U.S. Marine Squadron 214, one of the most renowned U.S. fighting units of World War II, which fought against the Japanese in the Pacific theater.
At thirty years of age, Gregory Boyington was referred to by his younger fliers as “Pappy,” “Gramps,” and “Skipper,” because he appeared old for his age. Through his off-duty indulgence in alcohol, gambling, and fighting, he had earned a dubious reputation as a troublemaker, much to the disapproval of his superior officers.
By 1940, before the United States entered World War II, Boyington, a Marine pilot, resigned from the Marines and signed up as a paid mercenary flier for the American Volunteer Group, known as the Flying Tigers, in China. Led by General Claire Lee Chennault, the Flying Tigers successfully used their P-40 fighter planes against the Japanese. During this tour of duty from November, 1941, to July, 1942, Boyington was officially credited with shooting down six Japanese aircraft.
After the United States entered World War II, Boyington returned to the mainland and was reinstated into the Marines. He was transferred to the Pacific theater, where his first job, administrative in nature, was primarily to find replacements for American flier casualties. In his autobiography, Baa Baa Black Sheep (1958), Boyington claimed to have provided strategic input to the secret air mission that intercepted, shot down, and killed the commander in chief of Japan’s navy, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, over Bougainville in the Solomon Islands on April 18, 1943. Yearning to return to combat duty, he convinced his superiors that he could make a greater contribution to the war effort by training and leading a newly formed squadron.
The popular history of the Black Sheep Squadron primarily centers on the period from the squadron’s initial formation at the Russell Islands, off New Guinea, to the date several months later when Boyington was shot down by a Japanese plane. During that time, the unit as a whole would be credited with downing ninety-four Japanese airplanes, strafing and disabling a large number of enemy aircraft parked on the ground, and successfully protecting many U.S. bomber aircraft missions.
The Black Sheep Squadron’s third mission on September 16, 1943, was to escort U.S. bombers and torpedo planes attacking the Japanese airfield at Ballale Island, near Guadalcanal. On this mission, twenty Corsair aircraft of the Black Sheep Squadron engaged about forty Japanese fighter planes. In the ensuing air battle, Boyington shot down five enemy planes but had to make an emergency landing at Munda, in the Solomon Islands, because he was low on fuel. Soon after returning safely to home base, the squadron had a meeting to evaluate the mission. At this meeting, the young men wanted informally to name the squadron “Boyington’s Bastards,” but Boyington insisted on the more polite “Black Sheep Squadron.”
On January 3, 1944, on a mission from Bougainville to Rabaul in the Solomon Islands, Boyington shot down three enemy aircraft to bring his war total to twenty-eight, a new U.S. combat record. However, on this same mission, he was himself shot down, by a Japanese fighter aircraft. After parachuting from his aircraft, he survived for several hours in the cold waters of St. George Channel before being captured by a Japanese submarine. For the remaining eighteen months of the war, he remained a prisoner, suffering frequent beatings and interrogations, starvation, and unsanitary conditions. Because the Japanese would neither inform the neutral Swiss government of Boyington’s capture nor release his identity publicly, the U.S. military officially assumed that Boyington was dead and awarded him a posthumous Congressional Medal of Honor in 1944.
After Boyington’s capture, the Black Sheep Squadron continued with constant changes of officers and pilots and transfers to other units. The squadron’s final wartime assignment was aboard the small aircraft carrier USS Franklin. The Franklin suffered severe casualties and damage when a Japanese dive-bomber landed a bomb on the flight deck full of armed and fueled U.S. aircraft ready for takeoff.
After the end of the war, Boyington was safely returned to U.S. military officials and sent to the mainland United States. The media had made him a popular war hero, and he went on a tour of appearances. On October 5, 1945, U.S. president Harry S. Truman personally awarded Boyington his Medal of Honor in a White House ceremony. The president’s words were, “Congratulations, I would rather have this honor than be President of the United States.”
The Black Sheep Squadron as a whole received the Presidential Unit Citation, which recognized its air-to-air combat missions from April 7, 1943, to January 6, 1944. The squadron was credited with 132 pilots, 160 downed Japanese airplanes, 70 airplanes lost, 28 pilots killed or permanently missing in action, 13 pilots wounded, and a casualty rate of 30 percent. Some of the original members later flew in the Korean War and in the 1948 Israeli War for Independence.
In his autobiography, Boyington mentions a happy reunion with twenty of the Black Sheep Squadron members in Oakland, California, soon after the war’s end. Until his death in 1988, he kept in touch with many of his fliers, who, in interviews throughout the years, were generous with praise for their colonel, mainly because his teaching and experience helped them return home safely from the war. However, the fliers believed that the news media and the 1976-1978 television series Baa BaaBlack Sheep, for which Boyington was a paid adviser, exaggerated the rowdy behavior of the unit as a whole. Boyington freely admitted in his autobiography his own troubles but provided very few examples of rowdy behavior by his men.
Boyington, “Pappy.” Baa Baa Black Sheep. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1958. Boyington’s personal, and not necessarily historically accurate, autobiography describes his memories of the exploits of the Black Sheep Squadron and especially his time as a prisoner of war. Gamble, Bruce. The Black Sheep Squadron. Novato, Calif.: Presidio Press, 2000. A historian’s account of the squadron, drawing from military records, archives, and the fliers’ personal letters home during the war. McCullough, David G., ed. The American Heritage Picture History of World War II. American Heritage, 1966. A picture book of World War II, containing photos and a summary of Boyington’s and the Black Sheep Squadron’s contribution to the Pacific war effort. Walton, Frank E. Once They Were Eagles: The Men of the Black Sheep Squadron. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1996. A historian’s account of the squadron and its individual members.
Marine pilots, U.S.
World War II