Greg Boyington was a Marine aviator during the Second World War fighting in both the Marine Corps and as a member of the legendary Flying Tigers, the American Group (AVG). Boyington was credited with shooting down 26 enemy planes and was the recipient of the Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross. He was shot down in 1944 and spent nearly two years as a POW. A television series very loosely based on him, “Baa Baa Black Sheep” ran for two seasons in the late 1970s.
He was a hard-drinking, fighting man who was a menace to his commanders during the peacetime military but a tremendous combat pilot during the time of war.
Boyington was born, Gregory Hallenbeck in December 1912 in Idaho. He always assumed his stepfather was his actual father but later learned that his real father, Charles Boyington, had been divorced from his mother while Boyington was still an infant. After high school, he enrolled at the University of Washington, where he was enrolled in Army ROTC. After graduating with a degree in aeronautical engineering in 1934, he served for a short time as a member of the Army Reserve as a 2LT in the Coast Artillery.
He transferred to the Marine Corps and was accepted into their Cadet Aviation Program. He became a Naval Aviator in March of 1937 and became a Second Lieutenant in the active Marines on July 2, 1937. He served at both San Diego and at Pensacola as an instructor pilot, reaching First Lieutenant in 1940.
World War II Service: Boyington resigned his commission in July 1941, to join what became known as the American Volunteer Group, AVG, the Flying Tigers. He was a flight leader with the AVG and was credited with 2 air victories with another 2.5 aircraft destroyed on the ground. Boyington in his memoirs claimed, however, that he had six air victories. He described each in detail, but they were never officially substantiated.
Boyington frequently butted heads with the leader of the AVG Claire Chennault and after the United States’ entry into the war when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, he had his chance. Boyington broke his contract with the AVG and returned to the U.S. on his own in April 1942.
He returned to the Marine Corps and was given a promotion to Major as the Corps was in need of experienced aviators and he was one of the very few with combat experience.
He was assigned to Marine Fighter Squadron 122 on Guadalcanal as the Executive Officer and later became the Commander of Marine Fighter Squadron 112 before taking over the command of Marine Fighter Squadron 214, the Black Sheep Squadron in September 1943.
It was here that Boyington achieved his most success as a combat pilot. His pilots nicknamed him Gramps which became Pappy because of his age. He was 31 and a decade older than the men who served under him. But he was no kindly grandpa in the skies above the Russell Islands-New Georgia and Bougainville-New Britain-New Ireland areas.
Flying in the Vought F4U Corsair, the Marine pilots loved the aircraft and for the first time, the US had a plane that was superior to the Japanese Zero. The Corsair was faster and could dive and climb faster than their Japanese counterparts. The aircraft was extremely rugged and could sustain a lot of damage and with six M2 .50 caliber machine guns mounted in the wings, they had an enormous firepower advantage over their enemy. Corsairs shot down 2140 Japanese aircraft during the war against a loss of just 189. The kill rate was an outstanding 11:1.
Boyington’s squadron regularly mixed it up with the Japanese and he was piling up the kills in the air. In one 32 day period, he shot down 14 Japanese aircraft. In October of 1943, Boyington and his Black Sheep circled the Japanese airfield at Bouganville with 24F4Us. The Japanese had 60 fighters there and the Americans were daring them to take the bait. When the Japanese came after them, the Americans chopped them up, downing 20 Japanese aircraft without the loss of one American. The balance in the air war in the Pacific had gone firmly to the American side. In just 84 days, Boyington’s squadron had shot down or damaged 197 aircraft and had sunk troop transports supply ships while destroying some ground installations.
On another mission to Bougainville, the Japanese tried a ruse and radioed for his position in English. Boyington didn’t buy it but radioed the Japanese their exact position but 5000 feet lower. When the Zeros arrived, the Corsairs blew a dozen out of the sky.
On January 3, 1944, Boyington would shoot down his 26th plane, tying the World War I record of the legendary Eddie Rickenbacker, although Boyington claimed he had 28. But it was on this mission where he was shot down. The Americans scrambled 48 fighters over Rabaul, including Boyington’s flight of four from the Black Sheep Squadron. There they tangled with about 80 Japanese fighters, Boyington was shot down and his wingman was killed.
He was picked up by a Japanese submarine and transported to Rabaul where he was brutally interrogated before moving to Truk and finally to a notorious Japanese POW camp at Ofuna. There the guards’ treatment was brutal for any infraction, real or imagined. One of his fellow prisoners there was Louis Zamperini, the Olympic runner and the inspiration for the film “Unbroken” from 2014.
Upon being repatriated from the POW camp, Boyington learned he was to be awarded the Medal of Honor from President Harry S. Truman. He went on a Victory Bond Tour but his problems with alcohol would surface and trouble him for most of his remaining life. The Marine Corps retired Boyington in 1947 for medical reasons.
After the war, he bounced between jobs and marriages and while in AA in 1958 wrote his autobiography “Baa Baa Black Sheep” and he resurfaced as a war hero. In the late 1970s, Hollywood created the television show very loosely based on Boyington’s squadron. He was portrayed by Robert Conrad. But his men became incensed at the portrayal of themselves as drunken, misfits.
Boyington died quietly in his sleep of cancer on January 11, 1988, and was buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery. He was buried next to Joe Louis. One of his fellow pilots remarked that Pappy wouldn’t have far to go find a fight.
Photos: US Archives/Wikipedia