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Pappy Boyington, Flying Tiger (part 1)

Boyington 1st Pursuiters (left to right): Tom Croft, George Burgard, Greg Boyington with revolver, Joe Rosbert kneeling, Dick Rossi, and Red Probst.

Pappy Boyington and the AVG

Like Claire Chennault, Gregory "Pappy" Boyington is one of those enduring characters of World War II, whose exploits are endlessly fascinating. He was the only member of the AVG to boast a "regular" rather than a reserve commission when he left U.S. service to fly for China. (Indeed, one of the conditions for recruiting AVG pilots was that only reserve officers could be poached.) Probably the Marines were happy to be rid of him, a hard-drinking brawler who was over his head in debt.

Boyington didn't like the AVG, and he roasted both Chennault and the Flying Tigers in two books, his autobiographical Black Sheep and a thinly disguised novel called Tonya. For his part, Chennault gave Boyington a "dishonorable discharge" when he quit the AVG in April 1942, three months before his contractual year was finished.

Among his gripes was his combat record. To the end of his life, Boyington insisted that as a Flying Tiger he had destroyed 6 Japanese planes, which together with his Marine Corps victory claims would have made him the leading USMC ace of World War II. The AVG record, for its part, shows Boyington with 3.5 "bonus credits," of which only two were air-to-air kills. In the Chennault Papers at Stanford is a document dated 27 April 1942 which reads:

April 27, 1942
Citation
On February 6, 1942, in company with other members of his squadron, Vice Squadron Leader G. Boyington, AVG, engaged in combat with a number of Japanese pursuit planes near the city of Rangoon, Burma. In the combat which ensued, he personally shot down two enemy fighters in the air. On March 24, 1942, in company with five other pilots of the AVG he attacked the airdrome at Chiengmai, Thailand. As a result of this flight's attack, fifteen enemy planes were burned, and the credit for the attacked [sic] shared equally, giving Vice Squadron Leader Boyington credit for destroying two and one half enemy aircraft. This pilot has destroyed a total of four and one half enemy planes; two of which were destroyed in aerial combat, and two and one half burned on the ground. He is commended on his performance and achievement in combat.
C. L. Chennault, Commanding, AVG

This document shows how sloppy was the AVG record-keeping. In fact, Boyington seems to have been credited with only 1.5 planes destroyed on the ground at Chiang Mai, when Chennault or someone else decided that the credit should be shared equally among all 10 pilots who took part in that unfortunate raid, in which Jack Newkirk was killed and Mac McGarry taken prisoner.

From 1st Lt to Flight Leader

When recruiters for the American Volunteer Group tried to sign up pilots to protect Chinese cities from Japanese air attack, they came up with some marvels. Among the most marvelous was Gregory Boyington, twenty-eight years old and a first lieutenant in the U.S. Marines. (He didn't have the nickname "Pappy" during his AVG tour.) As I described him in Flying Tigers:

Broad-shouldered, thin-hipped, with the moody face of a Cherokee setting out on the Trail of Tears, Boyington was a trouble-maker. He drank heavily, through nights that ended with the challenge: "I'll wrestle anybody in the crowd!" He had grown up believing his stepfather to be his natural parent, graduating from the University of Washington, marrying, and becoming a draftsman at Boeing Aircraft Company under the name of Gregory Hallenbeck. When he learned his birth name, he seized the chance to start anew as a bachelor and an aviation cadet. (Navy and marine pilots were not permitted to marry until two years after earning their gold wings.) The lie had since caught up with him, and the marines obliged him to report each month on how he had distributed his salary among those with a claim on it, including his ex-wife and three children.

Boyington did not identify his recruiter, except to say that he was a retired captain and a veteran of the Lafayette Escadrille. This would have been Richard Aldworth, a vice-president of the company that was hiring mercenary pilots for China. The pitch was delivered in the usual downtown hotel room. "The Japs are flying antiquated junk over China," Aldworth assured him. (In his "autobiography," Ba Ba Black Sheep, from which these quotes are taken, Boyington played the story for laughs. However, his account was true in its essentials, as Claire Chennault would discover to his sorrow.) "Many of your kills will be unarmed transports. I suppose you know that the Japanese are renowned for their inability to fly. And they all wear corrective glasses."

"Captain," said Boyington, "it's quite a setup, but how do you know the pilots wear glasses?"

"Our technical staff determines this from the remains after a shoot-down. . . . Best of all, there's good money in it--$675 per month. But the sky's the limit," Captain Aldworth went on, "because they pay a bonus of $500 for each Japanese aircraft you knock down."

As he told the story, Boyington just sat there, calculating how rich this project was going to make him.

The recruiters had three ranks to offer. In almost every case the position was "pilot-officer" (later changed to wingman), paying $600 a month and supposedly equivalent to first lieutenant in the U.S. Army. Greg Boyington was one of three navy and marine aviators hired with the rank of flight leader, paying $675 a month and equivalent to captain. (The top job was squadron leader--$750 a month and equivalent to major--but nobody was hired at this rank.)

Boyington sailed to the war on the Holland-American liner Boschfontein with 25 other pilots. They were led by Curtis Smith, 33 years old, who had tried without success to enforce military discipline on the voyage. Smith had joined the military in 1928 and spent ten years jumping between the army and the Marine Corps; when CAMCO signed him up, he was a marine reservist taking a refresher course at Pensacola. With 2,000 hours in his log books, he was an impressive catch, though overage for combat flying.

No doubt Curt Smith was responsible for the haircuts that were meted out to the AVGs, as recorded by Eddie Overend, whose son posted this excerpt from his diary on the Annals of Military Aviation message board. The date was October 1, 1941:

Well, it is the new month and, I think an interesting one. [The AVGs were all given "buzz cut" haircuts.] I look much like the proverbial jug. However, it will be cool and all the boys have them including Greg Boyington, and he looks like a combination of Mussolini and Gargantua. He has, incidentally been well oiled since the trip began and only stays sober long enough to aplogize to the missionairies whom he has insulted. He is strong as an ox and when he is three sheets to the wind, insists on wrestling--with the result that the surronding territory often resembles Coventry after a blitz. He is a good fellow with all that, and a red hot flyer.
On November 12, 1941, Boschfontein brought the 26 pilots to Rangoon, whence they took the Up Mail to the training base at Toungoo. Boyington immediately caught the green eyes of Olga Greenlaw, the exec's wife. "He was about five feet eight inches tall," she recalled in The Lady and the Tigers, "with tremendous shoulders and narrow hips; his head held on by a strong neck. He had coarse features, large eyes, wide, flat nose, and heavy jowls." The other men, she thought, were afraid of him. (They had reason. Drunk as a skunk one night, as one of the AVG veterans told me, Boyington shook Noel Bacon awake and demanded the use of the AVG station wagon. Bacon, who doubled as transportation officer, handed over the keys when he found himself looking down the barrel of a .45 automatic.)

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Other files about Boyington:

  • His thoughts about the Brewster Buffalo
  • Black Sheep One: The Life of Gregory Boyington
  • His combat claims revisited
  • The man who didn't shoot down Pappy Boyington