BY DUANE A. VACHON, PH.D. Gregory Boyington was born on December 4, 1912 in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. He grew up in the logging town of St. Maries, Idaho and in Tacoma, Washington. In Tacoma, Washington Boyington attended Lincoln High School where he was a top wrestler.
Boyington was only six years old when he took his first flight with a pilot named Clyde Pangborn. Pangborn later flew the Pacific non-stop.
In 1930, when he was 18, Boyington enrolled at the University of Washington, where he joined the ROTC and became a member of the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity. He was a member of the college wrestling and swimming teams, and at one time held the Pacific Northwest Intercollegiate middleweight wrestling title.
While going to the University of Washington, his summers were spent working in his home state at a mining camp and logging camp and with the Coeur d’Alene Fire Protective Association in road construction and lookout work. He graduated in 1934 with a B.S. in aeronautical engineering.
Boyington married shortly after graduating and went to work for Boeing as a draftsman and engineer. He was to be divorced several times and was absentee father to three children, one of whom graduated from the Air Force Academy.
Boyington began his military career while in college. He became a member of the Reserve Officers Training Corps where he was to rise to the rank of a cadet captain. In June of 1934, he was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Coast Artillery Reserve and served two months of active duty with the 630th Coast Artillery at Fort Worden, Washington. On June 13, 1935, he enlisted and went on active duty in the Volunteer Marine Corps Reserve.
Boyington was discharged from the Marine Corps Reserve on July 1, 1937 in order to accept a second lieutenant’s commission in the regular Marine Corps the following day. He went to The Basic School in Philadelphia in July 1938. On completion of Basic School, Boyington was transferred to the 2nd Marine Aircraft Group at the San Diego Naval Air Station.
In August of 1941, Boyington resigned his commission in the Marine Corps to accept a position with the Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company (CAMCO). CAMCO was a civilian organization that contracted to staff a Special Air Unit to defend China and the Burma Road. The unit later became known as the American Volunteer Group (AVG), the famed Flying Tigers of China. During his months with the “Tigers”, Boyington became a flight leader.
In the spring of 1942, he broke his contract with the American Volunteer Group and returned to the United States, where he was eventually re-instated in the Marine Corps. Boyington managed to talk his way into a major’s commission in the Marines, who at the time were desperate to find experienced combat pilots. He was assigned to Marine Aircraft Group 11 of the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, where he became Executive Officer of VMF-121 operating from Guadalcanal. While assigned to VMF-121, Boyington did not shoot down any enemy planes. Later, he became Commanding Officer (CO) of Marine Fighter Squadron 214, better known by its nickname, the “Black Sheep Squadron.”
An example of the typical daring feats Boyington involved himself in was his attack on Kahili airdrome at the southern tip of Bougainville on October 17, 1943. He and 24 fighters circled the field where 60 hostile aircraft were based, goading the enemy into sending up a large force. In the fierce battle that followed, 20 enemy aircraft were shot down while the Black Sheep returned to their base without loss.
Boyington was to tie the American record of 26 planes on January 3, 1944 over Rabaul, but was shot down himself later the same day. The mission had sent 48 American fighters, including one division of four planes from the Black Sheep Squadron, from Bougainville for a fighter sweep over Rabaul. Boyington was the tactical commander of the flight and arrived over the target at eight o’clock in the morning. In the ensuing action, the major was seen to shoot down his 26th plane. He then became mixed in the general melee of diving, swooping planes and was not seen or heard from again during the battle, nor did he return with his squadron.
During mid-August 1945, after the atomic bombs and the Japanese capitulation, Boyington was liberated from Japanese custody at Omori Prison Camp near Tokyo.
Shortly after his return to the U.S., as a lieutenant colonel, Boyington was ordered to Washington to receive the nation’s highest honor — the Medal of Honor — from the President. The medal had been awarded by the late president, Franklin D. Roosevelt in March 1944 and held in the capital until such time as he could receive it. On October 4, 1945, Boyington received the Navy Cross from the Commandant of the Marine Corps for the Rabaul raid; the following day, “Nimitz Day,” he and other sailors and Marines were decorated at the White House by President Harry S. Truman.
Boyington personified the motto “Live Fast Love Hard” and was a hard-living man who was known for being unorthodox. He was also a heavy drinker, which plagued him in the years after the war, and possibly contributed to his multiple divorces. He himself freely admitted that his health improved during the two years he spent as a P.O.W., due to the enforced sobriety. He worked various civilian jobs, including refereeing and participating in professional wrestling matches.
When Boyington died on January 15, 1988, he was given full military honors and laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery in plot 7A-150.
“The President of the United States in the name of The Congress takes pleasure in presenting the Medal of Honor to
MAJOR GREGORY BOYINGTON
UNITED STATES MARINE CORPS RESERVE
for service as set forth in the following CITATION:
For extraordinary heroism above and beyond the call of duty as Commanding Officer of Marine Fighting Squadron TWO FOURTEEN in action against enemy Japanese forces in Central Solomons Area from September 12, 1943 to January 3, 1944. Consistently outnumbered throughout successive hazardous flights over heavily defended hostile territory, Major Boyington 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. Resolute in his efforts to inflict crippling damage on the enemy, Major Boyington led a formation of twenty-four fighters over Kahili on October 17, and, persistently circling the airdrome where sixty hostile aircraft were grounded, boldly challenged the Japanese to send up planes. Under his brilliant command, our fighters shot down twenty enemy craft in the ensuing action without the loss of a single ship. A superb airman and determined fighter against overwhelming odds, Major Boyington personally destroyed 26 of the many Japanese planes shot down by his squadron and by his forceful leadership developed the combat readiness in his command which was a distinctive factor in the Allied aerial achievements in this vitally strategic area.