This Day in History 1/3: “Pappy” Boyington is shot down over the Pacific

Today’s selections have little to do with the event itself, but more about how a personality adapts to the civilian world once the guns grow silent.  Few had a more colorful adaptation than Gregory “Pappy” Boyington.

“Pappy” was probably one of the most effective, and best known, Marine pilots in American history.  His combat career, began, funny enough, when he resigned from the Marine Corps in the summer of 1941 to fly with Claire Chennault‘s American Volunteer Group, the “Flying Tigers“, a daring squadron titularly under the Republic of China Air Force responsible for battling Japanese forces over southern Asia in the second Sino-Japanese War.

Yet his most famous service would begin in August of 1943, when Boyington cobbled together a band of roughneck pilots, mostly pilots not assigned to fighter groups, to become VMF-214, the “Black Sheep Squadron.”  From August 1943 to the original squadron’s disbandment on January 8, 1944, VMF-214 destroyed or damaged 203 enemy aircraft, produced 97 air-to-air kills, destroyed troop transports, supply ships, enemy installations, and produced eight confirmed fighter aces, including Pappy himself, who shot down 28 aircraft in his leadership of the Black Sheep.

Along the way, the squad developed a reputation, somewhat inflated, of a drunken rabble of misfits constantly fighting, brawling and carousing.  Much of this reputation was thanks to Boyington himself, who had a short fuse, a long tolerance for booze and a seething disdain for authority figures (odd considering he was a Marine).

On January 3, 1944, Boyington was shot down in action and picked up as a Japanese submarine.  Spending the next 20 months as a prisoner of war, Pappy was liberated from a camp near Tokyo on August 29, 1945, winning the Congressional Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross.

After the war, Boyington’s hard-driving attitude and hard drinking cost him several jobs and even more divorces.  He ended up spending most of his life doing what he did best: being “Pappy” for public events.

Today we have two videos that show Pappy in two postwar moments.  The first is from the 1957 season of the television game show To Tell the Truth (never mind the wrong date at the beginning of the video.) The second is a 1976 NBC Today Show interview with Boyington and actor Robert Conrad, who played the colorful pilot in the NBC drama Baa Baa Black Sheep (later named Black Sheep Squadron).  The show, which ran from 1976-1978, was loosely based on Boyington’s memoirs.  It enraged many squadmates of Pappy, claiming that most of the show was fiction and glamourized Boyington’s role in the Pacific.

In today’s age of celebrity and image-making, these images serve to show students how media created stars even before TMZ and Access Hollywood.  See if you can get your students to compare other celebrities to Boyington: are there people whose best purpose in life is to simply be a celebrity?

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