How do you properly honor a war hero who didn’t lead such an exemplary personal life? Can you separate a person’s professional legacy from that of his personal character? Col. Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, WWII Marine Corps ace fighter pilot, Medal of Honor recipient and former POW, displaying his skills and bravery on the battlefield, with a record 28 Japanese fighters downed in combat.
He initially served with the Flying Tigers as part of the Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company (CAMCO), a civilian organization contracted to defend China and the Burma Road. He later served as Executive Officer and then Commanding Officer of VMF-121, a Marine Corps squadron nicknamed the “Black Sheep Squadron.” It was there that he proved his mettle — with a record number of enemy kills, and it was then that he earned his nickname “Pappy,” since he was almost a decade older than his squadronmates. It was during a flight over the the Pacific island of Rabaul in early 1944 — after his 26th Japanese shootdown — that Boyington was shot down himself, picked up by a Japanese submarine and taken prisoner. He was liberated from Japanese custody in mid-August 1945 and was awarded the Medal of Honor by the president and the Navy Cross by the Commandant of the Marine Corps.
So, what would be so controversial about his birthplace of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, wanting to name the local airfield after their hometown hero? Much of the resistance can be traced to his post-war life, which was marked by battles with alcoholism, multiple marriages and divorces, estrangement from his children and financial instability. As a highly decorated war hero, he was sent by the Marine Corps on a Victory Bond Tour after World War II to give speeches and enlist continued support for war bonds. But, he was frequently drunk, seen cavorting with young female companions and generally considered a PR disaster by the Marine Corps. They medically retired him in 1947. He enjoyed a second round of celebrity when a Hollywood rendition of the Black Sheep Squadron was depicted in the popular 1970s show “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” starring Robert Conrad as Boyington’s character. The show was generally considered a hearty piece of fictionalized entertainment, but the squadron’s characterization as a group of drunks and misfits angered many of Boyington’s fellow squadronmates. So, how do you properly recognize his significant professional feats? Can you ignore his personal failings?
A 2008 documentary that screend at the Navy Memorial on Veterans Day chronicles the grassroots efforts of a group of Marines and their campaign to have the local airfield in Coeur d’Alene renamed the Pappy Boyington Field and the resistance in the community to do so. The film, “Pappy Boyington Field” produced by Kevin Gonzalez, interviews many local Marine Corps League members who were behind the effort to rename the field, as well as local media, Boyington family members and even Robert Conrad. Many guessed that the county government and airport advisory board were dragging their feet on the proposal because of his controversial history, but publicly they cited a “safety issue” in renaming an airfield. (A safety issue?) The Marine Corps League kept up the public pressure and the campaign was eventually successful. The renaming ceremony took place in 2008.
But the question remains: Does public recognition of a controversial figure condone his personal behavior? I’d like to think it doesn’t and that we should judge a person’s career by just that. But, I have to admit that I lose respect for public figures — however reluctantly they become public figures — who have reckless personal lives.
I never knew Col. Pappy Boyington or any of descendents and I have not read his memoirs, but I’m in awe of his bravery. I can only hope that his personal struggles after the war humbled him and made his character stronger by the end of his life. Watch “Pappy Boyington Field” and you decide.
To watch the trailer or to buy a DVD of the film, go to the “Pappy Boyington Field” web site: www.pappyboyingtonfield.com.
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