Childhood & Early Life
Pappy Boyington was born on December 4, 1912 in Coeur d'Alene, a city in northwest Idaho, US, to Charles and Grace Boyington. When he was three years old, their family relocated to a logging town named St. Maries, where he would spend the next 12 years before moving to Tacoma, Washington. He attended Lincoln High School, Washington, where he excelled in sports, especially wrestling.
As a six-years-old boy in St. Maries, he got the opportunity to fly with Clyde “Upside-Down” Pangborn. This was his first time on a plane. He graduated from high school in 1930 and enrolled at the University of Washington in Seattle. While there, he became a member of the Army ROTC and Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity. He also joined the swimming team as well as continued wrestling in the university, even holding the Pacific Northwest Intercollegiate middleweight wrestling title for a while.
During the summer holidays, he worked part-time at a mining camp and a logging camp in Washington. He was also employed briefly by the Coeur d'Alene Fire Protective Association for road construction. In 1934, he received a B.S. degree in aeronautical engineering.
He met his first wife, Helen Clark, at the university. They married soon after his graduation. The couple moved to Seattle where Boyington found work as a draftsman and engineer. He actively pursued a career in aviation in spring 1935 and sought flight training under the Aviation Cadet Act.
He soon found out that that the course would exclude all married men. He had grown up as “Gregory Hallenbeck,” believing that his stepfather Ellsworth J. Hallenbeck was his real father. It turned out that his parents had divorced shortly after his birth. He then realized that there was no record of a “Gregory Boyington” ever getting married. So he seized the opportunity and changed his name to “Gregory Boyington” and joined the military.
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Career in the Military
While he was still in college, Boyington had joined the military as part of Army ROTC, later rising to the rank of cadet captain. After completing his training, he began serving as a second lieutenant in the US Army Coast Artillery Reserve in June 1934. He was then designated to perform two months of active duty with the 630th Coast Artillery at Fort Worden, Washington.
Boyington was commissioned in the US Marine Corps on June 13, 1935. He was rendered inactive a month later. However, on February 18, 1936, he was made an aviation cadet in the Marine Corps Reserve and was sent to Naval Air Station, Pensacola, Florida, for flight training. On March 11, 1937, he received the official designation of a Naval Aviator.
His first transfer as Naval Aviator was to Quantico, Virginia, for duty with Aircraft One, Fleet Marine Force. He received discharge paper from the Marine Corps Reserve on July 1, 1937, and was appointed as a second lieutenant in the regular Marine Corps a day later. Subsequently, he studied at The Basic School in Philadelphia between July 1938 and January 1939.
After the course ended, he served with the 2nd Marine Aircraft Group at the San Diego Naval Air Station as well as took part in naval exercises off the aircraft carriers USS Lexington and USS Yorktown. Boyington was also appointed as an instructor at Pensacola in December 1940 before resigning from the Marine Corps on August 26, 1941.
In mid-1941, Boyington was employed by the Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company (CAMCO), a company hired to form an air unit to defend China and the Burma Road. This came to be known as the American Volunteer Group (AVG) or the Flying Tigers (in Burma). This was the first time that Boyington was assigned as a flight leader. While he shared an almost antagonistic relationship with the commander of the outfit, Claire Chennault., he nonetheless officially destroyed two Japanese aircraft in the air and 1.5 on the ground (six, according to his autobiography).
He left the Tigers in April 1942, months before the expiration of his contract with the outfit. He came back to the US and enlisted in the Marine Corps on September 29, 1942. Initially, he flew with the Marine Aircraft Group 11 of the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing in South Pacific. In the subsequent months, he rose through the ranks to become the Commanding Officer (CO) of Marine Fighter Squadron 214, popularly known as the "Black Sheep Squadron”.
He was nicknamed “Gramps” by his subordinates as he was at least a decade older than the men who served under him. The nickname later evolved into “Pappy”, after a new variation of "The Whiffenpoof Song", which was penned by Paul "Moon" Mullen, one of the Black Sheep. This later became popular among war correspondents.
His greatest accomplishments as a fighter pilot occurred during his tenure with the Vought F4U Corsair in VMF-214. He brought down several enemy aircraft in the Russell Islands-New Georgia and Bougainville-New Britain-New Ireland areas. On October 17, 1943, he led the Black Sheep in a raid on Kahili airdrome at the southern tip of Bougainville, where the unit circled an enemy airfield, coaxing them to retaliate. In the ensuing battle, Boyington and his fighters engaged a unit of 60 enemy aircraft. They brought down 20 and returned to the base without losing a single plane.
Boyington and his men stated that they would destroy a Japanese Zero aircraft for every baseball cap they would receive from major league players in the World Series. They were sent 20 caps, although they brought down quite more than that number of enemy aircraft. Boyington himself recorded 26 enemy planes destroyed, tying with the legendary World War I ace Eddie Rickenbacker. However, he claimed that his tally was 28, including the ones he destroyed during his time with the Tigers.
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It was on that mission which took place on January 3, 1944 that Boyington and his men engaged the enemy over Rabaul and he was eventually shot down. Designated as the tactical commander of the entire flight, he found himself right in the middle of the general melee of dogfighters. His wingman, Captain George Ashmun, was killed that day.
There are a lot of speculations about who had finally brought down Boyington. The most significant claim was made by Masajiro "Mike" Kawato, who was present that day over Rabaul as an enemy pilot. However, it has since been disproved.
After he went missing, the American military launched a search operation, but by then he had been picked up by a Japanese submarine. He would spend the next 20 months as a prisoner of war. Boyington was kept at Rabaul and Truk prison camps and was first transported to Ōfuna and finally to Ōmori Prison Camp near Tokyo.
Following the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan surrendered. Boyington was freed from captivity on August 29, 1945 and came back to the US on 12 September. He was welcomed home by 21 former squadron members from VMF-214.
After he was awarded the Medal of Honor and Navy Cross, Boyington went on a Victory Bond Tour. He eventually retired from the Marine Corps with the rank of colonel on August 1, 1947.
Awards & Achievements
Pappy Boyington was originally awarded America’s highest military honor — the Medal of Honor — by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in March 1944 and it was kept in the capital until Boyington could receive it. However, Roosevelt passed away in April 1945. He eventually received the Medal of Honor on 5 October, Nimitz Day, at the White House from President Harry S. Truman.
On 4 October 1945, he was awarded the Navy Cross by the Commandant of the Marine Corps for the Rabaul raid.
He also received a Purple Heart, Prisoner of War Medal, Presidential Unit Citation w/ 3⁄16" bronze star, American Defense Service Medal w/ 3⁄16" bronze star, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal w/ 3⁄16" silver star, American Campaign Medal, and World War II Victory Medal.
In 1994, he was posthumously inducted into the Naval Aviation Hall of Honor.
Pappy Boyington had three children with Helen, two daughters Janet and Gloria, and a son, Gregory Jr. He divorced her in 1941 when he returned from his tenure with the Tigers, accusing her of neglecting the children.
His second wife was Los Angeles-native Frances Baker, whom he married on January 8, 1946. After their divorce, he married Delores Tatum on October 28, 1959. They adopted a child together. His fourth marriage, to Josephine Wilson Moseman of Fresno, took place in 1978.
A lifelong smoker, Boyington had been suffering from cancer since the 1960s. On January 11, 1988, he died in his sleep in Fresno, California. He was 75 years old. Boyington was buried in Arlington National Cemetery on January 15 with all the honors accorded to a Medal of Honor recipient.
The name of the Coeur d'Alene airport in Idaho was changed to Coeur d'Alene Airport–Pappy Boyington Field in his honour in August 2007. A month later, it was dedicated to him.