Gregory "Pappy" Boyington is presented with the Medal of Honor on October 5, 1945.

  • By Duane Colt Denfeld, Ph.D.
  • Posted 8/05/2014
  • Essay 10798
On October 5, 1945, Lieutenant Colonel Gregory Boyington  (1912-1988) is  presented with the Medal of Honor in a White House ceremony. The medal had been awarded in March 1944, but held in the event that he became available to receive it. At the time Major Boyington was missing in action, having been shot down on January 3, 1944, over Rabaul (Papua New Guinea). The Medal of Honor is awarded for extraordinary heroism while commanding Marine Fighter Squadron 214 (VMF 214). During his command of the squadron he personally won 20 aerial victories. He was an exceptional leader and his daring and innovative dog-fighting and gunnery skills made him a top Marine Corps Air Ace. He was discovered in a Japanese prison camp on August 30, 1945, and returned to the United States for a hero’s welcome. Among his many public appearances will be a Victory Bond event at Seattle’s Victory Center and parades in Brewster and Okanogan, Washington.

A Dream of Flying  

Boyington was born in St. Maries, Idaho. He grew up believing that his name was Gregory Hallenbeck (or Hollenbeck). In his late 20s, in 1935, he would learn that his birth name was Boyington. At an early age Gregory became excited about aviation and took his first flight on September 18, 1919. In 1926 the Hallenbeck family moved to Tacoma and Gregory attended Stewart Junior High School and then Lincoln High School.

The family moved to Seattle in 1930 and in October that year he started at the University of Washington. He participated in Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) and attended summer military training at Fort Worden, in Port Townsend. Although he had an interest in architecture, the depressed job market in that field led him to major in Aeronautical Engineering.

He received his Bachelor of Science and went to work for Boeing, but dreamed of flying. He read of the Aviation Cadet Program in 1935, with paid flight training, it became his avenue to realize his dreams. The application process required a birth certificate and while seeking his records discovered that his name was Gregory Boyington. His mother then told him of her previous brief marriage and his birth.

Boyington was accepted into the Aviation Cadet program and completed elimination flight training at the Naval Air Reserve Base, Sand Point, Seattle (later Warren G. Magnuson Park). His instructor was a University of Washington graduate, Richard Mangrum (1906-1985), who would go on to receive the Navy Cross and Distinguished Flying Cross for valor in World War II and reach the rank of lieutenant general. Also graduating in his class was fellow University of Washington graduate Robert Galer (1913-2005) who would also be awarded the Medal of Honor.

In 1936 Boyington passed the naval aviation course at Pensacola, Florida, and became a Marine Corps aviator. Lieutenant Boyington had assignments to bases in the United States. However, his Marine Corps service was troubled with drinking, fighting, debt problems, and womanizing, personal issues that would trouble him his entire life. His behavioral problems forced him to find an alternative and that was the well-paid American Volunteer Group, the Flying Tigers. He could pay off his debts and leave a bad situation.

He joined the Flying Tigers on August 4, 1941, and resigned his Marine Corps Reserve commission. During his combat time with the Flying Tigers in China, he won 3.5 aerial victories and destroyed three aircraft on the ground.

Returning to the Marines

On April 21, 1942, Boyington resigned from the American Volunteer Group and returned to the United States and was reappointed to the Marine Corps as a major. In January 1943 he went to the South Pacific where his duties did not include combat missions. His first flying assignments were training flights and patrols that proved uneventful.

In September 1943 he was made commander of a reconstituted Marine Fighter Squadron, VMF-214. The squadron would be named the Black Sheep Squadron and its commander Major Boyington was nicknamed "Pappy" due to his advanced age of 30 years old. The squadron, composed of replacement pilots, destroyed 97 enemy aircraft and 28 vessels in 84 days. The squadron had eight pilots who became Aces, each one with five or more aerial victories. Major Boyington proved to be a brilliant combat leader and exceptional at dog fighting and gunnery. During his command the Marine Corps published his tactics to guide other fighter pilots.

Prisoner of War and Medal of Honor

On January 3, 1944, Major Boyington was shot down over Rabaul and taken prisoner. He spent 20 months in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps. He was assumed by many to be dead. In March 1944, while he was listed as missing in action, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) awarded him the Medal of Honor.

The Medal of Honor citation describes his extraordinary heroism above and beyond the call of duty as Commanding Officer of Marine Fighter Squadron 214. His heroic actions were against Japanese forces in the Central Solomon’s from September 12, 1943, to January 3, 1944. Major Boyington had exhibited innovative leadership while his squadron was outnumbered.

The citation records that he struck at the enemy with daring and courageous persistence, leading his squadron into combat with devastating results to Japanese shipping, shore installations, and aerial forces. On October 17, 1943, Major Boyington led a force of 24 fighters and circled above a Japanese airfield that had 60 fighters on the ground. Boyington challenged the Japanese to come up and fight. When they did, Boyington’s group shot down 20 enemy aircraft with no losses. The citation goes on to state that Major Boyington had 20 aerial victories while leading Marine Squadron 214. His total aerial victories made him a leading Marine Corps Air Ace in World War II.

During his captivity Boyington received a great deal of publicity regarding his exploits, making him one of the best-known aerial Aces. While he was held, his mother received coded messages from other prisoners suggesting that he was alive. The Marine Corps advised her to be wary of such messages.

Home at Last

On August 29, 1945, it was reported that Boyington had been found alive in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. He was recovered and started the trip home. In September 1945 Lieutenant Colonel Boyington returned to the United States. His mother and children were flown to San Francisco to meet him.

From here Boyington went on a two-month national Victory Bond tour of the country that included numerous speeches, parades, and public honors. On September 17 Seattle was one of the stops and had a welcome home at its Victory Square.  A band performed and the distinguished speakers included  Governor Monrad "Mon" Wallgren (1891-1961). Following the Seattle event, Major Boyington headed to the small community of Brewster, in Okanogan County, where his family was living. Two hundred school children lined the street to greet the hero. Later a parade was held in Okanogan, where 15,000, many times the town population, cheered the hero.

On October 5, 1945, at a White House ceremony President Harry Truman (1884-1972) awarded 14 Medal of Honors including Boyington. With his retirement from the Marine Corps on August 1, 1947, he was promoted to colonel.

After the War

Colonel Boyington (Retired) became a well-known war hero with a 1958 book on his wartime exploits titled Baa Baa, Black Sheep and the television series of the same name (later called Black Sheep Squadron) that ran for two seasons, from 1976 to 1978. The television series portrayed Marine Fighter Squadron 214 as misfits, which offended squadron veterans. The squadron contained fine pilots that were in a replacement pool, not hard-drinking troublemakers and misfits.  

Gregory Boyington died in January 1988. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

A monument at the University of Washington pays tribute to the seven graduates of that university who have been awarded the Medal of Honor. This includes Gregory Boyington and fellow aviator Robert Galer.

In 2014 Lincoln High School launched a drive to construct a monument to honor their famous graduate. In 2007 the Coeur d’ Alene Idaho airport was renamed Coeur d’ Alene Airport -- Pappy Boyington Field.

Sources: Bruce Gamble, Black Sheep One: The Life of Gregory "Pappy" Boyington (Novato, California: Presidio Press, 2008); Commander Peter B. Mersky, Time Of The Aces: Marine Pilots In The Solomons (Washington, D.C.: Marine Corps Historical Branch, 1992); Frank Walton, Once They Were Eagles: The Men of the Black Sheep Squadron (Louisville: University Press of Kentucky, 1986); Donald K. and Helen L. Ross, Washington State Men Of Valor (Burley, Washington: Coffee Break Press, 1980); "Relatives Clinging to Hope Greg Boyington Will Return," The Seattle Daily Times, January 7, 1944, p. 9; "Ace’s Kin Cheered By News He’s Alive," Ibid, August 29, 1945, p. 5; "Col. Boyington to Get Honor At Victory Square," Ibid, September 16, 1945, p. 2; "Flyer Sees Own Family at Last," Ibid., September 21, 1945, p. 9; "President Decorates 14 of Nations Greatest Heroes: Boyington Honored, Ibid., October 5, 1945, p. 14. 

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