The 1976 American TV-series Baa Baa Black Sheep was a military drama, sprinkled with bits of comedy. The series is loosely based on Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, an American combat pilot who was a U.S. Marine Corps fighter ace, and his squadron, during the Second World War. In late summer 1942, Boyington took over command over the Marine fighter squadron 214, nicknamed the Black Sheep. Boyington’s Black Sheep rose to fame for their exploits in the Pacific war theatre. He became one of the top aces of the marines, with 26 confirmed victories, although he himself claimed 28 which would make him the top-scoring Marine ace of all time. Yet during his final record-breaking mission, he disappeared and was presumed dead for twenty months, until he turned up in a Japanese POW camp.
Boyington’s Black Sheep became a highly successful fighter squadron in the Pacific, and not in the least thanks to their eccentric commander.
Boyington’s Rocky Road
On August 7th, 1942, U.S. Marines stormed ashore at Guadalcanal in the Solomons chain. It was the beginning of the Guadalcanal campaign, codenamed Operation Watchtower, with the aim to isolate and subdue the vital Japanese base at Rabaul, on the island of New Britain in New Guinea. Yet it took three months of heavy fighting and Japanese counterattacks until the decisive Naval Battle of Guadalcanal sealed the fate of the Japanese.
Nevertheless, within the region, the Japanese still engaged in dogfighting and bombing raids with their Mitsubishi Zeros. There were around 400 Japanese aircraft operating by this point. The U.S. Major-General Ralph J. Mitchell, commanding a mixed force of fighters, bombers and support aircraft, was tasked with destroying the last Japanese resistance in the area.
And among the squadrons that Mitchell commanded was the Marine Fighter Squadron, or VMF 214. This squadron was under the command of Major Gregory Boyington. Boyington, born in Idaho in 1912, joined the US Marine Corps in 1935, and was known for his ‘irreverence and high jinks that did not go down well with his superiors’. Due to friction with superiors, financial debts and a hunger for adventure, Boyington ended up resigning from the Marines. He travelled to China during the late 1930s and signed up for the American Volunteer Group, serving under General Claire Chenault.
Some of my viewers may recognise that name, for a good reason. Over a year ago I published a video recounting the establishment and operational history of the AVG, better known as the Flying Tigers. The Flying Tigers consisted of American volunteers that operated in China against the invading Japanese.
As part of the Flying Tigers, Boyington was credited with six confirmed aerial victories. But the Flying Tigers met many logistical difficulties, including the poor keeping of records. In addition, the Flying Tigers’ kills were not recognised by the United States, even though they were eventually integrated into the Fourteenth Air Force of the U.S. Army Air Forces. Following the induction, Boyington returned to the US mainland and proudly claimed to be one of the U.S.’s first aces of the war. He figured that as he had already flown against the Japanese, the Marines would welcome him back, but instead, his reputation was well known and no service wanted him.
Eventually, it was Secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox, that accepted Boyington as a Reserve major of the Marine Corps after Boyington sent him a telegram pleading for an appointment. He was deployed as part of the VMF-122, commanded by Major Elmer Brackett, to the Solomon Islands in the Pacific. His initial occupation was to instruct pilots and train flying squadrons, staying away from combat. From July 1943 onwards he became the commander of the VMF-112, yet he broke his leg while wrestling not soon after. Yeah, it didn’t exactly go smoothly for Boyington. He was hospitalised and had to give up his position, and only after his recuperation by September he was given another chance.
Because that month he was appointed as commander of the Marine Fighter Squadron 214. The squadron had previously fought around the Solomon Islands during the similarly named campaign. Still, after its second tour of operations, it lost its commander, Major William Pace, and its manpower was spread to other squadrons. For a short while it only existed in name, until it was decided to reorganise the squadron with Boyington at its head.
Boyington, 31 years old by this point, was a highly experienced fighter pilot. Although there were men that were older than he was in the squadron, his men nicknamed him “Gramps” and “Pappy” since he was around a decade older than most of his lieutenants, which were in their early 20s. Initially they wanted to name their squadron “Boyington’s Bastards,” but ended up with the less suggestive “Black Sheep.”
Several men recruited for the squadron were veterans that had served with Boyington in the Flying Tigers. Others were relatively fresh meat. The 27 initial pilots now took up the task to fly missions against the Japanese. And one of the reasons that this squadron turned into a much-feared one, was because of the gull-winged Vought F4U Corsair.
There’s a fascinating history behind the aircraft because it was initially rejected as a carrier-based aircraft by the US Navy. The fact the Black Sheep flew in these types of planes also shows the difficulty the squadron was in: they flew in borrowed planes that other commanders had written off. As for this model, its nose was deemed too long, which hindered its visibility, and its undercarriage was unreliable. Yet during the Solomon Campaign, when the plane entered combat, it showed clear superiority to Japanese fighter planes. The Marines, as such, weren’t too worried about adopting this type of aircraft. During the entire war, it achieved an 11:1 kill ratio, accounting for 2140 defeated enemy aircraft.
Boyington’s new squadron operated in incredibly harsh conditions. They were initially stationed on the Russell Islands, a bit northwest of Guadalcanal. The pilot’s tents were surrounded by mud, swarms of mosquitoes pestered the area, and if it wasn’t the mosquitos keeping them awake, it was the Japanese night bombers flying over. Besides, the food was of such low quality that men suffered more hospital visits from food poisoning, dysentery and malaria than from enemy fire. The circumstances weren’t ideal, but “Pappy” did inspire his men and made sure they were ready for when they first entered combat.
It was on September 16th 1943, New Georgia Island, at Munda, the Black Sheep first came into action. They flew a bomber escort to Balalae Island, an island on the west of the Solomon Islands. During this flight, 40 Japanese Mistubishi Zeros attacked the squadron.
Following a dogfight in the sky, 11 Zeros were shot down, five of which were shot personally by Boyington. One of the Zeros he downed was in an attempt to save his friend, Captain Robert T. Ewing. Captain Ewing did not make it to Balalae Island and was the first loss of the squadron.
Now, after this mission, the Black Sheep truly showed their worth in the Bougainville area. Bougainville is a region in Papua New Guinea and was invaded in March 1942 by the Japanese. Admittedly, the 24 Australian soldiers that were stationed on the island did not really put up any resistance when the overwhelming Japanese forces overtook both the Buka and Bougainville Islands. The Allies launched a counter-offensive in late 1943 against the Japanese that established a naval- and airbase on the island.
The Black Sheep Squadron took part in the allied counteroffensive against the Japanese in the area. The squadron saw weeks of continuous fighting here. During their first month they shot down 47 aircraft. In early October, the Japanese nearly outsmarted Boyington and his men, however. The Black Sheep flew over the airfield at Kahili, still held by the Japanese with several air fleets, with Mitsubishi Zeros stationed on them. Boyington received a radio-signal in perfect English, requesting him to report his squadron’s exact whereabouts and the direction they were flying.
Boyington reported where they were flying and where they were going. Several minutes later, one of the other pilots noticed 30 Zeros climbing beneath the squadron. The zeros, in a nasty spot, were easily ambushed by Boyington’s men and Boyington shot down at least three. It turned out that while Boyington communicated his direction and whereabouts, he suspected a deception. He transmitted a height nearly two kilometres lower than they actually were flying at. In the book Boyington later published, Baa Baa Black Sheep, he recounts the battle:
‘You could see the planes going around in circles, half-circles, you could see Zeros, Corsairs, Zeros, all firing at each other, you could see the red balls from the tracers, just like Roman candles going every which way in the sky.’
Following the battles of the Bougainville area, the Black Sheep were stationed at the forward base at the island of Vella Lavella, an island in the western Solomon Islands. Their mission was to launch an assault on Rabaul, in order to cut off the Japanese base located there.
Yet the first mission over the base wasn’t exactly a success. 76 fighters were drawn from the Marine Corps, Navy Squadrons and Royal New Zealand Air Force by General Mitchell. The problem was both the size of the group, 76 was quite generous, and the fact all pilots flew in different planes. The formation consisted of Corsairs, Hellcats and Kittyhawks and it was a nightmare to coordinate and communicate mid-air with all pilots with so many different aircraft. Also, it intimidated the Japanese who simply didn’t engage in fights, which rendered missions ineffective.
To deal with this, Boyington divided the group into smaller formations. No more than 48 fighters could take part in future operations, and generally only one type of aircraft could. Five days later 48 Corsairs followed up on a bombing raid on Rabaul when they flew into a responding 40-strong group of Japanese Zero fighters. Thanks to the cunning and agile performance, thirty Zeros were shot down. Boyington himself claimed five victories that day. It was another incredible victory and the Black Sheep were truly making a name for themselves.
As for the total amount of Japanese aircraft shot down over Rabaul, sources are a bit contradictory. I mean, overclaiming already happened during the Battle of Britain, and while U.S. pilots claim 147 aircraft to be shot down, official Japanese records suggest 70. Either way, the reign of Japanese air power in the region was quickly coming to an end and the Americans now reigned supreme in the sky.
Yet pressure on Boyington was mounting. His… difficult personality I’d say, and the pressure that his total victory tally was getting awfully close to becoming the U.S. top ace started to get to him.
During the First World War, the top-scoring U.S. fighter ace was Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, with 26 confirmed victories. During the Second World War Joe Foss, lead pilot of Foss’s Flying Circus, matched this record. But Foss returned from his wartime operations and by this time contracted malaria, meaning Boyington could in fact better his score.
In late December 1943, Boyington scored several kills bringing his victory tally to 24. According to his intelligence officer, as time progressed, Boyington became more aggressive, took more risk and had a short fuse. Then again, people kept bugging him, asking him when he’d break the record. It was only several days before the squadron’s tour of duty ended, and Boyington started to get nervous he wouldn’t get the chance to break the record. On December 27th he got another kill during a dogfight with the Black Sheep against 60 Zeros, but engine trouble during a subsequent mission prevented him from adding another one to his tally. The day after, according to Black Sheep pilots returning from a mission Boyington led, he matched the all-time record by scoring another kill and was in hot pursuit of another Zero. Preparations were made to celebrate Boyington breaking the 25-year-old record. Yet Boyington didn’t return, and as the day progressed, his pilots realised: Boyington was missing.
When he didn’t return that evening or during the next couple of days, and patrols couldn’t find him either, it became clear he was most liokely shot down together with his wingman, Captain Ashmun. What wasn’t known was that although Ashmun didn’t make it, Boyington survived the crash and was taken as a prisoner-of-war by the Japanese. Twenty months he spent in a camp, suffering from malnourishment and torture, and was presumed dead by his squadron and government. He was awarded the medal of honour in March 1944, posthumously.
But after the United States dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it became clear Boyington lived. When Japanese POW camps were liberated in August 1945, Boyington suddenly turned up among the captured men. Following his return, Boyington was physically awarded his medal of honour. Quite strange was that this was the first military award Boyington received during his entire career. Soon after the Navy Cross and other decorations followed.
Upon his return Boyington claimed he shot down three more Zeros, although the last two were unconfirmed. If he indeed did shoot down three, that would bring his tally to 28, and he would be the top-scoring Marine ace of all time. Yet officially his victory tally stands on 26.
Boyington’s Black Sheep Squadron was the seventh-highest scoring Marine squadron, tallying 127 confirmed victories in total. The majority of these victories were attained when Boyington was not yet made a prisoner-of-war. The VMF-214 went on to serve during the Korean war, swapping their Corsairs for A-4 Skyhawks. By the end of the war, Boyington was officially noted as the top-scoring Marine ace and after his retirement in 1947, he was promoted to colonel. In his absence, several other young ambitious men became known to the greater public. Among them was 23-year-old First Lieutenant Robert M. Hanson, part of the VMF-215. He participated in missions with the Black Sheep and ended up shooting down 25 aircraft, 20 of which were shot down in just six missions spread over 13 days. One day before his 24th birthday, on February 3rd, he was shot down by anti-aircraft artillery. He was the highest-scoring Corsair ace and this young man had one of the greatest, and sadly one of the shortest careers as a talented fighter pilot.