After spending a year in the American Volunteer Group aka “The Flying Tigers” Gregory Boyington was reinstated in the US Marine Corps at the rank of major. He spent the first six months in the South Pacific in various staff jobs, culminating as the commanding officer of an F4F “Wildcat” Fighter squadron for just a month. In August 1943, the squadron was ordered back to California to be reequipped with new F-4U “Corsair” fighters, and Boyington knew that he if he left the South Pacific, he would be replaced and never fly in combat again. At 31, he was significantly older than most combat pilots, especially fighter pilots. So the squadron left, and he was thrown into the replacement pool on Espirtu Santo, the US Navy’s main supply and personnel depot in the South Pacific.
The impatient Boyington rounded up all of the unassigned fighter pilots on the island and convinced his higher headquarters to form them into a squadron under his command. (They were not all misfits awaiting court martial as per the TV show. They were a mix of brand new LTs and orphaned veterans from disbanded squadrons, which the Marines seemingly did at random.) In August 1943, VMF-214 was activated, but had no mechanics or support and few administrative personnel. Moreover, Boyington only managed a few planes scrounged from the depot level maintenance on the island. One night he gathered his 27 pilots together to come up with a name. They agreed on “Boyington’s Bastards” due to their situation. A few days later, a Stars and Stripes reporter commented that he couldn’t print that, and suggested “Black Sheep”. It stuck. Cool names were nice but Boyington needed planes, equipment and people if the Black Sheep were to fight the Japanese. Boyington was given just four weeks before they were sent forward.
In August 1943, the Allied Operation Cartwheel, the isolation of Rabaul, was entering a critical phase. MacArthur was closing in on New Britain to the west, and more importantly for Boyington and VMF-214, the US Army invaded Vella Lavella and Arundel in the Northern Solomons. Once captured, these islands would provide airfields in support of the invasion of Bogainville, thus finally ejecting the Japanese from the Solomon Islands that started with invasion of Guadalcanal about a year before. The Japanese desperately tried to stall their inevitable capture in order provide time to prepare Bougainville for defense, where they planned to make a stand.
On 11 September, VMF-214 moved from Espirtu Santo to the Munda airfield on New Georgia with their recently acquired Vought F4U-1 Corsairs. The Corsair was a new fighter designed with the Japanese A6M “Zero” in mind. It is essentially an F4F Wildcat upgraded with a bomber engine that gave it power enough to outmaneuver the Zero. The Corsair’s “gull” wing design was needed to keep the massive propeller off the ground. However, the giant engine also blocked the view of a carrier during the landing, so the Navy didn’t want it. The Marines, operating mostly from island airstrips took them all. (The Navy opted for the similarly capable F6F Hellcat, which didn’t have the carrier landing difficulties the Corsair did.)
Even with the edge the Corsairs gave Boyington and the Black Sheep, their first missions were busts. “Gramps” Boyington (As he was known to his men since he was a decade older than the next oldest pilot in his squadron) was worried they were going to be disbanded. The Marines were notorious for reassigning personnel from a squadron that didn’t perform; that’s how he got most of his pilots. But their luck changed on 16 September over Ballale. The Black Sheep scored 11 confirmed air-to-air kills, five of which were Boyington’s, and another nine probables over the island. The press immediately ran with the story: The maverick leader of a cobbled together squadron scoring so many victories in one day was great print. But the name “Gramps” had to go: although his men called him that until the end of the war, the press dubbed him “Pappy” which history remembers him by.
For the next 84 days, Pappy Boyington and the Black Sheep operated as far forward as Admiral Bull Halsey allowed, on airfields abandoned by the Japanese or off of makeshift strips cut from the jungle by Seabees hours before. During the island hopping of that first month, many were technically behind Japanese forward bases. Though the Black Sheep took almost 40% casualties in that time, they mixed it up with the Japanese over Bougainville daily. Their adversaries knew Boyington and several of the higher scoring Black Sheep by name and called them out over the radio. They’d respond with taunts and challenges for the Japanese to come up after them. By late-October, the Japanese quit responding and wouldn’t even take off to engage a fighter sweep unless they significantly outnumbered the Americans. Halsey found a kindred spirit in the hard drinking and hard fighting Boyington and visited the squadron on his tours of the front. Boyington and the Black Sheep’s greatest victory was their fighter sweep over Bougainville on the 17th of October. The 25 pilots of the squadron circled the Kahili airfields taunting the Japanese to come up and fight. Sixty proud Japanese pilots responded, and twenty didn’t return. The Black Sheep suffered no casualties.
The squadron was pulled off the line for rest and recuperation soon thereafter, and it was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation by Halsey. To celebrate, the entire squadron including ground personnel took a week of leave at the historic and posh Australia Hotel in lovely downtown Sydney. From all accounts it was a party of epic proportions from which the hotel never recovered.
Afterwards, the Black Sheep flew from Vella Lavella until the invasion of Bougainville in November. They then flew from the strip at Torokina just off the beach, with the ground Marines fighting just a few hundred yards away. From Torokina, single engine fighters could finally reach Rabaul. Boyington and the Black Sheep led the first fighter sweep of Simpson Harbor since the Australians left 20 months before. On 3 January 1944, Boyington tied Eddie Rickenbacker’s record for total kills during the First World War, 26. His record tying kill preceded him back to base where the press waited for him to land. Unfortunately he never showed up. Pappy Boyington was shot down on his way back and captured by a Japanese I-boat. He spent the rest of the war in a POW camp. Boyington always joked to the others not worry about him, “even if he was on fire with 30 Japs on my tail… I’ll meet you in San Diego for New Years and we’ll have a drink.”
True to form, the Marine Corps brass disbanded VMF-214 four days after Boyington was shot down, and the pilots of The Black Sheep were sent into the replacement pool.
After the war, that drink came four months early. On 29 August 1945 Boyington was liberated from his Japanese prison and flown back to the United States. On 21 September, he was met by 21 of his former subordinates and they had another epic party; this time at the elegant St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. The get-together was chronicled with a spread in October’s edition of Life magazine.
In their short three months of combat operations under Boyington, VMF-214 had nine aces, a combined 97 Japanese planes killed and another 203 more probables and damaged. The Black Sheep had the most kills in the shortest time of any Marine Corps or Navy fighter squadron up to that point in history.