Cowboy: interpreter, warlord, one more casualty

Boyington and the Black Sheep

Black Sheep One
Black Sheep One: The Life of Gregory "Pappy" Boyington
(Bruce Gamble)

A superlative biography of the man who set the standard for flying and drinking and fighting and drinking and.... My favorite Boyington yarn involves the time he was stationed in San Diego, while living on North Island. He was assigned to attend an enlisted men's party, so as to keep alcohol (!) out of the affair. Naturally he got drunk and missed the last ferry home.

Boyington called his young wife to drive the 20 miles around the peninsula and fetch him, but got the response: you can damn well swim home. So of course he jumped into the ocean in full uniform and struck out on the three-quarter-mile swim, guiding on a light to his left. Gradually he lost or shed all his clothes except his skivvy shorts, and when he climbed up the shore, he slipped back and shredded those.

Worst of all, his guiding light was on the shore he'd left from, causing him to swim in a half circle and land back in San Diego, with the difference that he was now buck naked.

Boyington dodged through the alleys and turned himself to the Shore Patrol, whose desk sergeant looked up at him and said: I don't know who you are or what you've been doing, but I do know one thing--you've got to be a marine.

The Flying Tiger

I envy Bruce the opportunity to tell the story of the AVG from one pilot's perspective, and Boyington of course is a great foil: a successful combat pilot who gets a "dishonorable discharge" for his pains. He and Chennault were bound to clash, and of course they did. Boyington tells the story with venom for Chennault and most of his colleagues in the AVG. Bruce tells it again with more balance, but still with sympathy for Boyington's point of view.

Only one quibble here: Bruce takes it for granted that Olga Greenlaw was sleeping with Boyington and every other pilot mentioned kindly in her book. Boyington himself claimed only three trysts with the executive officer's wife (I read his account in a letter he wrote to the Marine Corps historian, who of course did not use the information: Boyington supposedly scaled the outside wall of Hostel Number One with a bottle of whiskey under his arm). I asked a number of AVG veterans about their relations with Olga, and to a man they denied any sexual favors from her, while always relating the story that the others were more fortunate. Personally, I believe her morals were a whole lot loftier than is now the norm. Bruce may be guilty here of projecting turn-of-the-century morality upon the 1940s.

The Black Sheep

Yes, by God, he really did fly drunk! And no, he didn't shoot down 28 Japanese aircraft, even after allowing for the fact that his AVG air-to-air victories amounted to 2 aircraft, not the 6 he claimed and which the Marine Corps chose to accept as fact. Bruce also makes a convincing case that, after his return from captivity, Boyington added several shoot-downs on his final combat day, so as to tie himself with Joe Foss. Without these outright embellishments, he might have an honest claim to 22 victories, in the AVG and the USMC--and a skeptic could be forgiven for thinking that if he embellished on two occasions, he probably embellished on others. (This is quite apart from the fact that fighter pilots generally overestimate their victories, for a variety of very good reasons.)

A Vision So Noble

The prisoner of war

A friend of mine was in prison camp with Boyington, and while outwardly loyal to him (Medal of Honor winners stick together) would privately admit that Boyington sucked up to his Japanese captors. I'm grateful to Bruce for fleshing out this story. Boyington got a job in the prison kitchen and actually gained weight while others were shrinking to skeletons. (My now-dead friend weighed less than 100 lbs when rescued by Harold Stassen's task force.) No shame in this, it would seem; it's just that Boyington's charm and survival instincts enabled him to thrive where others starved. The best story is how he managed to get drunk with his captors. Necessarily, this is filtered mostly through Boyington's recollections, but it has the ring of truth.

The hero

Boyington famously said: Show me a hero, and I'll show you a bum. He certainly proved his own maxim. I expected the biography to run downhill after 1945, but Bruce (with his hero's help) keeps the story fascinating to the end.

Boyington, the Black Sheep, and all that

The Black Sheep
The Black Sheep: The Definitive Account of Marine Fighting Squadron 214 in World War II
(Bruce Gamble)

To the small list of Americans who use Japanese sources to study the Pacific War, add the name of Bruce Gamble. His meticulous history recounts the three lives of VMF-214, which first saw combat at Guadalcanal as the Swashbucklers. The squadron number was then attached to a different outfit, commanded by a hard-drinking, belligerent, former Flying Tiger named Gregory Boyington. The fighting name changed also: as the Black Sheep, VMF-214 fought up the "slot" of the Solomon Islands, its leader as intent upon becoming the top-ranking Marine ace as he was in prosecuting the war.

Some readers may lose interest after Boyington disappears into the hell of Japanese captivity. A mistake: VMF-214 was reconstituted as a carrier-borne squadron to defend U.S. ships against kamikaze attack. Its death by fire, explosion, and drowning on its first day of combat is one of the most harrowing stories to come out of the war.

As a former naval flight officer, Gamble may escape the fury visited upon writers who compare American claims to Japanese accounts. (Full disclosure: I did that for the Flying Tigers, with incendiary results.) He further insulates himself by giving respectful attention to each Marine's combat narrative, only later revealing that most victories were illusory. For example, the Black Sheep took credit for destroying 26 planes on December 28, 1943, when only three enemy pilots failed to return from combat--a stupendous overclaim, even if a few more Japanese lost their aircraft but managed to survive.

Overall, VMF-214 was credited with 160 combat kills. Gamble concludes that perhaps a third of these were real, a rate comparing favorably with other western air forces in World War II.

Question? Comment? Newsletter? Send me an email. Blue skies! -- Dan Ford

Flying Tigers

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