Major Pappy Boyington: Commander of the Black Sheep Squadron

Michael E. Haskew

One of the legendary fighting units to emerge from the Solomon Islands Campaign, and more broadly from World War II in the Pacific, was Marine Fighter Squadron 214 (VMF-214), popularly known as the Black Sheep Squadron. The commander of VMF-214, Major Gregory Pappy Boyington, gained lasting fame.

Pappy Boyington

Pappy Boyington. Image is in the public domain via

The Black Sheep Squadron begins

VMF-214 was formed on June 1, 1942, at Ewa Naval Air Station on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. Originally known as the Swashbucklers, the squadron completed a tour of duty based at Henderson Field on Guadalcanal and then disbanded. VMF-214 was reconstituted in August on the island of Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides, and its 27 pilots came under Pappy Boyington’s command at that time.

When he reached the Solomons, Pappy Boyington was already a combat veteran, having flown with the famed Flying Tigers of the American Volunteer Group in China, where he claimed six aerial victories. The pilots nicknamed Boyington “Pappy” because at the age of 31 he was a decade older than most of his subordinates. They also chose the name Black Sheep—not because of their somewhat mythical hijinks on the ground, but due to the circumstances under which the squadron had been formed.

Pappy Boyington shines

The Black Sheep Squadron flew from bases in the southern Solomons and then deployed to a forward airfield at Vella Lavella, amassing an impressive service record during a brief period from September 12, 1943, to January 3, 1944. During its first two weeks of operation and flying the Vought F4U Corsair fighter, VMF-214 shot down 23 Japanese planes and claimed another 11 probable victories while five of its own pilots were lost. Pappy Boyington was well on his way to becoming the top Marine Corps ace of World War II, ending the conflict with 28 victories.

The flamboyant Pappy Boyington instilled an aggressive attitude among the young pilots of VMF-214.  During 84 days of combat the squadron shot down 100 enemy aircraft and destroyed a like number on the ground. In October 1943, the pilots publicized an appeal to major league baseball teams, offering to shoot down a Japanese plane for every cap forwarded to them.

The St. Louis Cardinals sent 20 caps, and the hotshot Marine pilots returned 20 stickers, each representing a kill.

Boyington became famous for his brash leadership style, and one incident recounts his leading 24 Corsairs in a sweep over the Japanese airfield at Kahili where 60 enemy fighters were based, goading them into the air. The Black Sheep Squadron shot down 20 of these Japanese planes and incurred no losses of their own, and Boyington received the Medal of Honor for the exploit.

Boyington receives the Medal of Honor
Pappy Boyington

F4U-1 Corsair of 1st Lt Rolland N. Rinabarger of VMF-214. By USMC. Image is in the public domain via

On October 4, 1943, Pappy Boyington and his Black Sheep Corsairs escorted a flight of Douglas SBD Dauntless dive-bombers on a mission over Bougainville. In the space of a single minute, he shot down three Zero fighters.

When Boyington was awarded the Medal of Honor, it was originally thought to be posthumous. On January 3, 1944, he shot down his 28th enemy plane and was himself downed. Pulled from the Pacific by a Japanese submarine crew, he spent the last 20 months of the war in a prison camp.

Five days after he was shot down, the Black Sheep Squadron concluded their second combat tour in the Solomons and the squadron was disbanded. The pilots were assigned to other squadrons, and the legend of VMF-214 took on a life of its own. Boyington retired from the Marines with the rank of colonel, and died at the age of 75 on January 11, 1988.

Michael E. Haskew is the editor of WWII History Magazine and the former editor of World War II Magazine . He is the author of a number of books, including THE MARINES IN WORLD WAR II. The Sniper at War and Order of Battle. Haskew is also the editor of The World War II Desk Reference with the Eisenhower Center for American Studies. He lives in Hixson, Tennessee.

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