Major Gregory "Pappy" Boyington (December 4, 1912 - January 11, 1988) was a fighter ace of the US Marine Corps in World War II. He flew with the American Volunteer Group (the "Flying Tigers") before the entry of the United States into the war. He is unofficially credited with 6 victories from this period.
Boyington was born in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho but grew up in the logging town of St. Maries, Idaho and later, Tacoma, Washington where he was a wrestler in high school. In 1930 he entered the University of Washington where he participated in the ROTC and became a member of Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity. He married his first wife, Helen, shortly after his graduation in 1934, after which he worked for Boeing before joining the United States Marine Corps in 1935.
Boyington is best known for his exploits in the Pacific theatre during World War II, flying the Vought F4U Corsair. He commanded the U.S. Marine Corps Corsair squadron VMF-214, better known by its nickname, the "Black Sheep Squadron." He amassed a further 20 victories before being shot down by Japanese aircraft on January 3, 1944. He spent the rest of the war in a Japanese prison camp.
Upon returning home, he received the Medal of Honor.
Boyington was a tough, hard-living character who was known for being unorthodox. He was also an alcoholic, which plagued him in the years after the war, and contributed to multiple divorces as well as disciplinary problems with the Marines.
Many people know him from the 1970s television show Baa Baa Black Sheep, a drama about the Black Sheep squadron based very loosely on Boyington's memoir of the same name, with Boyington portrayed by Robert Conrad. Like Chuck Yeager on The Right Stuff, Pappy had a short walk-on role as a visiting General during the second season of the show.
While artist depictions and publicity photos often show Boyington with aircraft number 86 ("Ma Belle") covered in victory flags, this was not his combat aircraft. In fact, he rarely flew the same aircraft more than a few times. It has been said that he would choose the F4U in the worst shape, so none of his pilots would be afraid of flying their own aircraft.
Major Boyington was buried in Arlington National Cemetery on January 15, 1988, in section 7A. He was buried with full honors accorded to a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient including a missing man fly-by conducted by the F-4's of the Marine detachment at Andrews Air Force base. Before his flight from Fresno, California VMA-214 (the current incarnation of the Black Sheep Squadron) did a fly by. They intended to do a missing man formation, but one of the four aircraft suffered a mechanical problem.
Just after the burial service for Boyington one of his friends, Fred Losch, looked down at the head stone that he was standing next by, the boxing legend Joe Louis. Bruce Gamble comments on this by saying, "Ol' Pappy wouldn't have to go far to find a good fight."
AVG Victory Claims
There is some controversy surrounding Major Boyington's AVG victory claims. His official CAMCO bonus account only accumulated 3.5 bonus claims (for enemy aircraft destroyed), of which only 2 were confirmed air to air victories.
According to Bruce Gamble, Boyington felt that the board that officially credited him with kills overlooked claims from a raid in Chiang Mai. At that time AVG bonus claims for aircraft destroyed on the ground were divided evenly among the aircraft making the strafing runs. During this particular raid is was decided that the bonus amount would also be divided among the aircraft providing fighter cover.
Here is how Boyington probably calculated his score:
- Confirmed air to air victories: 2 (this is what the US military officially acknowledges normally)
- Chiang Mai Raid: 3.75 (15 aircraft destroyed divided by 4 shooters)
- Total: 5.75
He then rounded it up to 6, and convinced the Corps to officially acknowledge it. This was probably good for the Corps' image during the final days of the tour as Boyington neared the record of 26 victories held at the time by Joe Foss and Eddie Rickenbacker. He ultimately tied the record on the same mission in which he was shot down.
After the war, Boyington insisted on the term "victories" rather than "kills", and was known to lose his temper over the issue.