Maj Greg “Pappy” Boyington was shot down on Jan. 3, 1944 near Rabaul in circumstances which continue to be misrepresented.
The activities of Maj Greg “Pappy” Boyington and his Corsair squadron were immortalized in the 1976 television series “Baa Baa Black Sheep”, based on his similarly titled autobiography. As explained by Michael John Claringbould in the book F4U Corsair versus A6M Zero-sen Rabaul and the Solomons 1943-44, Boyington received the nickname “Gramps” because aged 31 when he commanded VMF-214, he was a good decade older than most of his pilots. This nickname in turn was changed to “Pappy” in a variation on “The Whiffenpoof Song,” whose revised 1909 lyrics were penned by one of his pilots, fellow ace 1Lt Paul Mullen. This modified moniker was quickly adopted by war correspondents, of whom there were many in the theater in late 1943.
After leading many combat missions, and having claimed 22 kills (all of them Zero-sens – he also claimed two aerial victories in China with the American Volunteer Group in February 1942) in the Pacific theater, Boyington was shot down on Jan. 3, 1944 near Rabaul in circumstances which continue to be misrepresented. At 0640 hrs Boyington departed Torokina to lead a substantive fighter sweep over Rabaul. He was in tactical command of 48 fighters – eight VMF-214 Corsairs, 20 more F4Us from VMF-211 and VMF-223, and 20 F6Fs from VF-33. En route, two Corsairs from VMF-223 and four from VMF-214 aborted, beset with an assortment of electrical, hydraulic, and oxygen problems.
The three staggered formations arrived overhead Saint George’s Channel at between 20,000–24,000ft, whereupon Boyington led them in a wide turn to starboard over the area in poor, hazy visibility, with a solid overcast at 28,000ft. First contact for Boyington’s division of four Corsairs from VMF-214 was at 0815 hrs overhead Tobera, home to the 253rd Kokutai. Here, the Corsairs fought an estimated 12 Zero-sen at 19,000ft, with Capt George Ashmun, 1Lt Bruce Matheson, and Boyington each being credited with a kill.
However, Ashmun was shot down and posted Missing in Action and Boyington’s fighter was hit by a 20mm shell that shattered the Corsair’s belly and wounded the pilot in the legs, head, and forearm. He descended, then leveled off, and flew briefly over Saint George’s Channel. Then his fuel tank caught fire, and he broadcast he was ditching. At around 0845 hrs Boyington jumped out low, his parachute deploying just above the waves. He was soon picked up by a Japanese submarine and incarcerated at Rabaul.
Boyington’s division had fought a chutai of Zero-sens from the 253rd Kokutai, which had sent aloft 37 A6Ms (four of which toted 30kg aerial bombs) in three chutai of four fighter shotai under the leadership of Lt Kenji Nakagawa. The kokutai claimed seven Corsairs destroyed, awarded as a group and not individually. Nakagawa’s chutai of 11 (only three in Nakagawa’s shotai) reached 19,000ft first, and it appears likely these were the aircraft engaged by VMF-214. All 37 of Nakagawa’s Zero-sens returned safely to Tobera at 0900 hrs, with one pilot slightly injured and another airframe damaged by gunfire.
Also airborne from Lakunai, 15 miles to the north of Tobera, were 33 A6Ms from the 204th Kokutai. These aircraft were mainly engaged by VMF-211 and VMF-223, and Capts J. W. Ireland and R. L. Hopkins from the latter unit claimed confirmed kills. Ireland fired at one fighter during a head on pass, claiming that he saw it “flame, break up, and fall away.” Hopkins had a surreal experience when a Zero-sen faltering under his guns turned onto its back the pilot fell halfway out of the cockpit, apparently dead. VMF-211 claimed only probables, thus making it likely that Ireland and Hopkins despatched the only two Zero-sens lost that the day, flown by 204th Kokutai pilots FPOs Hideshi Tanimoto and Yoshige Kitake.
Boyington claimed three victories during this last combat, two of which were unwitnessed. Total US claims were seven Zero-sens confirmed destroyed and five more as probables, whilst the A6M pilots claimed eight Corsairs and one Hellcat shot down. In reality, the actual losses show that this was an even fight, with each side having two aircraft shot down.
Knowing that Boyington had ditched, two divisions of Corsairs from VMF-214 took off from Torokina mid afternoon and conducted an unsuccessful one hour search for the downed ace. Boyington was subsequently sent to Japan as a PoW, returning home on Sep. 12, 1945, when he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Curiously, this particular aerial battle continued to be “fought” for decades after the war, when 253rd Kokutai participant FPO3c Masajiro Kawato migrated to the USA and later claimed it was he who had shot down Boyington. The unit’s operations log confirms that “Mike” Kawato was indeed among Nakagawa’s pilots that day, although due to his inexperience, he was flying the third aircraft in a four fighter shotai, specifically assigned to fly overhead cover for those Zero-sens actually engaged in combat. Nonetheless, the legend attracted crowds at airshows, where Kawato and Boyington would set up stalls near each other selling their wares, and trade friendly barbs to their mutual benefit.
F4U Corsair versus A6M Zero-sen Rabaul and the Solomons 1943-44 is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Navy and Jim Laurier via Aviation Art Hangar