Reviews and Previews: Prodigal Son

A troubled man, Gregory Boyington found redemption commanding a U.S. Marine fighter squadron in the South Pacific

At the Black Sheep Squadron's base on the South Pacific island of Espiritu Santo, Boyington (holding paper) briefs his pilots on an upcoming mission. (National Archives and Records Administration)
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Black Sheep: The Life of Pappy Boyington
by John F. Wukovits. Naval Institute Press, 2010. 249 pp., $34.95.

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Gregory “Pappy” Boyington shined as a U.S. Marine fighter pilot during World War II, but out of the cockpit, he struggled with life. This biography, written by World War II Pacific theater expert John Wukovits, tracks Boyington’s evolution from a young, hot-tempered, debt-riddled, alcoholic pilot to an old, hot-tempered, debt-riddled, alcoholic pilot. “Without the sense of self-value he gained whenever he took to the skies, without the feeling of being needed and of contributing to something larger than himself, Boyington was a man adrift, a lost soul searching for meaning,” writes Wukovits.

The author paints a dark portrait of Pappy. Before the war, when Boyington was up to his ears in debt, in a dying marriage, and aching to fly against the Japanese, he resigned his Marine Corps commission to join the American Volunteer Group, the Flying Tigers. It wasn’t just for the adventure and to put distance between himself and his family, but also for the Flying Tigers’ hefty salary and the huge bonuses for each Japanese airplane shot down. Despised by commander Claire Chennault for ignoring his lectures on engaging the legendary Zero with the Tigers’ slower P-40 Warhawks, Boyington rarely got to fly combat. Resigning after crashing a P-40 while flying drunk, he made his way back to the States and ended up parking cars in a Seattle garage. But the U.S. needed experienced pilots, so Boyington recovered his Marine commission and ended up in the South Pacific, still drinking and away from the action.

Then a sympathetic superior offered him command of a new Marine squadron, one for which Boyington could pick the pilots. Contrary to legend, none of the fledglings were misfits or jailbirds. They were fine fliers, and during the day, Boyington honed their combat skills in their new F4U Corsairs, while at night he lectured them in the bar. “He was the best aviator out there,” said one of the younger pilots. They revered his every word and gave him the nickname Pappy because he was slightly older, infinitely more experienced, and the “bravest SOB.” And they gave themselves the name Black Sheep Squadron, but only after the Corps scrapped their first choice: Boyington’s Bastards.

Over the next several months, Boyington led the Black Sheep across the South Pacific. He was shot down on January 3, 1944. Fished out of the sea by the Japanese, Boyington spent the next 19 months as their sober guest, finding a nobility in resisting their extreme cruelty. After VJ Day, he arrived home and received the Medal of Honor awarded to him when he was MIA. He considered entering politics, but he started boozing again and drank himself through a host of jobs before being consumed by bronchitis, emphysema, and lung cancer. (He died in 1988.) Truthfully, the best time of Boyington’s life was war.

Along with being a biography, the book is nearly a primer for World War II fighter combat. But it has an appropriate title. If you’re looking for hagiography, try the 1970s TV series “Baa Baa Black Sheep.”

Phil Scott’s next book is titled Then and Now: How Flying Got This Way.


First Contact: Scientific Breakthroughs in the Hunt for Life Beyond Earth
by Marc Kaufman. Simon & Schuster, 2011. 224 pp., $26.

In his new book, First Contact, science writer Marc Kaufman starts with a simple premise: The discovery of extraterrestrial life is just around the corner. This may seem to be the realm of science fiction, but as Kaufman shows in this fascinating book, scientists around the globe are conducting a serious search.

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