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Black Sheep: The Life of Pappy Boyington

Black Sheep: The Life of Pappy Boyington by John F. Wukovits. Naval Institute Press, 2011, 288 pp.

Col Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, one of the most colorful, controversial, and complicated characters in military history, is considered a cult hero by some and a pariah by others—an irreplaceable leader or a liability as a follower. Regardless of his place in history, Boyington undoubtedly left an indelible mark on the American military landscape. Black Sheep by John F. Wukovits paints a complete and unbiased picture of this man.

The author begins framing Boyington’s character by detailing his difficult upbringing, focusing on his quest to find acceptance—a reoccurring theme in this book. Boyington had a series of abusive father figures and, for all practical purposes, an absent mother. To complicate matters further, he did not even find out who his real father was until he left home. Aviation became his first outlet for acceptance, and Boyington used the heroes of early aviation as role models to replace the ones from home.

Boyington’s quest to find his rightful place in society continued into his early adult life. Factory work proved unsatisfying, and college sports merely provided an outlet for his pent-up aggression. Even his early time in the Marine Corps was riddled with failure, insubordination, and alcohol abuse. Though his skills as an aviator forecasted a promising career, his personal and professional troubles led him to join the famed American Volunteer Group (AVG) in attempt once again to restart his life, looking for some acceptance.

Disappointment after disappointment characterized his time with the Flying Tigers. Boyington always seemed to miss out on the action, a problem that he attributed to the disdain that Flying Tiger leader Claire Chennault had for him. Furthermore, leadership opportunities eluded Boyington—further evidence, at least in his own mind, that everybody was out to get him. As his time with the AVG ended, Boyington fought hard to get back to the Marine Corps, where he thought he could be appreciated and accepted.

The timing of his return to the Corps could not have been more perfect. Shortly thereafter, he found himself in command of the famed Black Sheep Squadron—a perfect fit for the prodigal son, who finally got his opportunity to lead, and his men unhesitatingly followed. Boyington led by example, shielding his men from outside distractions so they could concentrate on dominating the air in the South Pacific. He and his Black Sheep compiled an unmatched record in the mere 84 days that his squadron was on the front. After spending some time as a prisoner of war, Boyington returned to civilian life. But the same troubles that had haunted him before reappeared, stymieing a lucrative postwar career that awaited him as a Medal of Honor recipient and war hero.

Wukovits’s depth and breadth of research into the life of Pappy Boyington are remarkable. Rather than solely focusing on his subject’s exploits, the author paints a picture of the man from all angles. It is no secret that Boyington had his faults, but one must first understand them in order to appreciate his successes. Wukovits pulled stories of Boyington from a variety of first-person accounts, both complimentary and caustic—an analysis that this reviewer considers completely objective. Readers can draw their own conclusions and judge him without any implied bias from the author. Furthermore, Wukovits makes the book easy to read by dividing Boyington’s story into manageable, digestible vignettes.

Boyington’s story is an important one for Airmen to know and understand. He was the classic disillusioned follower who faltered when confronted with incompatible leadership styles. Had his early leaders understood Boyington’s potential, he could have experienced success much earlier—evidenced by his achievements in leading the Black Sheep Squadron as his superiors recognized and molded his talent. Boyington’s story also offers an example of how a disillusioned follower can hamper his own potential by entering a downward spiral of self-pity rather than finding areas where he can contribute, regardless of how small the contribution may seem. Lastly, the success of Boyington and his Black Sheep allowed them to modify their tactics by going on the offensive with airpower. This development changed the strategy of the air campaign in the South Pacific for both the Americans and the Japanese, turning the tide of the war and demonstrating how tactical success can have far-reaching strategic implications.

Although Boyington failed miserably as a follower, his leadership proved vital not only to the men of the Black Sheep Squadron but also to the air campaign in the South Pacific. Regardless of Boyington’s triumphs, some individuals cannot see past his well-documented failures. As Wukovits puts it, however, success as a leader is measured not by that leader or his superiors but by those he leads (p. 144).

Capt Nicholas Foster, USAF
Seymour Johnson AFB, North Carolina

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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