By Robert O’Dowd
(IRVINE, CA) – Like the other Marines who fell out for a rifle inspection in the early 1960s for Colonel Gregory ‘Pappy’ Boyington, I was standing over a TCE plume, spreading off the base into the Orange County aquifer. We were at “Parade Rest,” awaiting a rifle inspection by Colonel Gregory Pappy Boyington. It was summer and the heat was beginning to melt the wax on our dress shoes. So far, no one had passed out from the heat. We were alternating between “Attention,” “Parade Rest” and “At Ease.” The officer in charge knew what he was doing. Vasovagal syncope (fainting) can happen when standing at “Parade Rest” for too long from the blood pooling in your legs. We were standing on concrete; anyone passing out would hit the concrete hard; we had been in formation for over an hour, but this was not ordinary rifle inspection.
This ws definitely red carpet treatment. Except for those on duty watches, about 250 Marines from H&HS-37 were in formation for the rifle inspection. Colonel Gregory Pappy Boyington, a WW II Medal of Honor recipient and the highest Marine fighter ace from the war, would be visiting the Marine Wing Services Group 37 today. This was a big deal. Medal of Honor winners did not pay visits every day. Pappy Boyington was a living legend among Marines.
In 1963, the Vietnam War was yet to explode into a national catastrophe. John Lennon and the Beatles didn’t leave for their first tour of the United States until February 1964. We were too young to vote for Jack Kennedy or anyone else for that matter but all of us knew that Pappy Boyington was a Marine Corps fighter pilot and the WW II leader of VMF-214, Black Sheep, one the best fighter squadrons in the Corps. So, the order to fall out for a rifle inspection by Pappy Boyington got our attention.
Our orders were to fall out in Class B uniform with rifles at 0800. The review and inspection would take place on the MWSG-37 aircraft apron between Hangar 297 and Group Headquarters. My memory on some of the details is fuzzy. This took place 50 years ago. However, I’ll never forget the greeting we got from Colonel Pappy Boyington and his dress.
In 1963, I was a young lance corporal attached to MWSG-37, working in the Wing Supply Support Division in Hangar 296, just off the flight line. MWSG-37 was the most industrialized portion of the airfield. Hangars 296 and 297 were each over 200,000 square feet in area with three hangar bays and mezzanines for shops and administrative work space. Both hangars were built in 1944 and were still standing on my last visit to the base in 2009. The bad news was the TCE plume spreading into Orange County would be traced to these hangars in the 1990s. In the 1960s, none of us knew that this sweet smelling degreaser was a deadly carcinogen.
We were quartered in a Quonset hut in the Northwest quadrant of the base on the same street as the base hospital, a short walk to the main gate on Trabuco Road. Our Quonset hut was sectioned off into cubicles with four Marines, individual footlockers, and double racks housed in an area of about 10 ft by 15 feet. A row of double walk lockers served to separate each foursome from the next.
Our Quonset hut was not insulated and cold wasn’t a problem most of the year. When the Santa Ana winds blew from September to March and the night temperatures dropped, we slept with two blankets and our horse blanket (green wool overcoat). There were few amenities. One black and white T.V. set at the other end of the hut. We never had the time or interest to watch T.V. This was Southern California, the weather was great most of the year, and for the few of us not from the West Coast, this was paradise.
Since this was a rifle inspection, we would need our M-14s cleaned and ready for inspection. The night before the inspection, the bolt to the rifle rack running down the center of the hut was unlocked, allowing us to get access to our rifles and their cleaning kits. Our tropical dress uniforms, recently pressed and cleaned were on hangars in one of our two wall lockers. Everything we owned was stored in a wooden foot locker and the two medal wall lockers, the kind you see in high schools that kids use to keep their books in. By taps at 2200, our dress shoes were spit shined, rifles cleaned and replaced in the rifle rack. We were ready for inspection and, when Colonel Pappy Boyington stopped in front of us, we were prepared to execute a sharp inspection arms.
We were wearing diapers when Pappy Boyington flew Marine Corps fighter during WW II. The TV series “Baa Baa Black Sheep” would not be aired on NBC in 1976-77. In 1964, we knew that Pappy Boyington was the leading Marine Corps ace of WW II. Many of our fathers and family served in the military in WW II as well as many of the officers and senior NCOs we served under. A WW II Medal of Honor winner was a genuine hero.
After graduating from the University of Washington with a B.S. in aeronautical engineering in 1934, Boyington went to work for Boeing as an engineer. Now married he was ineligible to become a pilot in the Marine Corps. Ignoring the rules, Boyington, who was raised by his stepfather and used the name Hallenbeck, obtained a copy of his birth certificate and learned the name of his real father, Charles Boyington. His parents had divorced when he was only an infant. ‘Stretching the rules,’ Boyington applied as a cadet pilot under the name Gregory Boyington. There was no record of marriage for Gregory Boyington. The ruse worked.
By all accounts, Boyington was an excellent pilot. There were no air-to-air missiles, radar, or electronic gear in those days. Fighter pilots depended on their eyes and reflexes. After completing flight training at the Naval Air Station, Pensacola, Florida, he was designated a naval aviator on March 11, 1937. The next four years he saw duty at Quantico with Aircraft One, Fleet Marine Force and the 2nd Marine Aircraft Group in San Diego where he flew off of the USS Lexington and USS Yorktown. In 1940, Boyington returned to Pensacola as an instructor.
In August 1941, Boyington resigned his Marine Corps commission and joined the American Volunteer Group (Flying Tigers) in the service of the Chinese government. China was at war with Japan and needed skilled pilots. The chance to fly in combat plus a salary of $500 a month and a $400 per confirmed kill bonus were all Boyington needed to know. Here was his chance to get out of debt and fly combat missions, too. The United States was at peace at the time, but President Roosevelt wanted to help the Chinese government. No one in our government objected to the Chinese through the ruse of an American company recruiting American pilots to fight the Japanese.
Claire Chennault, a former U.S. Army Air Force officer, had assembled a force of 100 Curtis P-40s and 100 American military pilots to defend the Burma Road. Now twenty-eight years old, Boyington was eager to join the volunteers.
Boyington definitely learned how to fly the Army’s Curtis P-40. War had broken out with Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The entry of the U.S. into the war had a major impact on Flying Tigers.
Pilots with the Flying Tigers were going to be absorbed into the U.S. Army Air Corps. This didn’t sit well with Boyington. Already on strained relationships with Claire Chennault and his Flying Tiger superiors, Boyington resigned from the Flying Tigers on April 21st. He returned to New York via Calcutta, Karachi, and Bombay to rejoin the Marines.
With his combat experience, Boyington was able to obtain a Major’s commission in the Corps. In the Solomon Islands, Major Boyington assumed command of a group of pilots who were not already assigned to a squadron, and they would go on to be known as the “Black Sheep Squadron”. At 31, he was older than the other pilots who would call him “Pappy.” It stuck.
Flying a Vought F4U Corsairs in VMF-214, he was credited with shooting down 26 enemy aircraft in 1943-44. In early February 1944, Major Boyington was shot down, but his luck ran out. He was picked-up by a Japanese submarine, and spent the rest of the war as a POW in Japan. In 1947, Colonel Boyington was medically retired from the Marine Corps. Now, almost 20 years later, Colonel Pappy Boyington would be visiting El Toro.
The rifle inspection would take place on the aircraft apron between Hangar 297 and Group Headquarters. I remember the ‘cattle car’ pick-up outside our squadron’s Quonset hut. The ‘cattle car’ was a cargo trailer converted by adding bus doors to the right side, sealing the back doors and hanging straps from the overhead (ceiling) for passengers to hang onto. The ‘cattle car’ was pulled by a truck utilizing a fifth-wheel and it was our normal transport from the Quonset hut to the hangars. It was a little tight this day since there were not enough straps for everyone to hang onto. With our rifles slung over the shoulder, we were stacked up like sardines in a can.
It was only a short drive to the MWSG-37 area. We knew the drill. Fall in at attention. We stood in formation—alternating between attention and parade rest—forever or at least it seemed that way to us as we sweated in our tropical uniforms.
A few of the WW II veterans told us about Colonel Boyington. With his reputation for hard drinking and dislike for regulations, we didn’t know what to expect. “Just don’t screw-up. If he stops in front of you, come to a snappy inspection arms.”
I’ll never forget the greeting we got from Pappy Boyington and his dress. We were at parade rest, when Pappy Boyington, in the company of the group commander, came into view. Pappy was dressed in white from head to toe. He wore a white tropical suit with matching shoes, and white, wide brim hat. Talk about standing out in a crowd. Now age 51, he looked frail and older than his age; he had the look of someone who was just recovering from a major operation.
Medal of Honor recipients deserve a salute, regardless of their rank. General grade officers salute privates who wear the Medal of Honor. We were under arms so the proper salute was “Present Arms.” The order for “Present, Arms” rang out loud and clear. Two hundred Marines executed the order in two movements. We were anticipating “Order Arms” when Pappy looked our way, smiled, waived several times; he shouted something to us as he continued his casual walk across the apron into Hangar 297. I couldn’t hear his exact words but it sounded like, “Thanks. Good to see you, too.” No walking the ranks. No questions, “Marine, where are you from? How long have you been in the Corps?” No rifle inspection.
He didn’t look like a Marine hero. Forget the poster images of Marines. This was a man who lived, fought and survived bitter battles with the Japanese over the Pacific. One mistake in a dog fight and you bought the farm.
In 1963, Pappy Boyington had nothing to prove to the world. Remembering his frail appearance, I thought “this Marine is not long for the world.” Boy was I wrong. Even though he looked sickly, Colonel Pappy Boyington lived another 25 years.
Colonel Gregory Pappy Boyington was born in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho on December 4, 1912. He died in Fresno, California of cancer on January 11, 1988 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.” [i]
If you should visit Arlington National Cemetery, ask one of the guides for the location of Colonel Gregory Pappy Boyington’s grave. Stop by, save a prayer for Colonel Boyington and thank him for his service.
[i] Pappy Boyington’s Medal of Honor citation: For extraordinary heroism above and beyond the call of duty as Commanding Officer of Marine Fighting Squadron TWO FOURTEEN in action against enemy Japanese forces in Central Solomons Area from 12 September 1943 to 3 January 1944. Consistently outnumbered throughout successive hazardous flights over heavily defended hostile territory, Major Boyington struck at the enemy with daring and courageous persistence, leading his squadron into combat with devastating results to Japanese shipping, shore installations and aerial forces. Resolute in his efforts to inflict crippling damage on the enemy, Major Boyington led a formation of twenty-four fighters over Kahili on 17 October and, persistently circling the airdrome where sixty hostile aircraft were grounded, boldly challenged the Japanese to send up planes. A superb airman and determined fighter against overwhelming odds, Major Boyington personally destroyed 26 of the many Japanese planes shot down by his squadron and by his forceful leadership developed the combat readiness in his command which was a distinctive factor in the Allied aerial achievements in this vitally strategic area.
Robert O’Dowd served in the 1st, 3rd and 4th Marine Aircraft Wings during 52 months of active duty in the 1960s. While at MCAS El Toro for two years, O’Dowd worked and slept in a Radium 226 contaminated work space in Hangar 296 in MWSG-37, the most industrialized and contaminated acreage on the base.
Robert is a two time cancer survivor and disabled veteran. Robert graduated from Temple University in 1973 with a bachelor’s of business administration, majoring in accounting, and worked with a number of federal agencies, including the EPA Office of Inspector General and the Defense Logistics Agency.
After retiring from the Department of Defense, he teamed up with Tim King of Salem-News.com to write about the environmental contamination at two Marine Corps bases (MCAS El Toro and MCB Camp Lejeune), the use of El Toro to ship weapons to the Contras and cocaine into the US on CIA proprietary aircraft, and the murder of Marine Colonel James E. Sabow and others who were a threat to blow the whistle on the illegal narcotrafficking activity. O’Dowd and King co-authored BETRAYAL: Toxic Exposure of U.S. Marines, Murder and Government Cover-Up. The book is available as a soft cover copy and eBook from Amazon.com. See: http://www.amazon.com/Betrayal-Exposure-Marines-Government-Cover-Up/dp/1502340003.