Pappy Boyington was an alcoholic, he couldn’t hold a job, he was irresponsible, and he was the best pilot and an outstanding leader of the Black Sheep Squadron. No one was on the fence, he was either loved and admired or hated. Many people credited him with saving their lives or making their careers work. What drove this dichotomy?
As a youth, Gregory Boyington was drawn to flying. As a child, he scrambled to get $5 from his parents so he could have his first flight. Learning to fly wasn’t readily in his future, though. He found an opportunity with the Marines to learn to fly.
Before the US became involved in World War II, Boyington found another opportunity to further his own goals, of flying and experiencing combat. He resigned his commission to join the Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company and support China’s resistance to the Japanese invasion. He became a member of the Flying Tigers.
The squadron leader was an experienced pilot who understood the real characteristics of the Zero and of the US aircraft. He bucked traditional teaching and taught unique combat strategies. These impressed Pappy in his future career and laid the foudation for his own teaching.
With the Flying Tigers, he impressed his peers with his flying, but destroyed any opportunity he could have by his drinking and fighting. He only had one friend, and no opportunities. Although threatened if he resigned, he did anyway. He expected to resume his career with the Marines. The CO was determined to force him into the Navy, and preferably apart from flying. Boyington frantically contacted congressmen and friends in the Marines until he got his wish.
When Boyington rejoined the Marines, he got his commission and his squadron, only there weren’t any pilots or planes. He managed to collect a number of unattached pilots and eventually received the Corsair, a new plane intended for the Navy, but unsuitable for aircraft carriers.
Pappy started to shine for the first time in his life. He impressed the new pilots with his knowledge, he pushed their training to the point of their skills becoming reflex. He forged the unit into the best fighting air unit in the world. He approached his job, not as an officer, but as a coach and mentor. He didn’t follow the dogmatic approach of the military, but forged his own path.
He won the respect of his pilots when he earned enough kills in his first outing to become an ace in a single fight. One month later, he turned an ambush around on Japanese pilots and shot down three Zeros in 60 seconds.
When he started to approach Rickenbacker’s record, he started to become careless, pushing too hard. He was shot down and spent the last 20 months of the war in a Japanese POW camp.
Not knowing whether he lived or died affected everyone in the US. Many pilots lost some hope. Newspapers that had followed him printed his demise. His squadron, although distraught, redoubled their own efforts, doing as much damage to the Japanese as he could. He was awarded the Medal of Honor during his captivity. He learned of it through a new prisoner. Upon hearing it, he commented that he’d gladly trade it for a hamburger.
Even in captivity, he never lost his spirit, nor his will to live. He inspired others to fight to live. One pilot commented that just knowing Pappy was in the prison camp make him certain they would all survive.
Pappy was able to keep the good and bad separate. He never lumped all Japanese into one camp as evil. He befriended one of his captors, and found many Japanese civilians were willing to help prisoners during the war when they would face death when found out. After the war, he commented that what we did to the Japanese Americans was unthinkable.
Three of his pilots achieved ace status during WWII. Some earned it again in Korea. Almost all of them did well after the war.
Pappy reverted to his drinking and failure after the war. He tried, but was unable to overcome his demons. Not able to keep a job, nor a marriage, he had few friends. But the Black Sheep never gave up on him. They always saw him as a hero and mentor.
Pappy Boyington died in 1988. A hero.
I enjoyed the book thoroughly. I’ve always wondered how much of the tv show was accurate. Very little, but I enjoyed finding out. The book has inspired me to read the biography of some of his pilots as well.