Marine Col. Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, the World War II ace and Medal of Honor recipient, was as well known for his flamboyant personality as his flying skills.
Before the United States officially entered the war, many young Americans volunteered to serve in foreign air forces. Whether flying for Britain in the Eagle Squadrons or in the American Volunteer Group supporting Chiang Kai-shek in China, better known as “The Flying Tigers,” those who served as fighter pilots were the spearhead of American intervention, and they quickly became folk heroes.
One of the most colorful and controversial members of that unique fraternity was Gregory Boyington.
Boyington discovered a new world in combat aviation after several years as an instructor pilot in the Marine Corps. The combat experience he accumulated over China and Burma was nearly wasted by a bureaucracy that failed to comprehend the necessities of the new war and was often willing to shelve talented individuals whose skills were sorely needed at the front.
But his methods of circumventing rules and regulations, as well as his often outrageous personal conduct, often proved that he was — as he admitted in retrospect — his “own worst enemy.”
By the end of the war, Boyington had amassed 24 aerial victories, and his valor was recognized with both the Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross.
His legend continued after the war came to a close. During the 1970s, actor Robert Conrad portrayed him in the television series “Baa Baa Black Sheep” (later syndicated as “Black Sheep Squadron”), making Greg Boyington and his Marine fighter squadron, VMF-214, household names once again, despite some glaring distortions of historical fact and reality in the productions.
Greg Boyington lived life as hard as he fought the war. He died on Jan. 8, 1988, not long after granting this interview to Aviation History Magazine, a sister publication. Never one to mince words, Boyington’s observations are candid regarding the war, the Japanese and our own government and military during the war and afterward.
Q. Where did you grow up?
A. We were from Idaho, but we moved to Okanogan, Wash., where my parents had an apple farm, when I was in junior high school. My brother Bill and I had a great environment when we were growing up.
Q. When did you decide to become a pilot?
A. I had always loved the idea of flying. I used to read all of the books about the World War I fighter aces, and I built model planes, gliders and things. I went to the University of Washington and received a bachelor of science in aeronautical engineering, and I also played football and did a lot of boxing there.
I was there with Bob Galer, who commanded the first fighter detachment on Guadalcanal in 1942. He was shot down several times and always made it back through Japanese lines. Of course, he was usually sober.
I also flew during the Miami air races — anything to log more air time.
Q. How did you get involved with the American Volunteer Group?
A. Well, I had been in the Corps since 1934 and flying since 1935, and I became an instructor for both basic flight school and instrumentation. That was where I met many of my friends, including Joe Foss.
I resigned my commission and accepted the job with the AVG in September 1941, since rank was slow in coming and I needed the money. The AVG was paying $675 per month, with a bonus of $500 for every confirmed scalp you knocked down. In 1941 that was the same as making $5,000 a month today. And with an ex-wife, three kids, debts and my lifestyle, I really needed the work.I received more than my share of threats of court-martial, although technically we were civilians, so those threats went in one ear and out a Scotch bottle.
Besides, the government knew damned well what we were doing. They set it up. That was when I learned that Admiral Chester Nimitz maintained files of all the Navy and Marine pilots and ground crews going over. The only catch was that we had to be secret about the whole affair.
We went to San Francisco, where we boarded a Dutch ship, Boschfontein, that was carrying 55 missionaries, men and women, to China. That was our cover, and it stated this in our passports, although my personal cover was that I was going to Java to fly for KLM.
It was the same kind of setup the Germans had for going to Spain, and it didn’t fool anyone, especially the real missionaries on board. Dick Rossi and I were pegged immediately. This is amazing, considering that I was not the only one hardly sober enough to remember our cover story and not too careful with his language.
Q. When did you first meet Claire Chennault, and what did you think of him?
A. Well, I met him many times. The first time was in a village called Toungoo, right outside Rangoon, Burma. He was very impressive in appearance and commanded respect, although some of his decisions later alienated him from many of us.
He was less than pleased with some of our antics, such as shooting down the telephone lines with our .45s on the train to our billets, holding water buffalo races and rodeos in the street, or shooting up the chandeliers in a bar when they quit serving us.
Some of the ground crew had been caught smuggling guns for profit, and that went over like a mortar round. Our radioman had even purchased a wife from her father, and we tried like hell to keep Chennault from finding out.
Once, before we left for good, we began having target practice by shooting at a wall, and it created a problem. A civilian representative from Allison was almost hit by a ricochet, and his report was less than glowing.
One of our last stunts was to fly the Chiangs on an escort mission. Before this we were told to give an airshow, a fly-by for the benefit of the Chiangs, Chennault and some other dignitaries. We passed by so low in a rolling turn that they all fell flat on the deck.
Our relationship with the RAF [British Royal Air Force] boys was also somewhat strained, since they did not think much of us on the whole. I wondered why they were so snobbish, since they were losing the war.
I received more than my share of threats of court-martial, although technically we were civilians, so those threats went in one ear and out a Scotch bottle.
My opinion of Chennault began to go downhill following his orders for a greater effort in ground attack missions — missions that were costing us in aircraft and pilots for no appreciable gain. One pilot who was killed was Jack Newkirk.
The 3rd Squadron was unusually busy, attacking imaginary depots and unknown numbers of troops in the field. It was all bull. Chennault just wanted to keep the reports active once we ran out of Jap planes to tangle with.
Many of the pilots refused to fly those missions, since there was no bonus in killing a tree. Chennault threatened us with courts-martial, and that really began the tide rolling against him. We were civilian specialists working for a foreign government, not his personal command. Finally, Chennault negotiated extra money for strafing, and I volunteered.