TIME OF THE ACES: Marine Pilots in the Solomons
by Commander Peter B. Mersky, U.S. Naval Reserve
The One and Only 'Pappy'
Every one of the Corps' aces had special qualities
that set him apart from his squadron mates. Flying and shooting skills,
tenacity, aggressiveness, and a generous share of luck the aces
had these in abundance. One man probably had more than his share of
these qualities, and that was the legendary "Pappy" Boyington.
Major Gregory "Pappy" Boyington. Author's Collection
A native of Idaho, Gregory Boyington went through
flight training as a Marine Aviation Cadet, earning a reputation for
irreverence and high jinks that did not go down well with his superiors.
His thirst for adventure, as well as his accumulated financial debts,
led him to resign his commission as a first lieutenant and join the
American Volunteer Group (AVG), better known as the Flying Tigers. Like
other service pilots who joined the AVG, he first resigned his
commission and this letter was then put in a safe to be redeemed and
torn up when he rejoined the Marine Corps.
Boyington claimed to have shot down six Japanese
aircraft while with the Flying Tigers. However, AVG records were poorly
kept, and were lost in air raids. To compound the problem, the U.S. Air
Force does not officially recognize the kills made by the AVG, even
though the Tigers were eventually absorbed into the Fourteenth Air
Force, led by Major General Claire Chennault. Thus, the best
confirmation that can be obtained on Boyington's record with the AVG is
that he scored 3.5 kills.
Whatever today's accounts show, Boyington returned to
the U.S. claiming to be one of America's first aces. He was perhaps the
first Marine aviator to have flown in combat against the Japanese,
though, and he felt he would easily regain his commission in the Marine
Corps. To his frustration, no one in any service seemed to want him. His
reputation was well known and this made his reception not exactly open
Boyington finally telegrammed his qualifications to
Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, and as a result, found himself back in
the Marine Corps on active duty as a Reserve major. He deployed as
executive officer of VMF-122 from the West Coast to the Solomons. He was
based at Espiritu Santo, initially flying squadron training, non-combat
missions. He deployed for a short but inactive tour at Guadalcanal in
March 1943, and after the squadron was withdrawn, he relieved Major
Elmer Brackett as commanding officer in April 1943. His first command
tour was disappointing. He eventually landed in VMF-112. which he
commanded for three weeks in the rear area. Prior to forward deployment,
he broke his leg while wrestling and was hospitalized.
Black Sheep pilots scramble toward their F4U-1
"birdcage" Corsairs. The early model fighters had framed cockpit
canopies. The next F4U-1As and subsequent models used bubble canopies
which enhanced the limited visibility from the fighter's cockpit.
Boyington got another chance and took command of a
reconstituted VMF-214. The original unit had returned from a combat
tour, during which it had lost its commanding officer, Major William
Pace. When the squadron returned from a short rest and recreation tour
in Australia, the decision was made to reorganize the unit because the
squadron did not have a full complement of combat-ready pilots. Thus,
the squadron number went to a newly organized squadron under Major
Boyington. In his illuminating wartime memoir, Once They Were Eagles:
The Men of the Black Sheep Squadron, the squadron intelligence
officer, First Lieutenant Frank Walton, described how Boyington got the
new squadron command:
Major Boyington was the right rank for a squadron
commander; he was an experienced combat pilot; he was available; and the
need was great. These assets overcame such reservations as the general
[Major General Ralph J. Mitchell, Wing Commander of the 1st Marine
Aircraft Wing] may have had about his personal problems. General
[Mitchell] made the decision. "We need an aggressive combat leader.
We'll go with Boyington." The squadron had its commander.
Much has been written about Boyington and his
squadron. At 31, Boyington was older than his 22-year-old lieutenants.
His men called him "Gramps" or "Pappy." In prewar days, he was called
"Rats," after the Russian-born actor, Gregory Ratoff. The squadron
wanted to call themselves the alliterative "Boyington's Bastards," but
1940s sensitivities would not allow such language. They decided on the
more evocative "Black Sheep."
The popular image of VMF-214 as a collection of
malcontents and ne'er-do-wells is not at all accurate. The television
program of the late 1970s did nothing to dispel this inaccurate
impression. In truth, Pappy's squadron was much like any other fighter
squadron, with a cross-section of people of varying capabilities and
experience. The two things that welded the new squadron into such a
fearsome fighting unit was its new mount, the F4U-1 Corsair, and its
Pappy briefs his pilots before a mission from Espiritu
Santo. Front row, from left: Boyington, holding paper, Stanley R.
Bailey, Virgil G. Ray, Robert A. Alexander; standing, from left: William
N. Case, Rolland N. Rinabarger, Don H. Fisher, Henry M. Bourgeois, John
F. Begert, Robert T. Ewing, Denmark Groover, Jr., Burney L.
Tucker. Author's Collection
Boyington took his squadron to Munda on New Georgia
in September. On the 16th, the Black Sheep flew their first mission, a
bomber escort to Ballale, a Japanese airfield on a small island about
five miles southeast of Bougainville. The mission turned into a
free-for-all as about 40 Zeros descended on the bombers. Boyington
downed a Zero for his squadron's first kill. He quickly added four more.
Six other Black Sheep scored kills. It was an auspicious debut, marred
only by the loss of one -214 pilot, Captain Robert T. Ewing.
The following weeks were filled with continuous
action. Boyington and his squadron rampaged through the enemy
formations, whether the Marine Corsairs were escorting bombers, or
making pure fighter sweeps. The frustrated Japanese tried to lure Pappy
into several traps, but the pugnacious ace taunted them over the radio,
challenging them to come and get him.
Maintenance crews service this F4U-1 at a Pacific base.
The Corsair's size is shown to advantage in this view, as is the bubble
canopy of the late-production -1s and subsequent models. Author's
By mid-December 1943, VMF-214, along with the other
Allied fighter squadrons, began mounting large fighter sweeps staged
through the new fighter strip at Torokina Point on Bougainville. Author
Barrett Tillman described the state of affairs in the area at the end of
. . . Boyington and other senior airmen saw the
disadvantage of [these] large fighter sweeps. They intimidated the
opposition into remaining grounded, which was the opposite reaction
desired. A set of guidelines was drawn up for future operations. It
specified that the maximum number of fighters should be limited to no
more than 48. As few aircraft types and squadrons should be employed as
possible, for better coordination and mutual support.
This strategy was fine, except that Boyington was
beginning to feel the pressure that being a top ace seemed to bring.
People kept wondering when Pappy would achieve, then break, the magic
number of 26, Captain Eddie Rickenbacker's score in World War I. Joe
Foss had already equalled the early ace's total, but was now out of
action. Boyington scored four kills on 23 December 1943, bringing his
tally to 24. Boyington was certainly feeling the pressure to break
Rickenbacker's 25-year-old record. Boyington's intelligence officer,
First Lieutenant Frank Walton, wrote of his tenseness and quick flareups
when pressed about when and by how much he would surpass the magic
A few days before his final mission, Boyington
reacted to a persistent public affairs officer. "Sure, I'd like to break
the record," said Boyington. "Who wouldn't? I'd like to get 40 if I
could. The more we can shoot down here, the fewer there'll be up the
line to stop us."
Later that night, Boyington told Walton, "Christ, I
don't care if I break the record or not, if they'd just leave me alone."
Walton told his skipper the squadron was behind him and that he was
probably in the best position he'd ever be in to break the record.
fighter strip at Torokina was hacked out of the Bougainville jungle.
This December 1943 view shows a lineup of Corsairs and an SBD, which is
completing its landing rollout past a grading machine still working to
finish the new landing field. Department of Defense Photo (USMC)
"You'll never have another chance," Walton said.
"It's now or never."
"Yes," Boyington agreed, "I guess you're right."
Like a melodrama, however, Boyington's life now
seemed to revolve around raising his score. Even those devoted members
of his squadron could not help wondering if only to cheer their
squadron commander on when he would do it.
Pappy's agony was about to come to a crashing halt.
He got a single kill on 27 December during a huge fight against 60
Zeros. But, after taking off on a mission against Rabaul on 2 January
1944, at the head of 56 Navy and Marine fighters, Boyington had problems
with his Corsair's engine. He returned without adding to his score.
The following day, he launched at the head of another
sweep staging through Bougainville. By late morning, other VMF-214
pilots returned with the news that Boyington had, indeed, been in
action. When they last saw him, Pappy had already disposed of one Zero,
and together with his wingman, Captain George M. Ashmun, was hot on the
tails of other victims.
The initial happy anticipation turned to apprehension
as the day wore on and neither Pappy nor Ashmun returned. By the
afternoon, without word from other bases, the squadron had to face the
unthinkable: Boyington was missing. The Black Sheep mounted patrols to
look for their leader, but within a few days, they had to admit that
Pappy was not coming back.
1stLt Robert M. Hanson of VMF-215 enjoyed a brief career
in which he shot down 20 of his final total of 25 Japanese planes in 13
days. He was shot down during a strafing run on 3 February, 1944, a day
before his 24th birthday. Department of Defense (USMC) 73114
Donald N. Aldrich was a 20-kill ace with VMF-2 15, and had learned to
fly with the Royal Canadian Air Force before the U.S. entered the war.
Although he survived the war, he was killed in a flying mishap in
1947. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 72421
In fact, Boyington and his wingman had been shot down
after Pappy had bagged three more Zeros, thus bringing his claimed total
to 28, breaking the Rickenbacker tally, and establishing Boyington as
the top-scoring Marine ace of the war, and, for that matter, of all
time. However, these final victories were unknown until Boyington's
return from a Japanese prison camp in 1945. Boyington's last two kills
were thus unconfirmed. The only one who could have seen Pappy's
victories was his wingman, Captain Ashmun, shot down along with his
skipper. While there is no reason to doubt his claims, the strict rules
of verifying kills were apparently relaxed for the returning hero when
he was recovered from a prisoner of war camp after the war.
of Boyington's Black Sheep, 1stLt John F. Bolt, already an ace, shot
down his sixth plane over Rabaul in early January 1944. During the
Korean war, when he was flying as an exchange pilot with the Air Force,
he shot down six North Korean planes to become the Marine Corps first
jet ace. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 72421
Three of the Corps' top aces pose at Torokina in early
1944. From left: 1stLt Robert Hanson, Capt Donald N. Aldrich, and Capt
Harold Spears were members of VMF-215 during the busy period following
the loss of Poppy Boyington. The three aviators accounted for a combined
total of 60 Japanese aircraft. Department of Defense (USMC) 73119
Pappy and his wingman had been overwhelmed by a swarm
of Zeros and had to bail out of their faltering Corsairs near Cape St.
George on New Ireland. Captain Ashmun was never recovered, but Boyington
was retrieved by a Japanese submarine after being strafed by the
vengeful Zeros that had just shot him down. Boyington spent the next 20
months as a prisoner of war, although no one in the U.S. knew it until
after V-J Day.
He endured torture and beatings during
interrogations, and was finally rescued when someone painted "Boyington
Here!" on the roof of his prison barracks. Aircraft dropping supplies to
the prisoners shortly after the ceasefire in August 1945 spotted the
message and soon everyone knew that Pappy was coming back.
Although he had never received a single decoration
while he was in combat, Boyington returned to the U.S. to find that he
not only had been awarded the Navy Cross, but the Medal of Honor as
well, albeit "posthumously."
With Pappy Boyington gone, several other young Marine
aviators began to make themselves known. The most productive, and
unfortunately, the one with the shortest career, was First Lieutenant
Robert M. Hanson of VMF-215. Although born in India of missionary
parents, Hanson called Massachusetts home. A husky, competitive man, he
quickly took to the life of a Marine combat aviator.
During his first and second tours, flying from Vella
Lavella with other squadrons, including Boyington's Black Sheep, Hanson
shot down five Japanese planes, although during one of these fights, he,
himself, was forced to ditch his Corsair in Empress Augusta Bay.
Harold L. Spears was Robert Hanson's flight leader on the day Hanson was
shot down and killed after Spears gave Hanson permission to make a
strafing run against a Japanese position in December 1944. Department of Defense
Photo (USMC) 72424
30 June 1943, 1stLt Wilbur J. Thomas of VMF-213 shot down four enemy
planes while providing air cover for American operations on New Georgia.
Two weeks later. on 15 July, he shot down three more Japanese bombers.
Before he left the Pacific, his total of kills was 18-1/2. Department of Defense
Photo (USMC) 58384
For his third tour, he joined VMF 215 at Torokina. By
mid-January, Hanson had begun such a hot streak of kills, that the young
pilot had earned the name "Butcher Bob." Hanson shot Japanese planes
down in bunches. On 18 January 1944, he disposed of five enemy aircraft.
On 24 January, he added four more Zeros. Another four Japanese planes
went down before Hanson's Corsair on 30 January. His score now stood at
25, 20 of which had been gained in 13 days in only six missions.
Hanson's successes were happening so quickly that he was relatively un
known outside his combat area. Very few combat correspondents knew of
his record until later.
Lieutenant Hanson took off for a mission on 3
February 1944. The next day would be his 24th birthday, and the
squadron's third tour would end in a few days. He was going back home.
He called his flight commander, Captain Harold L. Spears, and asked if
he could strafe Japanese antiaircraft artillery positions at Cape St.
George on New Ireland, the same general area over which Pappy Boyington
had been shot down a month before.
Hanson made his run, firing his plane's six
.50-caliber machine guns. The Japanese returned fire as the big,
blue-gray Marine fighter rocketed past, seemingly under control.
However, Hanson's plane dove into the water from a low altitude, leaving
only an oil slick.
Hanson's meteoric career saw him become the
highest-scoring Marine Corsair ace, and the second Marine high-scorer,
one behind Joe Foss. Lieutenant Hanson received a posthumous Medal of
Honor for his third tour of combat. As Barrett Tillman points out in his
book on the F4U, Hanson "became the third and last Corsair pilot to
receive the Medal of Honor in World War II. And the youngest."