Flying Tigers

Pappy Boyington, Flying Tiger


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

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
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.)

Flying Tigers

Combat at Rangoon

After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the AVG moved into China, leaving one squadron stationed at Rangoon to defend it against attack. In January 1942, that was the 2nd Squadron Panda Bears under Jack Newkirk, with an infusion of planes and pilots from the 1st Squadron Adam & Eves. Among those who flew down from Kunming was Greg Boyington, but he lost the draw and had to ride the CNAC Douglas back to Kunming. On his second attempt, on January 25, he stayed.

His first combat was the next afternoon. The Panda Bears got three planes into the air, flown by Jack Newkirk, Gil Bright, and Moose Moss. Climbing away from Mingaladon, Newkirk picked up four Tomahawks from the newly arrived Adam & Eves. Then his radio went dead, so he signaled the other flight leader to take charge, while he flew off to the northward. Bright and Moss likewise went off on their own.

That left the interception to Red Probst, a plump young man from Maxwell Field who joined the AVG so he wouldn't have to fly against the German air force. This was Probst's first day at Mingaladon; he had never been in combat; and his AVG career had been one damn-fool adventure after another. Followed by Cokey Hoffman, Greg Boyington, and Bob Prescott, he climbed toward the incoming swarm of Major Makino's Nates.

Boyington assumed that he was being led into combat by one of the veteran Panda Bears, until he saw that Probst was attacking from below and into the sun. Prescott, flying on Boyington's wing, was untroubled by this unorthodox approach. "You don't see anything except your leader when you fly in formation," he said years later. When he did spot the radial-engined fighters overhead, Prescott took them for Buffaloes:

They were diving, looping, and just going nuts. I thought, "Silly bastards. . . . Hell, let's get these people out of here and we'll fight this war. Then I looked again. . . . Hell, that's no Buffalo--that's a Jap. He's diving at us! . . . I was on Greg's left wing, and this Jap was diving over my left shoulder. I couldn't leave the formation, but nobody said I couldn't move over and get on Greg's right wing, so he'd shoot Greg first.

Red Probst had quit the scene. "The enemy jumped us while [we were] climbing up to attack," he rather lamely explained. "When they came within range I led my flight into a dive." He neglected to communicate his change of heart to Cokey Hoffman, who was his wingman if anyone was. In his AVG identification photo, Hoffman had the look of an Apache warrior, dark and scowling. On December 20 outside Kunming, he had earned a commendation for the way he had raked the Japanese bombers at close range. He was no less aggressive when it came to Major Makino's Nates, and watchers on the ground thought that he collided with one of them. "Out of the whirling center of the battle," wrote the British reporter O'Dowd Gallagher, "came one in a spin. . . . A wing came off as it sped to the ground. The rest of the plane left it far behind. It raised a great cloud of dust as it hit the ground. I saw it bounce. Many seconds afterward the severed wing came switching down like a piece of paper and also raised dust as it lit in a paddy field." Hoffman's Tomahawk crashed near the railroad tracks, upside down, with his mutilated body half out of the cockpit. Forty-four years old, husband and father, he had spent more than half his life in the U.S. Navy, including thirteen years as an enlisted pilot.

By this time, Bob Prescott had succeeded in repositioning himself. "Once I moved over, Greg saw him," he recalled. "He rolled over with a split-S and said foosh and went down." Prescott followed, but in his excitement pushed the stick forward without first rolling onto his back, so that inertia pulled him out of his seat instead of pushing him into it. The safety belt nearly cut him in half.

They said we could outdive these guys, but you never believe this stuff. I look around, and there he was, right on my tail. . . . At the last minute, I [pulled out]. And I forgot to take the throttle off. So by the time I pulled up, I was back up 13,000 feet. I looked over, and there's a P-40 diving down and a Jap shooting at him, going boom boom boom. I gotta go over and help him. You know, you can turn those sticks with your finger, but with all the strength I had, I couldn't turn that airplane around.

Boyington likewise climbed back to altitude and began making turns with a Nate--like everything else the Adam & Eves had done this morning, a flat violation of Chennault's teachings. As a college wrestler, Boyington had learned to tighten his neck muscles to keep the blood from leaving his head, and at Kyedaw he had used the same trick to overcome gravity while dogfighting his squadron mates. But stiffening his neck muscles did him no good against the nimble Japanese; instead, he lost so much vision that he couldn't see where his incendiaries were going. "I had pulled myself plumb woozy," he wrote in later years. "All the time I was pulling this terrific `g' load, tracers were getting closer to my plane, until finally I was looking back down someone's gun barrels. `Frig this racket,' I thought, and dove away."

Prescott too was driven to the deck again. He decided that fate had not intended him to be a fighter pilot, and that the path of wisdom would be to get out of the way. So he skulked around until he heard "free beer!"--the current recall signal--in his earphones. Then he flew back to Mingaladon, intending to take his leader aside, apologize, and promise to quit the AVG if Boyington kept the debacle a secret.

So I just sat in the radio shack and waited, and Greg didn't come back and he didn't come back, and I thought, "Oh-oh, that Jap got him. . . ." Well, thank God, he finally did land. Boy, I ran across that field. He whipped the airplane around and threw dust all over me. . . . I jumped up on his wing and pulled his canopy, and he looked at me with a big grin, and he said, "We sure screwed that one, didn't we?"

There was a less farcical encounter on January 29, when 20 Nakajima Ki-27 "Nate" fighters came over to challenge the Allied defenders. Ten planes got into the air, including Greg Boyington. As he remembered the day, he hit his first Nate "just right," setting it afire, then heard someone scream over the radio: "This is for Cokey [Hoffman], you son of a bitch!" That would have Charlie Bond, shooting down another Nate. Boyington certainly head the radio call, which Bond mentions in his diary, though in somewhat different language. But he was never credited with that Ki-27.

On February 6, however, Boyington was credited with two Japanese fighters shot down, according to the commendation letter written later by Chennault.

In this hectic week, Robert Sandell was killed when the tail came off his Tomahawk. Chennault asked Bob Neale to take command of the Adam & Eves, and Neale tried to pass the job along to Greg Boyington, on the theory that the ex-marine could "out-fly or out-fight" anyone in the AVG. Boyington declined, probably because he knew that the Old Man would not accept him. Neale took the job and appointed Boyington vice squadron leader, a decision he would regret.

Flying Tigers

Strafing Chiang-Mai

After the fall of Rangoon, the Adam & Eves moved back to Kunming. On March 22, Chennault sent ten Tomahawks to attack the Japanese army air force in Thailand. By his own account, he picked ten of the best pilots at Kunming. Six Adam & Eves--Bob Neale, Greg Boyington, Charlie Bond, Mac McGarry, Ed Rector, and Bill Bartling--would fly to Chiang Mai and strafe the "Jap Air Force headquarters in Southeast Asia." Four Panda Bears--Jack Newkirk, Whitey Lawlor, Hank Geselbracht, and Buster Keeton--would attack Lamphun to the south.

Their ammunition boxes heavily laden with incendiary rounds, the Tomahawks took off from Wu Chia Ba on Sunday afternoon. Two hours later they touched down at Loiwing, on a runway carved out of a hillside. Though China had paid for its construction, this was Bill Pawley's domain. So unprepared was CAMCO to support combat operations that there was no one at the field to gas and tune the Tomahawks. The AVG flights would have to wait until Monday morning, thus shifting their program by twenty-four hours.

The CAMCO factory was eight miles from the airstrip: a neat little compound of whitewashed buildings with camouflaged metal roofs. There was a nine-hole golf course and a clubhouse outfitted with electric lights, polished floors, fireplace, jukebox, pool table, movie projector, refrigerated beer, and plate-glass windows overlooking the pretty valley in which Bill Pawley had set out for the fourth time to assemble warplanes for China. The guestrooms had thick Chinese rugs and tiled baths. There was even a housemother-cook named Davidson, who told the pilots to call her "Ma."

Monday, March 23, dawned foggy and wet. Their Tomahawks serviced, the pilots sat around for the rest of the day, not wanting to fly to their next staging field--Namsang, an RAF airstrip in the desolate Shan Highlands--until just before dark. At Namsang, they arranged for trucks and lanterns to light the runway in the morning, ate a tense meal at the pilots' mess, and washed up in the officers' billet. Combat literature is filled with omens, and the Chiang Mai mission was no exception. An RAF sergeant supposedly warned the Americans that the water was polluted, so they shouldn't brush their teeth with it, whereupon Newkirk scoffed: "After tomorrow, I don't think it'll make any difference." Certainly the mood was heavy. "Here goes nothing," Bob Neale wrote in his diary, underlining the final word twice.

A barrack-boy shook them awake at 4 a.m., and they were dressing when the duty officer bounded in with the cry: "All right, you curly-headed fellows, it's time!" Joking and gabbing to keep their spirits up, they wolfed breakfast and went to their planes. Takeoff was 5:45 a.m.--black night, broken only by truck headlamps, kerosene lanterns, and the blue flames washing along the cowlings of their Tomahawks.

The Panda Bears set off for Thailand without waiting for the form-up over Namsang. As they gained altitude, daylight came down to greet them, though the ground was still hidden in darkness and the smoke-haze from the fall of Rangoon. They flew on instruments until they reached Chiang Mai at about 7 a.m., by which time they could make out objects on the ground below them. Newkirk tarried long enough to strafe the Chiang Mai railroad station--an astonishing breach of discipline, like poking a stick into a hornet's nest before one's friend came along. Flying on, he found Lamphun but saw only a row of buildings that might have been warehouses or barracks. He laced them with incendiary bullets, then scouted some auxiliary fields. At the third and largest field, the Panda Bears strafed more buildings, after which Newkirk turned north with the apparent intention of joining the Adam & Eves at Chiang Mai. In his combat report, Hank Geselbracht told what happened next:

The next target we dove on were two vehicles on the road south of [Chiang Mai]. Newkirk dove and fired and as he cleared the target I began to fire. I saw a flash of flames beyond the target and looked for Newkirk after my run. I realized he had crashed causing the flash. I pulled up and continued to the north on the way home.

Bus Keeton also saw the explosion, and like Geselbracht did not at first understand its cause. "As I pulled up to the right," he wrote in his diary, "I noticed a large flame of fire burst up on a field to the right of me. The fire spread along the field for a 100 or 150 yards. Thinking Jack and Gesel had set fire to some oil dumps and not seeing anything to shoot at I proceeded to follow Lawlor."

Newkirk was one of the immortals, the "Scarsdale Jack" of so many upbeat dispatches from Rangoon. He died in a fireball that skittered and bounced and smeared itself along the ground--a napalm canister with a man inside. Then the Allison engine broke loose and rolled 300 yards farther. Whitey Lawlor identified the vehicle that Newkirk had been firing on, and that probably shot him down, as a Japanese armored car.

The Adam & Eves had meanwhile reached Chiang Mai. Charlie Bond recognized a towering mountain that he seen on a December patrol, so he took the lead. If he remembered correctly, the airfield was a mile or so southeast of this landmark:

I nosed downward in a gentle left turn and hoped I was right. At about six thousand feet, and as the haze thinned, I saw the field and the outlines of the hangars. I flipped on my gun switch, and another thousand feet lower I fired my guns in a short burst to check them and let the other guys know this was it--the main Japanese Air Force of Southeast Asia!

The plan called for Ed Rector and Mac McGarry to stay high as top cover, with the option of attacking the field if the sky stayed clear. Bond led the others onto the field:

I made my first strafing run firing everything into the [Japanese fighters]. At the end I remained low and turned sharply to the left. . . . After turning 270 degrees I was in a position to strafe another line of parked aircraft. These were sitting practically wingtip to wingtip. Hell, I hadn't seen this many aircraft in years. Seemed like the whole Japanese Air Force had tried to crowd into this one little field.
He made four runs with tracer bullets streaking the air beside him and flak exploding overhead. Once he was so low that he thought he might decapitate the Japanese pilots scrambling into their cockpits. (They were shouting "Mawase, mawase!" --Turn, turn!--to the mechanics trying to start engines by spinning the propellers.) On his last go-round, Bond concentrated on a larger plane that "seemed to shake itself to pieces" under his machine guns.

Greg Boyington made two passes. "The aircraft on the field were parked mainly in two long lines," he wrote in his combat report. "All enemy planes were turning up and the pilots and crews were running about." After his first pass, he saw three transports burning in one great bonfire, the flames shooting a thousand feet into the air; after his second, he counted ten fires on the ground.

A soured Tiger

Later, he was stationed with the 3rd Squadron Hell's Angels at Loiwing. April 1 brought a series of false alarms. During one of these scrambles, Boyington's engine cut out, causing his Tomahawk to jump a twenty-foot ditch and hit the ground with such force that the seatbelt broke. Boyington slammed into the instrument panel, cutting his forehead and laming both knees.

Between alerts, the Hell's Angels worked out the details of their strafe, which they planned as a repeat of the Chiang Mai affair. This mission too was canceled because of the weather. The pilots had a blow-out night instead, and on Thursday they went one better and had a wedding.

The principals were Fred Hodges and a young woman named Helen Anderson. Boyington recalled that she had fled Rangoon on an AVG convoy with her Indian father; in fact, her father was English and her mother Burman. Anderson was about twenty, a small woman with a splendid body, an oval face, high forehead and cheekbones, long hair drawn back, and a smile calculated to break a pilot's heart, especially a skinny specimen like Fearless Fred. The pilots held a meeting in which they incorporated Loiwing and elected "Doc" Walsh of the CAMCO staff as mayor, reasoning that this gave him the power to marry people. The American Club was converted into a chapel. Boyington attended in his bathrobe because his knees were too swollen for him to put on pants. Duke Hedman played the piano--badly, as was his custom, with a cigarette dangling from his lips. As Boyington told the story, the pilots substituted a genuine minister at the last moment, transforming charade into sacrament, but a version written closer to the time had the wedding solemnized a day or two later by a British army chaplain. Whatever the sequence of events, they left Anderson confused as to whether she was married or not.

Sent back to Kunming after he lamed his knees a second time (he fell off a cliff in the dark, thinking it was a bomb shelter) Boyington flew "slow time" in Tomahawks whose engines had been replaced at the CAMCO factory in Loiwing. Evenings he got drunk and played around with Olga Greenlaw. Of his few friends, Ralph Gunvordahl had quit in January, Percy Bartelt in March. Now Boyington too threw in the towel, flying to India on a CNAC Douglas, then by BOAC flying boat to Karachi, where he tried to get onward transportation from the U.S. Army. He was refused--apparently the first to be caught by Chennault's request that AVG "deserters" not be allowed on military aircraft. Boyington finally took passage on a passenger liner. His shipmates, he said, included several hundred CAF cadets and some of the missionaries who had come out with him on Boschfontein.

Back in the U.S., Boyington rejoined the marines and formed the Black Sheep Squadron, VMF 214, a maverick outfit with many similarities to the AVG, with Pappy Boyington in the role of Chennault. He was credited with destroying twenty-two more Japanese planes before he was himself shot down. He was awarded the Medal of Honor, but to the chagrin of the Marine Corps (as Boyington told the story) he emerged from prison camp in 1945 and mortified the corps by drinking his way through the ensuing publicity tour. Boyington felt that he had been treated shabbily by the AVG, and his revenge took the form of an achingly funny novel called Tonya, whose title character bore many similarities to Olga Greenlaw.

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

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