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, by Bruce Gamble. Presidio, 1998. 496 pp., b&w photos, maps. $28.95 (hardcover)

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.

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