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:

Posted by The Bunny in Aviation, History, Marine Corps
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  • Fouled Anchor

    We all have personal failings, but most of us are not in a spotlight that reveals them to the world. Many great Americans were far from perfect people, but they were good at keeping their personal problems private.

    In this case, a great hero had great failings, but not enough (from what I’ve heard) to overshadow his accomplishments in combat. There is no telling what impact the war and his experiences as a POW had on his later life and behavior. Pappy Boyington deserves respect and recognition for what he did as a Marine Corps combat aviator, without regard to his personal life.

  • Compare his behavior after the war to the kind of sideshow freak lives that many of our current celebrities live. It is distressing to think that certain people in Coeur d’Alene couldn’t stomach Pappy’s excesses, but are probably avidly following the escapades of the Hollywood “elite.” There was also a recent attempt to place a memorial for Pappy on the campus of Washington State University, his alma mater. It seems some of the folks in the Student Government didn’t want either a Marine or a “rich white guy” representing their fair institution. It is true that he was a marine, but he wasn’t priveleged and had to work his way through school. Neither was he a “white guy” by our current PC standards as he was part Sioux.

  • Wm. Powell, my recollection of the UW fiasco was that they didn’t want to memorialize a warmonger, more than his racial and socioeconomic background, for fear that some poor, unenlightened soul might somehow embrace the mistaken notion that military service could be honorable.

  • Stevekaw

    Some hero’s problems later in life ARE relevant. Randy Cunningham’s performance as one of the few US aces in Vietnam was extraordinary, but his subsequent moral and legal failings as a US Congressman cannot and should not be ignored either…

  • UltimaRatioReg

    “But, he was frequently drunk, seen cavorting with young female companions and generally considered a PR disaster…”

    So was Teddy Kennedy. And most of Hollywood. And none among them were awarded The Congressional Medal of Honor, or suffered through captivity as a POW at the hands of the Japanese.

    Boyington isn’t the only loose cannon the Marine Corps produced out of that war and others. But nothing he did or failed at after the war diminishes his accomplishments or the courage it took to do what he did.

  • Yes, most of the UW Senate members positions were of the anti-warmonger variety, but I threw in the “rich white guy” comment to illustrate how factually challenged some of those people are.

  • I saw Boyington several times when I was a teenager (spoke to him once), when he was eking out a living on the airshow circuit autographing copies of his autobiography. This was in the late 70s, a couple of years after the TV show had made his name a household word. Even then — completely in awe of his wartime accomplishments and unfazed by the brush-off I got from him when I didn’t have the $12.50 to buy his book — it seemed to me he had a kind of sad existence. As Fouled Anchor says, a “great hero with great failings.”

    I would really recommend Bruce Gamble’s “The Black Sheep” to anyone interested in Boyington’s story, or that of VMF-214. It’s not very complimentary to Boyington, but highly worthwhile whether you’ve read Boyington’s autobiography or not.

  • Old Air Force Sarge

    Long live the memory of Pappy Boyington! We all have our personal failings and peccadillos. However, not many of us have put our lives on the line when our country called. Rest in peace sir. Semper Fi!

  • Gamble also wrote a biography of Boyington, “Black Sheep One.”

    I noticed that the originial post reported Boyinton’s aerial victories total as 28 which he has been officially credited with by the Marine Corps. However, Gamble writes that Boyington may have shot down only two planes in China as part of the AVG instead of the six he is credited with. Boyington was paid for two aerial victories and 3.75 planes destroyed on the ground which he rounded up to four. If this is correct, it means Boyington actually places third behind Robert Hansen (25) and Joe Foss (26) among Marine Corps aces.

    Boyington’s Marine combat record is still very impressive, and I don’t understand the problem of naming an airport after him.

  • Ground Side

    Marine Air, on time and on target. Thank you to Pappy and all the WWII figher pilots, an honor for one is an honor for all.

    Semper Fi

  • Failings and all I liked the guy. He seemed to be a pretty good leader. I would go with what he himself said in his book, “Show me a hero and I’ll show you a bum.”

    Does he deserve a field named after him? Yes. As if you look at his history of not only his accomplishments, you will see some great object lessons in what not to do in the area of flying safety. So if you stop and think about that for a second,it is part of your flying safety brief.

    He fought hard, endured being a POW of the Japanese no less and that should be enough. And with all that, you can find some excellent examples of his combat leadership.

    Alcoholic? He himself admitted as much. For war, he was definitely the “break glass in case of emergency” kind of guy.

    He has the Medal of Honor to his name, lets honor him.