Black Sheep One: The U.S. Marine Corps Ace Credited with the Highest Number of Kills In WWII – Gregory “Pappy” Boyington

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.

Pappy Boyington, after receiving the Medal of Honor. US Army Photo / Public Domain
Pappy Boyington, after receiving the Medal of Honor.

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?

Childhood Ambition

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.

Rejoining the Military

At the start of World War II, with considerable experience now under his belt, Pappy Boyington rejoined the U.S. Marine Corps. Back where he belonged, he was quickly promoted to the position of Major.

Still rather rough around the edges, Pappy Boyington gradually assembled a group of “misfits” like himself. Thus, the Black Sheep came into existence.

Surrounded by a group of equally bold and intelligent aviators, Boyington was finally ready to become the asset he was always meant to be. His Medal of Honor citation proves this fact, with the man being described as a “superb airman and determined fighter against overwhelming odds”. When the squadron was sent on its first combat tour, Pappy Boyington alone shot down 19 planes in the course of a single month.

The prowess of his Black Sheep Squadron was made clear at the Kahili airdrome on the 17th October 1943, when they engaged the Japanese in a fierce battle. The Black Sheep shot down 20 enemy planes and returned to their own base without suffering a single casualty.

Boyington’s greatest exploits were in his trusty Vought F4U Corsair. During the most intense years of fighting, the list of his recorded kills lengthened almost daily. After a long and bumpy ride, Boyington was doing what he did best, and living the dream he’d conceived of all those years ago in Idaho.

Last Combat Mission and Time as a Prisoner of War

In January 1944, Pappy Boyington’s luck took a turn for the worst. Flying over the Pacific Island of New Britain, he was ambushed, and his plane caught fire. While some of his companions weren’t so lucky, Boyington managed to land in the water. Shortly afterward, he was taken into custody by a Japanese submarine.

Robert Conrad as Pappy Boyington in the show “Baa Baa Black Sheep
Robert Conrad as Pappy Boyington in the show “Baa Baa Black Sheep.”

He spent the remaining year of the war under confinement and was declared missing in action after he was lost. The Japanese authorities never granted him the official status of a prisoner of war, and he was released only after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki prompted their surrender.

When he returned to his home the USA, he was received as a hero. The publishing of “Baa Baa Black Sheep” and a television show based on the memoirs brought him the fame he deserved.

Pappy Boyington died on January 11, 1988, after a long battle with cancer.

David Herold

David Herold is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE