It was in the second week of September 1943 that everything started to go well for VMF-214 Black Sheep CO Gregory “Pappy” Boyington…
It was in the second week of September 1943 that everything started to go well for Greg Boyington.
On Sep. 12, Boyington climbed into an F4U to lead 19 other Black Sheep Corsairs up to the airfield on Banika in the Russell Islands, which would be their first operating base. As told by Bill Yenne in his book America’s Few, Marine Aces of the South Pacific, true to the vagabond image of the Black Sheep, they would operate out of several bases, including Munda and Barakoma on Vella Lavella, during their first six-week tour.
Two days later, Boyington and the new VMF-214 flew their first combat mission. They were one of several squadrons escorting SBD Dauntlesses, TBF Avengers, and USAAF B-24 Liberator heavy bombers against the big Japanese base at Kahili on Bougainville. It was on the same day and on the same mission that Don Sapp’s first two aerial victories were part of VMF-222’s first five, but the Black Sheep did not connect with the enemy that day.
“The clouds being what they were, no [Japanese] planes could find us,” Boyington complained in his memoirs. “Damn the luck.”
The next day found the Black Sheep escorting a photoreconnaissance mission that the Japanese chose not to challenge; but everything changed on Sep. 16. Boyington took off at 1300hrs, leading two dozen VMF-214 Corsairs in six divisions of four each. While most of the aviators were new to combat, Boyington installed veterans to lead each division. The after-action report boasted that all 24 Corsairs got off the ground in the space of seven minutes. To say that they were eager was an understatement.
At 1350hrs, they rendezvoused with Dauntlesses and Avengers heading north against the antiaircraft gun nests on the fortified island of Balalae, a short distance southeast of Bougainville.
With VMF-214 flying high cover at 21,500 feet, and P-40s and US Navy Hellcats farther below, the strike force came over the target out of the west at 13,000 feet one hour after the rendezvous. Here, they were greeted by as many as 40 dark, brownish-green Zeros and Hamps, which, according to John Begert in the after-action report, “spilled out of the clouds.”
As the Black Sheep dived to attack, a Zero slow-rolled past Begert, who opened fire and watched the enemy aircraft burst into flames from the underside of its engine. It was just 30 seconds later that another Zero passed through Begert’s view, slow-rolling to escape another Corsair. Begert rolled with the enemy fighter, opened fire and watched him go into the sea.
Stan Bailey went after another Zero, chasing it downward as his wingman, Bob Alexander, dutifully disrupted a pack of three that tried to get on Bailey’s tail. While Bailey watched his Zero, which was starting to spew smoke, disappear into a cloud, Alexander turned toward a pair of Zeros and made a rear approach on the leader’s wingman.
At 200 yards, Alexander watched his bullets stitching their way along the Zero’s tail, mid-fuselage, and cockpit. Small pieces flaked off and smoke belched from the engine. As he passed over the Zero’s right wing, he looked down into the cockpit. Here he saw, as VMF-214 air combat information officer Frank Walton colorfully described in the after-action report, “flames come up from under the instrument panel and immediately fill the whole cockpit, making it look like a movie kill.”
Meanwhile, Bill Case, leading another division, had dived on seven Zeros flying at 16,000 feet. Seeing the Corsairs coming, two Zeros climbed to meet them. All four members of Case’s division took short bursts at the Zeros, which banked to the right, rolled over and made overhead passes on the Corsairs as they passed by.
Case corkscrewed down, attacked several Zeros and chased one until it was trailing smoke, but like Bailey’s it disappeared into a cloud. Case’s wingman, Rolland “Rollie” Rinabarger, reported nine Zeros at nine o’clock high, but they made “only short, ducking, ineffectual passes.”
When the Zeros and Hamps had spilled out of the clouds, Boyington circled left with his wingman, Don “Mo” Fisher, about 200 yards behind him. When a Zero rolled in between them and lined up to make a starboard pass on Boyington, Fisher opened fire. The Zero rolled left, and when it was inverted, Fisher put a short burst into it. The Zero exploded into a fireball.
A second Zero then appeared behind Boyington. Fisher fired but missed. As the Zero rolled, Fisher took another shot, then followed the now-smoking Zero until it caught fire and spiraled down.
Boyington, meanwhile, was watching a Hamp that overtook and passed him. According to Walton’s after-action report, Boyington merely “flicked his gun switch and gave him a long burst.”
In his memoir, however, Boyington admitted that it had not been so simple, writing that “it seemed like an eternity before I could get everything turned on and the guns charged.”
After that interval, which was closer to seconds than to eternity, he fired a long burst at about 50 yards, watching the enemy’s cockpit burst into flame as the Hamp rolled to the left and went straight down. When this aircraft hit the water, Boyington was watching Fisher out of the corner of his eye as he scored his second. Boyington passed a pair of Corsairs and continued a left turn under a layer of clouds. Seeing Japanese aircraft all around him, Boyington circled back up through the clouds to gain altitude and headed southeasterly toward Vella Lavella in parallel with the bombers coming out of their bomb runs.
He picked out another Hamp that was attacking the bombers and made a diving pass from above and behind. Opening fire at 300 yards, Boyington bore down, firing on the Japanese fighter, which exploded into a cloud of debris as Boyington closed to just 50 feet. The explosion was so close that Boyington instinctively “threw up [his] hand in front of [his] face in a feeble attempt to ward off these pieces.”
Climbing to the right into the sun, Boyington saw Hamps diving on a pair of US Navy Hellcats. He dived to 10,000 feet to hit them just as they climbed out after overrunning the Hellcats.
Boyington opened fire on a Hamp at 300 yards and stayed with him as he looped up and over. At the top of the loop, the Hamp started to burn and dived uncontrollably as Boyington raced past.
Gaining altitude once more, Boyington could see the enemy fighters at around 6,000 feet as they began to break off from their attacks on the bombers and head north toward Bougainville. Picking out a lone Zero, Boyington “decided to make a run on this baby.”
The Japanese pilot began making what Boyington later described as “an ever-so-gentle turn.”
“As long as he is turning, he knows he isn’t safe,” Boyington thought to himself. “It looks too easy.”
He was right. Boyington had taken the bait.
“Sure enough, there was his little pal coming along behind,” Boyington recalled. “He was just waiting for the sucker, me, to commence my pass on his mate.”
Turning into a storm of 20mm and 7.7mm gunfire, Boyington dived to make a head-on pass against the wingman. Fortunately, the streams of tracers fell low, while Boyington’s own gunfire found its mark, ripping up the underside of the Mitsubishi fuselage. Trailing smoke, it plunged into the sea below.
Boyington climbed back to 10,000 feet, but just as he turned for home, he saw a lone aircraft below at about 3,000 feet, flying westward toward Vella Lavella. Then he saw two others, headed the opposite way, toward Balalae. As he watched, the latter, which proved to be Zeros, attacked the former, which was a Corsair. Telling the story in the VMF-214 after-action report, Frank Walton wrote “low on gas from his long runs at high speed and his dives and climbs during his engagements, nevertheless, [Boyington] made a run on the two Zeros, opening fire at extremely long range to drive them off the friendly plane.”
As one Zero climbed straight up, Boyington followed him “holding the trigger down all the way.”
When the Zero slow-rolled and burst into flames, Boyington was also on his back, and he found himself in a spin. Boyington recovered from the spin and, as mentioned in his memoirs, he took a shot at the other Zero. This is not mentioned in the after-action report.
Walton did remark in the report that Boyington landed with only 10 gallons of fuel and 30 rounds of ammunition left. Boyington said that he was so low on fuel that he had had to land at Munda to refuel before returning the Banika. Walton noted that Boyington returned to Banika at 1755hrs, more than an hour later than any of the others.
America’s Few, Marine Aces of the South Pacific is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: Jim Laurier via Aviation Art Hangar, Cizek Martin via wikipedia, U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps