a 1970s Experimental Aircraft Association air show book signing that if he did have a dog at the time, it wouldn’t have been such “an ugly” dog. Boyington frequently told interviewers and audiences that the television series was fiction and only slightly related to fact, calling it “hogwash and Hollywood hokum”.
Boyington had three children by his first wife. One daughter (Janet Boyington) committed suicide; one son (Gregory Boyington, Jr.) graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1960 and retired from the U.S. Air Force as a lieutenant colonel.
A heavy smoker for years, Boyington died in his sleep, possibly from cancer complications, on January 11, 1988, at the age of 75 in Fresno, California. He had battled cancer since the 1960s.
He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery on January 15 in plot 7A-150 with full honors accorded to a Medal of Honor recipient, including a missing man fly-by conducted by the F-4 Phantom IIs of the Marine detachment at Andrews Air Force Base.
Before his flight from Fresno, VMA-214 (the current incarnation of the Black Sheep Squadron) did a flyby. They intended to perform a missing man formation, but one of the four aircraft suffered a mechanical problem.
After the burial service for Boyington, one of his friends, Fred Losch, looked down at the headstone next to which he was standing, that of boxing legend Joe Louis, and remarked that “Ol’ Pappy wouldn’t have to go far to find a good fight.”