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Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Pappy Boyington, Black Sheep Squadron And Japan

When I was a kid, growing up in the 70s, my favorite television show was Baa Baa Black Sheep (also known as Black Sheep Squadron in syndication).

It was essentially my first introduction to Japan, outside of Godzilla and Gamera, and featured the fictitious antics of a real-life American aviation squadron on an island in the south Pacific who battled the Japanese during WWII.

I know, I know… again with the war and naughty Japan.

Well… the thing is, despite my memory dulled by the passage of time, I am pretty sure there wasn't anything terrible said about the Japanese, and recall the TV show's lead character saluting his Japanese counterpart while flying (though he did call him 'Riceball')… because they knew that they were both just puppets of their governments and had no real hate for each other as human beings.

Baa Baa Black Sheep's squadron was Marine Attack Squadron 214 (aka VMA-214), a United States Marine Corps fighter squadron… this is a real squadron, by the way… the current crop call Marine Corps Air Station Yuma in Arizona their home.

Here's some real history.

The show's lead was Major Gregory "Pappy" Boyington (a real dude, who was awarded the U.S. Medal of Honor), and played by one of my favorite actors, Robert Conrad (I wanted to be him).

After returning from a brutal tour in China with the 1st American Volunteer Group (the AVG Flying Tigers), Boyington was brought back into the U.S. military to take command of 27 disenfranchised young men in August of 1943.

The squadron did not have any planes—heck, they weren't even a squadron yet—nor had any ancillary personnel like mechanics, so they traveled to Guadalcanal and then the Russell Islands in borrowed, crappy aircraft that could barely fly.

At the Russell Islands—northwest of Guadalcanal, Boyington and Major Stan Bailey were told they could form a squadron, but that they only had four weeks to fully train them for air combat. 

On September 13, 1943, looking to create a nickname for their ragtag group (still not yet a squadron) led by old man (he was 30) Pappy Boyington, they figured on "Boyington's Bastards"… seeing as how they were orphans and not attached to a squadron when they arrived together.

Not deemed politically correct by the Public Relations team, Marine Corps public relation office Capatin Jack deChant suggested "Black Sheep", because it meant the same thing.

You can see the VMA-214 insignia below:

The squadron flew F4U Corsair aircraft (pictured on the insignia).

The original Black Sheep squadron fought for 84 days in total… with 203 Japanese aircraft destroyed or damaged. They had nine aces (five kills or more to be an ace) who had 97 confirmed air-to-air kills. They also sank several troop transports, supply ships and island installations.

The squadron was awarded the U.S. Presidential Unit Citation for extraordinary heroism in action.

After Boyington was shot down and captured by the Japanese on January 3, 1944, a mere five days later the squadron was disbanded, with its pilots placed into a pilot pool.

The Black Sheep squadron was reformed on January 29, 1944 and a year later was deployed on the USS Franklin (CV-13) on February 4, 1945 to join the action on Okinawa. On March 19, a Japanese bomber hitter the USS Franklin, causing the deaths of 772, including 32 Black Sheep… the squadron was prepping for an attack on mainland Japan at the time. 

The bombing ended the participation of the Black Sheep in WWII… losing a total of 48 planes and 23 pilots killed or MIA (missing in action) from combat.

So… who was Pappy Boyington, and did he really have a dog named Meatball?

Born in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho on December 4, 1912, he took his first ride in an airplane in 1919 as a six-year-old with Clyde Pangborn, who… in 1931 with co-pilot Hugh Herndon Jr., was the first to fly non-stop across the Pacific Ocean.

Every image I looked at of Boyington, showed him with a non-European look… and it turns out he is part Native American Sioux… and part Irish. There's a stereotype joke in there, but I'll leave it alone.

As a pilot, Boyington was fantastic. As a member of the U.S. military, he was an attitude waiting to explode.

As a flight instructor, he took a job to fly with the American Volunteer Group (AVG) in September of 1941 (before the U.S. entered WWII) to go and fight the Japanese over China and or Burma. 

He earned $675 a month, and could earn a bonus of $500 for every confirmed kill he shot down.

The American government was aware of this arrangement, and while not sanctioned, it wasn't discouraged either.

Of the three AVG squadrons, Boyington's was the First Squadron codenamed "Adam and Eve". The squadrons had 20 pilots each and had a full compliment of ground crew. 

He, and another officer, were nearly court-martialed for 'conduct unbecoming of an officer (Boyington also admits to being a hard drinker who was rarely sober during the war years) after it was seen that they were holding rickshaw races with the locals in China.

Yeah! It sounds exactly like something the Baa Baa Black Sheep television show would have had. (In  my head I recall the introduction of the show, and scattered images of various shows - it's been 40 years, eh).
Actor Robert Conrad portraying Pappy Boyington in Baa Baa Black Sheep. He also starred in The Wild Wild West (before that weird Will Smith movie - I like Will, but c'mon... keep it Fresh), which makes me think he only acted in shows with double words and alliteration.  
Anyhow, Boyington and the others, were seen pulling around the rickshaw drivers as passengers… for Boyington, the worst part was that they had to pay the drivers to drive the drivers around in the race. It makes sense, but that's what Boyington took away from the whole event.

By November of 1941, the AVG was flying Curtiss P-40's and P-36 aircraft. Boyington says that after seeing a photo in a magazine of an RAF P-40 with a toothy shark mouth, they all decided to do the same to theirs.

Curtiss P-40

In the air, Boyington had great respect for the Japanese pilots they were facing over Asia.

He says they were lied to by everyone, stating that the Japanese pilots were bad with poor eyesight... probably some sort of stereotype everyone was pushing.

"I can tell you from firsthand experience, that the best men ever to fly a plane in combat were the Japanese—especially the Imperial Navy pilots. Those guys were no joke. If you screwed up, you were done for, end of story," Boyington recalls in a article (HERE).

From that same interview, Boyington describes what it was like for him and his pilots in their P-40 planes to fight the Japanese Mitsubishi A6M Zero: "The Zero was legendary in its agility, due to its light weight and turning radius. No one could turn inside a Zero, but the Zero could not catch us in a dive, which proved to be a life insurance policy. However, most of our fights were against other aircraft, like the I-97 [Nakajima Ki.27]. We developed the tactics of hit and run. Dive down from higher altitude and strike, continue the dive and convert air speed into altitude for another attack. The other plus for us was the fact that we flew three element flights, with the top cover waiting until the other two had attacked. Once the Japs scrambled to intercept us, the top cover would swoop down and pick them off. We also had the advantage of heavier armament-two .50-caliber and four .30-caliber machine guns, with later versions having all 50s against their two 7.7mm machine guns. We also had armor plate in the cockpit and self-sealing fuel tanks. The Japs had none of those, and it cost them dearly throughout the war." 

After the squadron was ordered to Rangoon in late January of 1942, Boyington had his first air victory on the 26th, after his outnumbered squadron (of 20), ran into 50 to 60 I-97 Japanese aircraft some 2,000 feet above them.

As the I-97's dove, Boyington's squadron scrambled… he saw two I-97's nearby, closed and… as he fired on one, the other looped over him to get behind, causing Boyington to break off.

Diving down to the ground (aka the 'deck'), he pulled up and climbed, saw another enemy aircraft, and dove, closing in and fringe.

Boyington says that 'as he was almost filling the windscreen, he performed a split-S that any instructor would have envied'. The split-S was used by combat pilots to disengage from being attacked.

Split-S maneuver
Note that the AVG was outnumbered, so other fighters joined that Japanese craft on Boyington… so he dove and ran for home. Safely there, he discovered a 7.7mm bullet in his arm.

No kills, shot… but he survived.

Two days later…   he got two kills, with his squadron gathering another 14, with no losses.

When Boyington was shot down and captured by the Japanese, he swears he was stone cold sober. Holy crap.

January 3, 1944… Boyington's plane wasn't working well, so he took another, leading the Black Sheep squadron to Rabaul, where there was supposed to be a base of Japanese naval pilots.

With 21 kills already under his belt, Boyington, was allowed to go hunting, while a wingman promised to look after his six (butt - behind him).

Taking out three Japanese fighters, soon Boyington and his wingman were surrounded. His plane was shot up, and the cockpit caught fire… so, only 100-feet up, he parachuted up and out.

I've not ever parachuted, but pulling a ripcord from just 100-feet above the water doesn't do much. He hit hard.

He inflated his rubber raft, but his Mae West (the busty personal floating device) was shot by bullets, and would not inflate.

I'm pretty sure this isn't cricket, but he says four Zero pilots took turns strafing him in the water. That's against the Geneva Convention, isn't it?  

Hours later, a Japanese submarine surfaced and collected Boyington, with him dumping everything of military value out rom his possession before boarding.

His left ear was hanging from his head, big cut  on the scalp, shrapnel in both arms, groin and shoulders, and one bullet went through and through the left calf muscle.

The Japanese crew took care of him, with Boyington saying they were humane, with one English-speaking sailor saying he was going to be okay.

As a POW in Ofunan (and then later near Yokohama), Japan, it wasn't all fun and games like on Hogan's Heroes and the Nazi's. No… this was like Bridge Over The River Kwai. Beatings every once in a while, minimal food… Boyington said he had dropped around 70 pounds… but says an old Japanese woman who was a cook at the prison began to sneak him extra food.

Boyington says that being a POW helped keep him alive… because he couldn't drink.

He says he harbors no ill-feeling towards the Japanese, saying that he was treated - on the whole - quite well by them… saying that the Japanese civilians went out of their way to treat the POWs with care, slipping them food.

He says he feels greater shame at his own American government for the shabby way they treated their own American citizens of Japanese descent when they were forcibly placed in internment camps, losing their homes and businesses.  

Boyington received the U.S. Medal of Honor and Navy Cross. He retired from the Marine Corps on August 1, 1947, and because he was specially commended for the performance of duty in actual combat, he was promoted to colonel.

When the war ended, and Boyington surprised people by being alive, he went on a PR tour selling war bonds, but complains that he had not received any back pay (while 'dead') and so had to survive off the generosity of others.

Later, he became a beer salesman… though I would figure that stuff kindda sold itself… kidding, I know what a beer salesman does.

Boyington had three kids with first wife (divorced) Helene: Janet Boyington (suicide), Greg Boyington Jr. (retired from U.S. Air Force as a Lt. Colonel), and another child that no one seems to know anything about.

He had an adopted child with second wife Dolores - again, no information.

While I have no problem in not knowing such data, it is interesting to note that we are talking about people around for the past 70 years, and there is no on-line information about them that jumps out. To me, it puts into perspective the difficulty in discussing the real history of people and things from centuries past.

Gregory 'Pappy' Boyington died on January 11, 1988, of what they believe was complications from cancer… something he had been battling since the 1960s.

The direct quotes from Boyington, and even some of the non-direct stuff, was taken from an article written by Colin Heaton and originally published in the May 2001 issue of Aviation History.

While I found the portrayal of Boyington and the Black Sheep squadron to have been highly fictitious in the Baa Baa Black Sheep television show, the real-life Boyington appears to have been quite the character himself.

While I had initially decided to do this topic because I thought it a fine way to honor my career as a television viewing aficionado, I found myself drawn to Boyington's respect for the enemy.

That, and the way he described some of the attacks in the Aviation History article… awesome.

But here's what kills me… If that article/interview was published in the May 2001 issue of Aviation History… what took so long. Boyington died in 1988 - 13 years earlier.

Was the author sitting on the interview for that long, or had it seen print earlier - and where and when? 

And... no... Boyington did NOT have a dog named Meatball as he was portrayed in the TV show. 

We are poor little lambs, who have lost our way. Baaaa… baaaaaa… baaaaaaaaa,
Andrew Rogue Leader Joseph
PS: I know the nickname I gave myself was from Star Wars…        
PSS: I used to love singing that opening… I could really drop my voice on the three baa-baa-baa's, as each dropped two notes from the last. I'm guessing. 
PPPS: Gotta go. Just call me 'mint jelly', because I'm on the lam. - Abe 'Grandpa' Simpson.
PPPPS: And, as a child who once entertained an entire church in London with my rendition of "Yellow Submarine" singing the refrain over and over again as a two-year-old or less (now you know how old I am), I have distinct memories of singing Baa Baa Black Sheep the nursery rhyme. Or, that one is a forced wannabe memory. The Yellow Submarine one was confirmed to me by my dad, who had to leave my mother in the Catholic Church (he was a Protestant), to take me outside to avoid disrupting the congregation. I received a standing, sitting and kneeling ovation. Or my father did.
PPPPPS: Because of Boyington and his TV show, I started building more and more model aircraft of WWII vintage rather than the "modern" stuff.
PPPPPS: Holy crap! Actor Robert Conrad is still alive! Yay!
PPPPPPS: And because everything I do comes around full circle... Robert Conrad appeared in the 1993 movie Samurai Cowboy. It's about a Japanese business man saddened by life after his best bud dies, moving to Montana to become a cattle rancher to fulfill a childhood dream. Wow. I wanted to play in the NHL and win the Stanley Cup, score more goals than Pele, dig for dinosaurs, and walk on another planet. All unrealistic. Yet somehow less weird than wanting to be a cattle farmer in Montana. There's nothing wrong with that, of course... but for a Japanese dude? Do you know what would have been better... if he had wanted to be a sheep farmer.   

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