“Thou shalt not honor a white man,” says the first commandment of the politically correct—unless, of course, the white man in question is hastening the destruction of Western civilization or, perhaps, preserving the habitat of the pupfish. A recent example of dishonoring an American hero occurred at the University of Washington, when a student senator, Andrew Everett, proposed that a memorial be erected on campus in memory of Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, a graduate of the University of Washington and a Medal of Honor recipient.
Most of the student senate had never heard of Boyington. When Everett described the famous Marine ace, several senators were horrified. “Is it appropriate to honor a person who killed other people?” cried sophomore Jill Edwards. Furthermore, she “didn’t believe a member of the Marine Corps was an example of the sort of person the University of Washington wanted to produce.” Senior Ashley Miller added that “many monuments at the University of Washington already commemorate rich white men.”
Andrew Everett and his supporters argued in vain that Boyington’s accomplishments and decorations demanded an individual monument in his honor. The student senate found time before the session was adjourned, however, for the following announcements: The GBLTC (Gay, Bisexual, Lesbian, Transgender Commission) was having auditions for the drag show; the Innocence Project Northwest was having a screening at the Burke Museum on the death penalty; the annual Human Rights Film Festival would be running the following week; and tickets for the Vagina Monologues were currently on sale at the Husky Union Building ticket office.
When Everett e-mailed word about the debate to a local radio talk-show host, reporters were soon on campus interviewing Huskies about the proposed monument to Boyington. Most revealing, and most disheartening, was the common refrain, “Who’s Pappy Boyington?” After dozens of students seemed bewildered when questioned about the Medal of Honor alumnus of their school, one reporter finally located an ROTC student who said that Boyington was a flier but could offer nothing more. At least Boyington and the monument became a topic of discussion on campus.
That Pappy Boyington has disappeared down the memory hole is especially surprising because he was not only one of America’s most famous World War II heroes and the author of a best-selling autobiography but the subject of a television series, Baa Baa Black Sheep, which ran for two seasons during the mid-1970’s. Starring Bob Conrad as Pappy Boyington, the series had its moments, especially during the first season, when most of the episodes were based on actual events and missions of VMF 214. Pappy Boyington himself served as consultant and technical advisor for the program.
Boyington may have been white, but he certainly wasn’t rich. He never knew his real father, a dentist who divorced Boyington’s mother when he was still an infant. His stepfather and his mother were heavy drinkers who never made more than modest incomes. Boyington liked to say that he was mostly Irish with a little Sioux Indian on his mother’s side, so his own alcoholism was a genetic inevitability. When the recent flap at the University of Washington erupted, several Boyington supporters mentioned that he was part-Sioux, and one even called him a Sioux Indian, evidently hoping to elicit some p.c. sympathy. However, Boyington’s biographer, Bruce Gamble, in a scholarly, comprehensive, and thoroughly documented work, Black Sheep One (2000), could find no evidence of Sioux or any other Indian blood.
More importantly, though, as a warrior, Boyington was second to none. After working his way through the University of Washington, living hand-to-mouth, he took his degree in aeronautical engineering to Boeing and got a job as a draftsman. While there, he was accepted into the Marines’ aviation-cadet program. He got through the program with a less than remarkable record, even failing and having to repeat more than one check ride. What no one could test for, though, is what he had in spades—a killer instinct and an uncanny ability to size up an opponent quickly. He had been the Pacific Northwest middleweight wrestling champion in college and was known for instantly identifying and exploiting weaknesses in opponents with a vicious ferocity. He would soon be doing so in the skies over Southeast Asia and the Pacific.
Boyington first saw combat flying a P-40 with the Flying Tigers. He returned home with six kills, but it took him several months of letter writing and finagling to get himself reinstated in the Marine Corps without losing rank or seniority, as had been promised those who had resigned to serve with the Flying Tigers. By September 1943, he was commanding VMF 214, a squadron of Corsairs based in the Solomons. Since he was in his early 30’s and most of his boys, in their early 20’s, he was “Pappy.” Several favored naming the squadron “Boyington’s Bastards,” but “Black Sheep” was eventually chosen as more appropriate for press releases.
Boyington’s experience, skill, courage, and fraternal relationship with his pilots made him a leader his aviators would follow anywhere. He picked off Japanese planes by the twos and threes and was decorated with the Navy Cross. By January 1944, his squadron had gunned down more than 100 enemy aircraft, and Boyington was on the verge of breaking Joe Foss’s record of 26. Boyington got the record and added a 28th kill before he was shot down in a furious fight with two-dozen Zeros. Picked up by a Japanese submarine, he was eventually taken to Japan, where he endured interrogations, beatings, and torture until the end of the war. When he finally returned home, President Truman hung the Medal of Honor around his neck. The Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross, the leading ace in Marine Corps history, a survivor of a Japanese torture camp, and the author of a best-selling autobiography—but that was not enough (or perhaps too much) for the august student senate at the University of Washington.