Pappy's last mission

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Feb 8, 2006
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Pappy's last mission Air Classics - Find Articles

Pappy's last mission
Air Classics, Jan 2003 by Walton, Frank E


It was December 1943. The Battle for the Solomons had reached a furious level and was intensifying daily. Rabaul, the Japanese "Pearl Harbor," at the northern end of the Solomon Island chain, had to be neutralized before the Allied march toward the Japanese homeland could continue.

A key factor in the neutralizing process was Marine Major Gregory "Pappy" Boyington, the swashbuckling CO and his hastily-thrown-together band of casuals and replacements who were blazing a heroic record across the South Pacific skies. Calling themselves the "Black Sheep," as a wry nod to their questionable origin, they had already downed a total of 76 Japanese planes by 25 December 1943. By usually giving him the first shot and protecting him while he scored, they had assissted Boyington in getting within reach of the US record for planes destroyed in aerial combat. That record, 26 planes, was jointly held by Medal of Honor winner Marine Major Joe Foss, for action over Guadalcanal, and Army Captain Eddie Rickenbacker from World War One. Boyington had downed 18 Zeros. These, with the six Japanese planes Boyington claimed from his service with the Flying Tigers shortly after Pearl Harbor, gave him a total of 24 (Editor's Note: Most sources do not allow Boyington the six AVG claims, narrowing his victories to two aerial victories and 2.5 aircraft destroyed on the ground).

We had seen the pressures mount daily on Boyington as he closed in on the record. The news media, already focused on the remarkable exploits of the Black Sheep squadron as a whole, descended on our little island of Vella Lavella in droves and dogged his every waking moment. They were in the ready room, in the mess hall, at the flight line and even in our tent where our Flight Surgeon, Dr. Jim Reames and I tried to fend them off. We recognized that he had enough pressures without the constant questioning: "Do you think you'll break the record?" "Are you scared?" "When will you break the record?" "If you break the record will you quit then?" "How does it feet to shoot down a plane?"

I told the most persistent, A.P. Correspodent Fred Hampson, that I would arrange an interview with Boyington for him if he would then leave him strictly alone. Hampson agreed and got his interview.

As some of us sat in our tent with Boyington on Christmas night, one of the Black Sheep pilots, Bob Bragdon, expressed a thought that was in all our minds:

"Look, Pappy, we all want to see you break the record but we don't want you to go up there and get killed doing it." "Don't worry about me," Pappy responded. "They can't kill me. If you guys ever see me going down with 30 Zeros on my tail, don't give me up. Hell, I'll meet you in a San Diego bar and we'll all have a drink for old times' sake."

On the 27th, Boyington got his 25th Zero to bring him one shy of the record. At the same time, the Black Sheep raised their squadron total to 82.

On the 28th, the Black Sheep shot down four more Zeros to bring the squadron total to 86 but Boyington did not score. The mission was costly for the Black Sheep as J.C. Dustin, Don Moore and Harry Bard failed to return.

Weather partially cancelled the major mission on the 30th but the Black Sheep added another Zero. Again, Boyington did not score.

After the mission on 30 December, Boyington went off by himself to sit and look at the rain. When we went to chow, Fred Hampson sat down across from us at the long table.

"Well, Pappy," he said. "What do you think? Are you going to get another chance at the record?"

"I don't know."

"Well, if you do, are you going to break it? Are you going to be satisfied with just one or two, or are you going after more?"

Boyington blew up.

"God damn it," he shouted, "why don't you guys leave me alone? I don't know if I'm going to break it or not. Just leave me alone till I do or go down trying."

He slammed his fist down onto the table, catching the edge of his plate and spattering food in the face of the correspondent, and then stormed out of the mess hall.

"I told you to leave him alone," I said to Hampson.

"Yes, I know you did, and I'm sorry," he said.

Deciding that Pappy was in no condition to fly on New Year's Day, Doc Reames and I cooked Lip a story about a mythical Zero down in the jungle and arranged for Doug White, a Marine Corps Combat Correspondent, and our own jungle expert, Bill Crocker, to take him out to find it and get some publicity photos. Doug and Crocker tramped what Boyington termed "a thousand miles" and brought him in at five o'clock ready to go to bed. He took a shower, stretched out for a "nap" and slept straight through until time to get up for the 2 January mission over Rabaul.

On that day Boyington led three other Black Sheep among a total of 56 Marine and Navy fighters on a sweep to Rabaul. The Black Sheep got one Zero but Pappy's plane was throwing oil and smeared his windshield so that he was unable to see.

When Pappy returned from Bougainville at five-o'clock all conversation ceased.

"Had a little tough luck up there," he said quietly.

"Do you think you should try to make that hop tomorrow?" Doc Reames asked.

"I'm okay," he said.

We got some sandwiches down from the mess hall for him and gave the thumbs-up sign as he rode away in the truck with Bruce Matheson, George Ashmun and Mack Chatham. The four of them took off for Bougainville for the early morning takeoff the next day.

On 3 January, Boyington led the flight of 44 Navy and Marine Fighters, including just the four Black Sheep, in a sweep over Rabaul. The battle was joined at 22,000-ft over Rapopo airfield with Pappy taking his four-plane division down on a flight of 12-15 Zeros. Boyington and Matheson each shot down a Zero and then, in the melee and the haze, the Black Sheep became separated.

Back at Vella Lavella, we expected the flight back before noon but long before that time the ready room was full of people wanting to know if Pappy had broken the record.

At 10 o'clock the first planes were back at Bougainville.

At 11:30, Matheson landed at Vella Lavella and brought the first word. He'd seen Pappy and Ashmun attack 15 Zeros and Pappy had brought one down. We cheered. Were there any more? Matheson didn't know. He and Chatham had had their hands full with another 15 Zeros; he'd shot one down and then Chatham's electrical system had gone bad and they'd had to return to Bougainville. Our squadron bag was now 90.

As time dragged on, other pilots came in. I talked to all of them. No, they hadn't seen either Boyington or Ashmun. I asked Operations to check all the other airfields: Munda, Ondonga, Treasury, to see if they'd possibly landed there. They had to be down somewhere, their fuel was long gone.

And then, gradually, it began to dawn on us.

Fred Hampson's report described it:

"The Skipper didn't get back!

"The news spread like a chill from revetment, to the ready room, to the tent camp on the hill. The war stood still for a hundred pilots and 500 ground crewmen.

"It couldn't be true. The Japs didn't have a man who could stay on the Skipper's tail."

But as the minutes rolled into hours and negative answers to our queries came in from all fields, we began to comprehend that Pappy and Ashmun were really missing.

The Black Sheep raged like wild men up and down the coasts of New Ireland and New Britain for the remaining three days of our combat tour. They shot up barges, gun positions, bivouac areas; strafed airfields, killed Japanese troops, cut up supply dumps, trucks, small boats. Every rumor of a sighting brought a horde of Black Sheep whistling down so close to the sea that their prop wash left white wakes in the water.

Aerial combat was incidental; they wanted to get down to look for the Skipper and George. Nevertheless, they shot down four more Zeros to bring the squadron total to 94* Japanese planes shot down in aerial combat, 35 probably destroyed, 50 damaged; and 21 destroyed on the ground. But it was a sad day for us when we returned to Espiritu Santo minus twelve of the pilots who had been with us such a short time earlier when we'd dubbed ourselves the Black Sheep.

Note: Boyington DID show up for that post-war party. At the end of the war he was released from the Japanese prison camp where he'd spent 20 months, flew to San Francisco and joined his squadron mates for the celebration he'd told us he would be there for, no matter what.

* Upon his release, Boyington reported that he had actually shot down three Zeros and that Ashmun had shot down one, thus raising the Black Sheep Squadron total to 97 planes.

Copyright Challenge Publications Inc. Jan 2003
Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved
Ya know, no one called him Pappy... That was made up by the ever correct news media... Another thing, Gramps made up alot of sh!t, changed his story all the time and lived life out of a bottle....

That being said, Ive met him a few times over the years, the last time around 1984 or so, and no one, and I mean no one knows what happened that day.... Gramps' story changed every time he told it...
Everyone with the passing of 35 years or so becomes different... However, he was very energetic and still a leader of men.... He was a drunk whose stories changed more times than Heddy Lamar changed brassiers, but my Grandfather and all the other pilots that served with Gramps held him in the highest regard.....

Well, most of em atleast...
I remember watching black sheep when i was 5 years old.8) Cool show,maybe not based on total fact but it was entertaining.I have been trying to find the series for years.Incidentlly,on the tv series Airwolf there is an episode that has a pair of corsairs battling helicopters.Must have been the same ones that were on black sheep squadron.I think.

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