Monday, April 3, 2017
book review: Baa Baa Black Sheep
BAA BAA BLACK SHEEP by Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, Bantam Books 1977
Book review: World War II in the Pacific, non-fiction
“The name Flying Tigers was unknown to us when we were quartered in an obscure hotel in downtown San Francisco, waiting for a Dutch motorboat that would transport us to the Orient to join the American Volunteer Group.” Boyington's story begins in September 1941, before America was in the war. He temporarily left his Marine Corps job (captain and flight instructor) for the promise of action and good pay in China. The group's passports identified them as “missionaries”. President Roosevelt had approved this aid, but not publicly yet. Other passengers on the boat figured pretty quickly that they were anything but missionaries.
Their ship reached Rangoon, Burma, about a month before Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, bringing America into the World War that China had already been fighting for years. They joined Colonel Chenault's Flying Tigers, about a hundred American pilots attached to Generalissimo Chiang Kai Shek's Chinese army in Kunming, Southern China. Supplies came via the “Burma Road” connecting with British India. Japan outflanked their supply line by invading all of Southeast Asia in January 1942. Boyington returned to USA with six downed Japanese planes to his credit and an injured leg.
His service record in the Marines was lost in red tape for a year, reducing him to taking a job as parking lot attendant in Seattle. As one reads further into his life, a unique type of personality emerges. A thirty-year-old independent who not only figures situations out for himself, but acts on his conclusions, divorced, alcoholic, chain-smoker, often ignoring his physical pain; caring about his subordinates, unafraid to go over the heads of incompetent superior officers to reach someone who knows what the score is. Observes details. And gets results.
When Boyington got back to the war in 1943, the battle for Guadalcanal was winding down and his squadron was based on the Russell Island group while the Japanese were gradually being forced to retreat northward. The Japanese “zero” plane was the equal of any of the American planes of the time, and battle outcomes depended on the skill and experience of individual pilots. Boyington, already an ace, and several years older than his squadron mates, earned the nickname “Pappy”, or “Gramps” from his guidance of his fliers. His squadron named itself the “Black Sheep” for their independent manner of fighting, both in the air and off duty.
His attack on Kahili, the well-armed air base on Bouganville caught the Japanese entirely by surprise. With twelve planes staying high in the sky, he led three others at a low level up the east side of the island chain, as though inspecting the coastline; then on farther north and around to the west of the airfield, flying back at tree-top level, four planes wing-tip to wing-tip, strafing the length of the field, reversing and strafing again, then up and homeward, leaving his other twelve planes to bomb the harbor at will.
He soon approached the Allied Forces' shoot-down record – twenty six planes. Buddies and news reporters alike were urging him to get one more before his third and final tour of duty was up. He did, but was also shot down himself. He bailed out into the sea with multiple injuries. He inflated his life raft and was picked up by a Japanese submarine next day. The pharmacist mate spoke English, “You have nothing to fear on this sub.” A six-hour trip brought them to Rabaul, the regional Japanese headquarters. Pappy was a prisoner of war for the next two years. Americans presumed him dead.
He experienced brutality from some guards, kindness from others. Japanese had respect for a hero, no matter what his nationality. And some were already seeing the inevitable outcome of the war. Pappy learned to understand and speak Japanese during his internment, and continued to observe and reflect. His story is worth reading thoughtfully.
To us in the Northwest, he is a local author, having grown up near Okanagen, Washington. Coeur d'Alene, Idaho has named its airfield after him.