I would turn 18 in July 1942, so my mother had to sign my enlistment papers for meto join the Marine Corps. My mother’s twin brother had served in the Marines in Nicaragua so he provided the necessary prompting that was required for me to join. After passing my physical, our group of recruits was quickly put on board a train for San Diego. For someone who had never been out of the state of Missouri, my sightings of the Rocky Mountains, Grand Canyon, painted desert, orange groves in California, and finally the blue Pacific were quite breathtaking.
When the train arrived in San Diego, we were met by Marine non-commissioned officers who aligned us into a quasi-military formation and marched us to awaiting cattle cars for the short trip to the recruit depot. Here, under the most watchful and most times very critical eye of our drill instructor, Platoon Sgt. Zelma T. Wood (a Texas native), we began our training.
The next twelve weeks were spent learning how the Marine Corps builds men out of boys and good Marines out of men. The last three weeks were spent at Camp Elliot, which served as the rifle and pistol range for new Marines.
After graduation from recruit training, I was assigned to aviation training at NAS Jacksonville, Florida. Twenty-six weeks later, and now a qualified aircraft mechanic, I was transferred to Camp Miramar, California, to await further transfer to an overseas assignment. Just prior to our departure from Jacksonville, the first production Corsair (F4U-1) arrived at this training center.
My overseas assignment turned out to be as a replacement in the Black Sheep Squadron, Marine Air Group 21 on Russell Island, Solomons, via New Caledonia, New Hebrides, Guadalcanal, and finally Russell. The Black Sheep Squadron provided support to the effort to rout the Japanese forces from the Solomon Islands. Our Marine Squadron provided daily air support to attack and destroy Munda Air Base. The Japanese deployed both fighter and bomber missions from this location. The marines could only fly by day because the Corsairs were not equipped for night-flying. The routine was to go to Munda each morning, return, reload with fuel and ammo, and fly one or two more missions each day.
The Japanese would over-fly Russell Island, north of Guadalcanal, on their way to bomb American installations on Guadalcanal. If the fighter aircraft or anti-aircraft fire ran the Japanese planes off from Guadalcanal, they would come back to Russell Island and drop their remaining bombs there. Russell Island was small, about one-tenth the size of Guadalcanal, but large enough for a squadron to operate effectively. Our camp was a large tent area with foxholes beside each 16’ x 16’ tent. The most peculiar thing about the island was the large habitation of frogs. You could hardly take a step without stepping on one or two. Needless to say, when you hit the foxhole during raids, you had to throw the frogs out first.
I was a Plane Captain. My responsibility was to prepare the Corsairs to fly several missions each day. The pilots would fly whatever plane was ready—not an assigned plane. There were usually twenty airplanes assigned to a squadron, though at times there were fewer air-worthy aircraft. Each mission called for twelve aircraft (three groups of four). In addition to the regularly scheduled maintenance, other duties were to repair bullet holes and correct any discrepancies necessary to make the aircraft ready to fly the next mission. Sometimes this required such crude items as bailing wire, fabric patches, etc. One aircraft returned with a total of 138 bullet holes to repair.
Other crews were kept busy belting ammunition. Belting the 50-caliber ammunition had to be arranged so that the rounds were in order-- tracer, armor piercing, incendiary. It was quite time consuming, but necessary to accomplish the mission. The coral landing strips were especially hard on the tires, so spare tire and wheel assemblies had to be kept readily available. Planes that became too difficult to repair became spare parts for flying aircraft.
The early F4U aircraft engine starter used a shotgun shell to initiate the engine starting cycle. These starters would be easily internally contaminated after a number of engine starts. If the engine did not start after five attempts, the breech had to cool for 30 minutes. Many times the plane captains would start the engine and the pilot and plane captain would switch places with the engine running. Many times when the engines couldn’t be started normally, a special leather boot that fit on the tip of one of the propeller blades was installed. This boot had two bungee cords attached to the tip of the boot. The other end of these bungees was attached to ramp tractors (trucks) and stretched while the propeller was held and kept from moving by a mechanic. When the bungees were stretched to a point that the prop blade could no longer be held, the prop blade was released, the boot flew off, and the spinning prop started the engine. In the early Corsairs, it was extremely difficult for the pilots to see over the engine cowl when taxiing the aircraft. After landing, the pilot would taxi to the end the runway where the guns were made safe. Then the Plane Captain would climb up and sit out on the wing tip, and with hand signals, direct the pilot to the parking revetment. There were about 200 staff personnel for all the tasks involved, including maintenance, food service, security, logistics, administrative, and medical.
There was only one night fighter, an Army Air Force P-38, detached to provide night cover for Russell Island. The P-38 did a great job of shooting down Japanese bomber aircraft. These Japanese bombers were called “Washing Machine Charlie” because of the noise they made due to the engines not being synchronized. The searchlights from the anti-aircraft battalion made it possible to target the enemy aircraft in the night sky, which helped the P-38. Our pilots’ tour of duty in the South Pacific consisted of two six-week blocks of heavy battle periods, followed by seven days R & R at New Zealand or Australia. After the pilots finished their second tour of duty, most were scheduled to go home or reassigned. VMF 214 (Black Sheep Squadron) was transferred to Espiritu Santos in the New Hebrides Islands (now known as Vanuatu), Marine Air Group 11, to re-form. We departed Russell on a Navy A.P.C. to make the forty-mile trip to Guadalcanal. The trip took about ten hours, and the only food on board was raw potatoes and onions. The only armament on board was one 50-caliber, water-cooled Lewis Gun. We didn’t encounter any Japanese planes on this trip. If we had, we would have been sitting ducks.
The Island of Tulagi is located just across the bay from Guadalcanal and served as the torpedo boat base for the Navy. We boarded the U.S.S. Pinkney at this base for our trip to Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides. VMF 214 operated off of the fighter strip on the north end of the new island. It was here that Pappy Boyington joined 214. Replacement pilots and aircraft were also added, and training for the next trip north began hot and heavy.
The pilots, commanded by Pappy, went north for their first tour of duty operations off Munda Air Strip. Their missions were air-to-air over Bougainville, fighter cover for our bombers, and strafing missions against ground troops and Japanese Naval vessels. Four pilots were lost during the first combat tour. Following their seven days’ R & R, the pilots rejoined the squadron on Espiritu Santo to prepare for the next combat tour.
Six days before the pilots were to head north for the next combat tour, Pappy was summoned to The Group Commanders Office. When he returned to the squadron, he had a long face and told everyone that he had been reassigned as Operations Officer at Vella Lavella. Our exec (Frank Walton) suggested that Pappy hop in a jeep and pay a visit to General Moore and casually mention that he had been reassigned. Pappy did this and General Moore went ballistic. He got the Group Commander on the phone and got the assignment canceled. Pappy and the Colonel (Group Commander) never got along after that. As a matter of fact, the Colonel threatened to have Pappy court-martialed for leaving the base without permission and direct disobedience of orders, but it never came to pass.
There was some grumbling about wanting to go home, but it was assumed no one could leave until the second tour of duty had been completed. Pappy decided to have a squadron meeting outside during a pouring rainstorm. The pilots and ground crew wore their ponchos (rain gear). Pappy just wore shorts and a pith helmet. With the rain dripping from the edge of his pith helmet, he shouted, “When the time comes for you guys to go home, I’ll tell you when to go home!” Then he had the pilots fly their planes down to the bomber strip where each pilot could draw a case of beer from the Officers Club. Each pilot flew back with a case of beer in his lap, and we had a big squadron party. The next day, the pilots, commanded by Pappy, returned north to the next combat tour. This is when it was learned that Pappy had been shot down. Of course, nobody in the squadron believed he had been killed. The squadron broke up; some pilots went to Marine Group 11, then home. Later it was learned that Pappy had downed two Japanese planes on the day that he was shot down. Eight pilots were lost in the second tour of duty. VMF 214 Squadron was disbanded and all personnel not having the required time overseas were transferred to Marine Air Group 11, myself included.
In M.A.G. 11 my duties were to take Corsairs fresh from the factory and prepare them for combat. Many design improvements had been made in the F4U at the factory. The 50-caliber guns were replaced by 20-millimeter cannons. The tail wheel was elevated to improve the pilot’s vision and the canopy was redesigned to a one-piece bubble. The engine was improved to add super chargers and water injection. Our Vought service rep. was Ray DeLeva. We also had a visit from the Pratt & Whitney engine representative. His name was Charles Lindberg. Lindberg flew one of our rebuilt corsairs while he was with us. I was the Plane Captain. I returned to the United States in August 1944 for leave and reassignment.
When the squadron left Espiritu Santo, it returned to the States, reforming in El Toro, California. The squadron was assigned to the USS Franklin as CASD-16 (Carrier Air Support Detachment 16). When the Franklin deployed to the Far East, it took two 500-pounders on the flight deck, killing most of the original 214 personnel on board. I was home on emergency leave when the Squadron deployed, missing the above action.
When I returned from leave, I was transferred to the Naval Air Technical Training Center in Chicago. It was here where I was first exposed to (then, Top Secret) jet propulsion. This training really prepared me for my civilian pursuits.
In 1975 I saw Pappy at a high school in Arlington, Texas, where he had been invited to speak; then later we had a brief reunion. He had not changed—was still tough as ever. He was always popular with the squadron; we knew he would support us. He was a great commanding officer. The Japanese Pilot who claimed that he shot Pappy down also spoke when they visited the Arlington school. They became friends; although Pappy said that he was already in the P.O.W. camp on the day that the Japanese Pilot claimed that he shot Pappy down.
Frank Walton, the Squadron Exec., wrote a book entitled Once They Were Eagles, which documents the role the pilots played in the war effort. The pilots were the eagles, but we most certainly were “the wind beneath their wings.” When you have a Skipper like Pappy, each day is filled with memories that last a lifetime.
RECORD OF ACCOMPLISHMENTS BY BOYINGTON BLACK SHEEP
Pappy participated in 1776 individual combat missions and had 4195 total combat flight hours.
BLACK SHEEP ACES (five or more enemy aircraft shot down)
Boyington was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor by President Roosevelt. President Truman made the official presentation after Pappy was released from prison camp. All living Black Sheep Pilots were present at the ceremony. VMF 214 was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for their heroic work in The Solomons. The citation read, in part, “In some of the most bitterly contested air combat on record, contributed substantially to the establishment of an aerial beachhead over Rabaul…frequently outnumbered, but never outfought, Marine Fighter Squadron 214 achieved an outstanding combat record.”