There are some heroes in war who become legends. They face the brutality of the conflict head on, unflinching in the face of adversity. A few of these remarkable figures have attained an almost mythical status, their exploits standing out from the crowded pages of history. Gregory Boyington was one such man.Known famously as Pappy Boyington, his bravery, skills and achievements as an aviator in World War II set an almost impossibly high bar for other soldiers. His exploits were detailed in 1958, when he penned his autobiography, “Baa Baa Black Sheep”. The book was a great success, and from its pages we can gather a full and fascinating picture of his time in combat.
Boyington received numerous honors and commendations, including the Medal of Honor, the Navy Cross, the Purple Heart Medal, and the Presidential Unit Citation. At times the man’s life seems closer to thrilling fiction than hard fact; from breathtaking chases through the sky to seemingly impossible missions, the pilot’s story is truly incredible. A brilliant tactician and an excellent military mind, Boyington’s keen grasp of strategy often saved both his life and the lives of his squadron. In fact, there was even a report conducted in the February of 1944 which specifically studied the tactics of Pappy Boyington.
So what is the truth behind these incredible stories? How did Boyington win his place among the greatest daredevil pilots of World War II? How did one man live a life so full of adventures?
Born in Idaho, a young Boyington exhibited an interest in flying at an early age. Building model airplanes in kindergarten, it was clear where his passion lay. In fact, he took to the skies for the first time at the age of six, flying with Clyde Pangborn. The renowned barnstormer and pilot, himself a key figure in the history of aviation, flew into Idaho on his Curtiss JN-4 and gave Boyington his first experience of flight.
The thrill of flying took root in Pappy Boyington’s heart, and after his encounter with Pangborn, his mind was made up. He decided to become a pilot.
Before the World War
Boyington enlisted in the Marine Corps and began elimination training in June 1935. During this period he met Bob Galer and Richard Mangrum, two men who would later earn their own reputations in combat. He passed his training with flying colors, and seemed well on his way towards a bright future. When assigned to flight training in 1936, however, Boyington encountered numerous difficulties and had to undergo rechecks on a regular basis. This didn’t dampen his enthusiasm, of course – he was determined to fly, and fly he did.
In Pensacola, Boyington established his reputation as a carefree spirit with a rather devil-may-care attitude. It was here that he also developed a taste for alcohol – something that would haunt him over the coming years. He was well-liked by everyone around him and, despite the first hints of a drinking habit, he pressed ahead with his career.
In 1937, Pappy Boyington finally achieved his childhood dream and became a Naval Aviator. He was able to fly to his heart’s content, learning and experimenting as he went. Sadly, however, flying was not the only thing he experimented with. Drinking and fighting became his primary weaknesses, and both deeply impacted on his career. Ironically, this was also the time when he started to shine as a truly outstanding pilot, accomplishing impossible maneuvers in the air and winning mock aerial fights with ease.
By the end of 1941, alcoholism was taking its toll. In a few short years his career had taken a sharp dive and, as his own vices showed no signs of abating, he was persuaded to resign from his post. Unable to deny his passion for flight, he joined the Flying Tigers, the first American aid group to help China in the war with Japan. While a fighter in the Flying Tigers, Boyington was credited with shooting down six Japanese planes, marking him as one of the first aces of the war.
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