Aviation History

The story of “Lulubelle,” Pappy Boyington’s F4U Corsair Nose Art that Never was

Pappy Boyington and Lulubelle

Col. Gregory “Pappy” Boyington (ret.), USMC was the “bad boy” hero of World War II that America needed in the Pacific Theatre. He led an ad hoc squadron of fliers known as the Black Sheep. The exploits of Pappy and his cohorts were captured in Boyington’s autobiography, “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” in 1958. He writes well after World War II when he has had time to reflect on his combat actions and time being a prisoner of war. But, as reported by Home of Heroes, Boyington acknowledges the bad boy reputation was warranted and maybe cultivated. He proves there is hope for greatness even through the screw-ups, daredevils, and drunks.

In 1976, NBC launched a weekly action-adventure series called Baa, Baa, Black Sheep, loosely based on Greg Boyington’s autobiography. The show lasted two seasons and propelled Boyington back into the national spotlight, making him a popular attraction at air shows across the country.

For the next ten years, he marketed books, prints, and even an LP recording of his life’s adventures. As explained by Bruce Gamble in his book Swashbucklers and Black Sheep: A Pictorial History of Marine Fighting Squadron 214 in World War II, one popular item was a poster that showed Boyington standing beside a Corsair decorated with the same graphics used in 1943: the number 86, victory flags below the cockpit (now increased to twenty-eight), and Lulubelle, the nickname of his girlfriend, on the fuselage. Or so everyone thought.

Boyington autographed countless copies of this poster during his run of popularity at air shows, starting the myth that his World War II fighter was named Lulubelle.

Lucy Malcolmson

In the decades since, dozens of artists, model makers, die-cast companies, and custom decal printers issued innumerable renditions of Boyington’s F4U. Many portrayed it as his personal plane, though he never flew it in combat, let alone with such markings. More importantly, Lulubelle was not the correct name.

Boyington’s deeds in the Southwest Pacific were inspired by Lucy Malcolmson, a former showgirl he met aboard the SS Brazil in 1942. (He had just quit the AVG; she was married to a much older GM executive in Bombay and was traveling to safer shores.) They began an affair that lasted three years, and her pet name, Lucybelle, adorned the original Corsair. After the war, Lucy divorced her husband in order to marry Boyington, but at the proverbial last minute he dumped her in favor of a blond bombshell, Frances Baker.

Lulubelle or Lucybelle?

A storm of negative publicity followed, along with a bitter dispute. Boyington had appointed Lucy as the executor of an allotment for his children from a previous marriage, and by 1945 the deposits added up to some $15,000. He sued Lucy to recover the money, but the courts ruled her favor and Boyington lost the entire amount. In the years that followed, Boyington refused to acknowledge his former sweetheart. When he staged the photograph in the late 1970s, he changed the plane’s name to Lulubelle, thinking no one would be the wiser. For decades he was right.

In the only official photo that survived from the original publicity shoot, the first letters of Lucybelle were obscured by an individual standing on the Corsair’s wing. Unknown to Boyington, some of his pilots jumped into the Corsair for their own “hero shots.” For many years, the photos remained hidden, but eventually they revealed the truth.

For decades, this was thought to be the only historic photo of the Corsair showing the markings applied for the publicity event. The fact that the name was partially obscured seemed to authenticate Boyington’s version.

Gregory “Pappy” Boyington

U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) fighter ace Gregory “Pappy” Boyington (Dec. 4, 1912 – Jan. 11, 1988) was initially a USMC aviator with the Pacific fleet before being recruited by the legendary “Flying Tigers” (1st American Volunteer Group) in the Republic of China Air Force in Burma at the end of 1941 and part of 1942, during the military conflict between China and Japan, and the beginning of World War II.

In September 1942, he rejoined the Marine Corps, in early 1943, he deployed to the South Pacific and began flying combat missions in the legendary F4U Corsair fighter and in September 1943, he took command of Marine fighter squadron VMF-214 (“Black Sheep”). In January 1944, Boyington, outnumbered by Japanese “Zero” planes, was shot down into the Pacific Ocean after downing one of the enemy planes. He was captured by a Japanese submarine crew and was held as a prisoner of war for more than a year and a half. Boyington was released shortly after the surrender of Japan, and a few days before the official surrender documents were signed.

He received both the Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross.

But this photo, showing Jim Hill in the cockpit, proves that the name written on the cowling was indeed Lucybelle.

Photo credit: Frank Walton and Jim Hill

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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