Most Viewed Stories
Baa Baa Black Sheep: VMA-214 preserves legacy of Pappy Boyington
Click here to read about a special reunion of veterans at MCAS-Yuma and see videos of their stories on 'Pappy' Boyington and the 'Black Sheep' squadron
If military memorabilia could talk, the headquarters of the Marine Corps Air Station's “Black Sheep” Squadron VMA-214 could tell quite a colorful history about Maj. Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, the famous World War II aviator and recipient of the Medal of Honor.
Boyington's military prowess as the commander of the South Pacific Theater during the war inspired the 1970s television series “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” starring Robert Conrad. Boyington, who led one of the most famous Marine Corps fighter squadrons of World War II, nicknamed the Marine squadron the “Black Sheep.” That squadron, now stationed at MCAS, is currently designated the Marine Attack Squadron 214 (also known as VMA-214). A visit to the squadron's headquarters at MCAS reveals a lot of pride in its almost 70-year history.
“He was a famous guy,” said Capt. Stuart Wheeler, one of the VMA-214 squadron members who conducted a recent tour of the facility. He said the television show was one of the reasons that “made us very famous.” The squadron was well known in military circles, but the show made it familiar to people outside the squadron, he added.
Initially formed in Hawaii, the squadron moved to the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific. It was there that Boyington was made the commander. He re-christened it “The Black Sheep” and the name stuck.
Artifacts from Boyington's life adorn the upstairs walls in the MCAS VMA-214 squadron's halls and rooms in which military planning takes place. In fact, one room known as the Sheep's Pen contains what is perhaps the largest collection of Boyington memorabilia found anywhere, said Wheeler. Painted murals on the cinderblock walls in that room depict all the aircraft that the squadron has flown throughout its history, he explained.
The Sheep's Pen itself, staged to represent life on the Solomon Islands, features a centrally located small bar draped with bamboo both around it and hanging from the canopy above it. Also above the bar, a stained glass black sheep's head overlooks the room.
Beneath the bar's canopy are patches from various pilots' uniforms. The patches are somewhat inconspicuous though; the bamboo overhanging the canopy hides them rather well. On top of the bar lies a hand towel from the Black Sheep Brewery. Sitting atop rough two-by-four flooring, a small conference table provides an area for the Marines to plan events.
“The room used to be entirely a squadron bar where we would have professional meetings on tactics and responsible things,” explained Wheeler. “They sort of turned it into a conference room.”
Wheeler explained that the spirit of the room is intended to be like that of the Black Sheep circa 1942. On the floor of the 16-by-30-foot room sit two 50-caliber machine guns like those used on the Corsair F4U planes that they flew at the time. Another wall displays a number of pictures of pilots and group shots of squadrons, including one of the original squadron.
One anachronism on the floor of the east wall is the six-foot-long napalm bomb used as part of the décor. “They didn't have those back then,” said Wheeler.
One of the treasures in the Sheep's Pen is the collection of documents relating to Boyington's life — letters, photos and news articles — bound in loose-leaf notebooks. Quite a few of the photos bear Boyington's autograph.
“We are in good hands,” states one part of a letter written during the war. “The Black Sheep are overhead.” Wheeler said that the collection of all the Boyington memorabilia “has been kind of an ongoing process.”
“We have a lot of things — news clippings, pictures — that have been sent in over the years from friends and family members. We have more information here than probably anywhere else. This is a lot of old, old stuff that people would submit over the years,” he added, as he carefully turned the pages in one of the notebooks.
Some of the documents describe how certain Marines were shot down and what happened to them. “There is a lot of documentation and description of the battles — how they were fought and where they were,” Wheeler said.
He added that there are probably a lot of things that are not on the walls that could be displayed. Lack of available space prevents having more on display. “We occasionally try to rotate through and see what there is and display the legacy as best we can.”
A small upstairs room just down the hall from the Sheep's Pen also houses some unique Boyington memorabilia. In a glass case, for instance, lies Boyington's pocket watch, donated by his son. On the wall beside that is a sketch of Boyington drawn by a squadron mate.
Another glass case in the Boyington display houses the watch that Boyington was awarded when President Truman gave him the Medal of Honor. Around the top of the face of the watch are the words “Congressional Medal of Honor Society.”
On the watch's lower face beneath that inscription is “United States of America.” The word “Valor” is imprinted above the clock's number 12 on a cobalt blue background surrounded by stars. The center of the face displays an eagle.
Prior to Boyington's receiving the Medal of Honor, he had been shot down in Japan and presumed dead. President Roosevelt had awarded him the Medal of Honor posthumously, after which Boyington was discovered in a prisoner of war camp. It was after his release from prison that Boyington received his medal in person from Truman on Oct. 5, 1945.
On the west wall, documents framed with a charcoal matte display the squadron's history — the certificate of lineage beginning from 1942.
The collection even houses a bronze bust of Boyington, mounted on a cherry-stained wooden base. Boyington's close friend, Hap Halloran, whom Boyington met while in the Japanese prisoner of war camp in 1945 in Tokyo, had commissioned the bust in his memory.
“They remained friends for a very long time,” Wheeler explained. “Hap Halloran has been very active in ensuring that the Black Sheep and their history have been perpetuated.”
Enclosed in a flag case near the bronze bust is the squadron's flag when Boyington was going out, Wheeler said. Inscribed on a small brass plaque on the case are the words “VMA214 Black Sheep Squadron Flag, Major Gregory ‘Pappy' Boyington, Commanding Pacific Theater, World War II.”
On the wall is a photo of two planes, one of which is nose-diving into the sea. Produced in 1977, this photo by William J. Reynolds is identified as “Gregory ‘Pappy' Boyington downs his 21st enemy aircraft.”
One of Boyington's biographers, Bruce Gamble, in “Black Sheep One” described the risks that Boyington often took even during his youth, escaping “potentially deadly mishaps with only minor injuries.” Gamble said, “Throughout his life, as an extension of this supreme confidence, he would continue to exhibit apparent fearlessness. It was his nature to charge into situations that were dangerous, then ask the ‘what-ifs' later.”
Gamble also quotes one of Boyington's teachers: “‘Whenever Gregory made up his mind to do something, there was no turning him aside until he had accomplished whatever it was he had set out to do'.” Gamble states in a photo caption depicting Boyington with actor Robert Conrad that “No other fighter pilot in U.S. history has been the true-life main character of an action-adventure television series.”
The commitment and pride of the young men and women in the current Black Sheep Squadron at MCAS continues even today. Their pride is displayed in the decorative plaques that each squadron designs each time a squadron is deployed, Wheeler explained, sometimes including inside jokes.
One such plaque commemorates “60 Years Over the Pacific 1942-2002.” It displays a plastic replica of the Corsair plane that Boyington flew, alongside a replica of a modern bomber.
If the Boyington memorabilia could serve as an inspiration to the Black Sheep Squadron, there is ample opportunity for its doing so. Their Black Sheep logo is displayed on the exterior of the squadron's building above the entryway, reminding them of their heritage.
“I don't know if the memorabilia specifically is inspiration,” said Wheeler, “but I think the history and heritage of the Black Sheep and what they did is important. We try as much as possible to keep that. We have a lot of great history.”