Black Sheep One is the first biography of legendary warrior and World War II hero Gregory Boyington. In 1936, Boyington became an aviation cadet and earned the “wings of gold” of a naval aviator. After only a short period on active duty, however, he was “encouraged” to resign from the Marine Corps due to his unconventional behavior. Remarkably, this inauspicious beginning was just the prologue to a heroic career as an American fighter pilot and innovative combat leader. With the onset of World War II, when skilled pilots were in demand, he became the commander of an ad hoc squadron of flying leathernecks. Led by Medal of Honor winner Boyington, the legendary Black Sheep set a blistering pace of aerial victories against the enemy.
Though many have observed that when the shooting stops, combat heroes typically just fade away, nothing could be further from the truth for Boyington. Blessed with inveterate luck, the stubbornly independent Boyington lived a life that went beyond what even the most imaginative might expect. Exhaustively researched and richly detailed, here is the complete story of this American original.
About the Author
Brice Gamble is the author of The Black Sheep: The Definitive Account of Marine Fighting Squadron 214 in World War II. A retired naval flight officer, Gamble lives in Hendersonville, North Carolina.
Read an Excerpt
1 Rough and Tumble The vista that greeted Meriwether Lewis and William Clark as they trekked through Lolo Pass was breathtaking. Leading a congressionally funded expedition across the Bitterroot Range of the Rocky Mountains in September 1805, they became the first known whites to admire the soaring granite peaks and swift, cold rivers of what would later become the panhandle of Idaho. It had taken them sixteen months to come this far, and another year would pass before they returned to their own civilization. Meanwhile, the Shoshone Indians who guided them through the mountains surely saw the white men's presence as a sign that more would follow. More did, just a trickle, barely noticeable at first. French trappers and missionaries arrived from Canada, giving their descriptive names to some of the tribes, the Nez Perce and Coeur d'Alene among them. For years the hardy trappers and devout reformers were the only newcomers to venture into the unforgiving mountains, but other settlers were eventually drawn by the promise of abundant resources and spectacular beauty. Then came the Civil War, after which the westward expansion mushroomed, precipitated by the joining of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads in 1869. The banging home of a ceremonial gold spike completed an engineering feat that changed the Indians' ways foreverand changed the land. From the transcontinental railroad a network of tracks spread across the West like a crazy web. Adventure seekers, industrialists, and immigrants looking for the American Dream rode the rails and wagon trails to newly accessible regions. The seekers surveyed vast regions of timber, found gold and silver, discovered bonanzas of natural bounty; the industrialists found ways to exploit these finds and extract the riches from the land. As the railroads brought more people, the towns grew in proportion, requiring ever greater quantities of lumber. In 1902, a trained timber estimator named Joseph Boyington left his children in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and moved to the "stovepipe" of Idaho, not far from the trail blazed by Lewis and Clark. The surrounding mountains held an enormous belt of white pine, reputedly the largest stand in the world, providing plenty of opportunity for a "timber cruiser" such as he. If a landowner wished to sell acreage to a lumber company, Boyington could determine how much usable timber it held, depending on the size of trees the company wanted to log. By traversing the property at specified distances, or "chains," and counting the trees meeting the desired diameter, he could estimate the total board feet of lumber and > assess its value. The lure of opportunity brought Boyington to Dalton Gardens, a peaceful neighborhood of small farms and apple orchards north of Coeur d'Alene. Back in Eau Claire, he had farmed and was proprietor of a wholesale feed and flour business in addition to estimating lumber. A wife named Hannah had been with him at one time, though for the past fifteen years she had not been listed as a member of his household. Of his four children, the three youngest remained in Eau Claire to work or complete their education; the eldest left for Evanston, Illinois, and enrolled in the school of dentistry at Northwestern University. This was Charles Barker Boyington, born on August 31, 1875. He completed his schooling in 1897, then clerked in Eau Claire until a bookkeeping job took him to Montana for a few years. After a visit to Eau Claire, he left again in 1902 to pursue a doctor of dental science degree. Three years latermaking him nearly thirtyhe collected his diploma in a ceremony at the Garrick Theater on Randolph Street, then left Evanston for the promise of the West. His destination: Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, a picturesque lakeside town on the western slopes of the Rocky Mountains, just a few miles from his father's home. Charles Boyington did not own a horse, buggy, or riding equipment. Thus, like most people doing business in town, he walked. Setting up his first practice, he hung his shingle outside an office in the Dollar Block, then equipped his workplace with the latest furniture, including a fancy dental cabinet of dark wood. There was an autoclave for sterilizing tools, an upright telephone with its separate earpiece, a steel cuspidor, and an elaborate belt-driven hand tool that turned drilling and grinding > attachments. Soon after opening the practice, Boyington posed for a photograph beside his barber-style dentist's chair. His short hair was neatly combed, his face fully shaven, drawing attention to a long, straight nose and prominent chin. In this and later photographs he did not smile widely enough to show his own teeth, though his broad mouth had an amicable turn > at the corners. Within a few years his practice was earning a handsome income of about $300 per monththis during a time when a new three-room house on five acres outside town could be bought for $500. Charles put his money into property, purchasing a house on West Foster Avenue, and later mortgaging two more lots with a dwelling on Eleventh Street. Considering the value of the properties and the small lien on his expensive dental equipment, he had already accumulated a respectable net worth. Such a successful dentist would have been considered a catch for the eligible ladies of Coeur d'Alene, but there was the stigma of divorce: Boyington had been married briefly to heavyset Maude Poore in Montana, a failed union that produced no children. He maintained a low profile for several years, then, at the age of thirty-six, applied for a license to marry Grace Barnhardt Gregory, a twenty-three-year-old with long, dark tresses who had recently arrived in Coeur d'Alene. If his decision seemed impulsive to some, at least the age disparity was nothing new; at about the same time, the county clerk signed a permit for a forty-two-year-old woman to wed a codger of sixty-eight. Grace may have simply turned his head. She was full figured, with round cheeks that dimpled when she flashed a bright smile. She wore her long hair piled high, in the current style, and was accustomed to fashionable > dresses. Her story began in Monticello, a small crossroads in eastern Iowa, where she was born on January 11, 1888. She was the youngest of six children raised by burly, mustachioed William Gregory and his wife, Ellen. Grace was eight when they moved to Mitchell, South Dakota, where William worked as a road master for the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad. Misfortune visited the Gregorys in 1901 when fifteen-year-old John was killed accidentally by gunfire at a local shooting gallery; more turmoil followed when William junior divorced his wife. Another son, Forrest, died in 1908 of peritonitis. Despite the tragedies, or perhaps because of them, Grace was animated, cavorting with a large group of friends. The young ladies wore full-length skirts and high-collared blouses, the young men dressed as dandies. She was a racy teen, sneaking with friends behind the Corn Palace to smoke and probably drink. A talented pianist, in her late teens she traveled some nine hundred miles to enter the music program at a "normal school," the equivalent of a teachers' college, in Detroit, Michigan. The curriculum at the Thomas Normal Training School prepared her for a career in music education, but instead of teaching, she worked in theaters after her 1909 graduation, providing piano accompaniment to motion pictures before the advent of the "talkies." Evidently she had been hired to play in Coeur d'Alene, either at the Rex Theater or some saloon, when she met Charles Boyington sometime after 1910. They appeared at the courthouse for a marriage license on December 27, 1911, then wasted little time once the union was approved. A traditional church wedding would have been unsuitable because of Charles's divorce, so they stood before justice of the peace Roger Wearne, a boarder at Wolf Lodge. The ceremony was performed on New Year's Day 1912, with Florence and Fred Tiffany (Grace's sister and brother-in-law) as witnesses. There is no indication that anyone else attended. Charles bought Grace a piano on credit for five dollars a month, and they lived comfortably on his income, but whatever matrimonial bliss they enjoyed was brief. Grace was pregnant by early March, after which a terrible change apparently came over Charles. One night, according to Grace, Charles shoved her into a corner with his fist, then grabbed both her wrists and twisted them while calling her "all sorts of vile and vulgar names." He did not strike her again during the pregnancy, but the verbal abuse continued, "so often," she claimed, "that it would be almost impossible for anyone to remember." There was little joy for the expectant mother when she reached full term in early December 1912. Snow covered the ground during the first few days of the month, followed by rain on the fourth, a Wednesday. The temperature climbed into the low forties, turning the streets into a quagmire. Fortunately, Grace did not have to be concerned about whether a midwife or attendant could reach her on this dreary day; she had a bed at the Coeur > d'Alene Hospital. At five o'clock, under the glow of newly installed electric lights, Grace gave birth to a healthy ten-pound son. Delivery and recovery were evidently normal for both mother and child. The next morning their tranquility was shattered by the alarm of two dire emergencies. The first patient was a railroad brakeman, who suffered broken bones and a severe head injury after falling from a freight car. Barely two hours later an ambulance arrived with Hans Ostensen, crushed beneath a pile of rubble when his haberdashery suddenly collapsed. Brought in on a stretcher, he died a few hours later. The little boy's birth, overshadowed by the drama of injury and death, was announced on an inside column of the Evening Press. The baby was as yet unnamed. Grace later gave him her maiden name, Gregory, with or without Charles's participation. What should have been a cheerful time was but a minor distraction for the couple's imploding marriage. Within three weeks of Grace's discharge from the hospital, Charles began spending his evenings away from home, rarely returning before midnight, if at all. In April, when Gregory was four months old, Charles accused his wife of "having intimate relations with other men," identifying them by name, and proclaimed that he was not the baby's father. Throughout the spring and summer of 1913 he did not physically abuse his wife, but that streak ended in November. Charles stumbled home drunk at three o'clock one morning, cursing with a tirade he repeated often, calling her a "damned bitch" and "damned whore." He grabbed her arms, squeezing until his fingers left bruises visible for weeks. Grace later named specific dates for other beatings, including a violent episode five days before Christmas when Charles knocked her down, pinned her to the floor with his knee, and slapped her. He was ashamed of her, she said, and never took her out in public. Often the baby's crying would elicit outbursts of rage against both mother and child. When she nursed Gregory, Charles called her a sow. He moved out of the house for good the following June, a small gesture since the couple had been separated for the better part of a year. Gregory showed that he was already something of a climber during the summer of 1914. Playing in Grace's bedroom with some of her combs and brushes one day, he ended up on the sill of an open window. Looking down at the ground below, he decided that he "could make it in the air" and jumped out. "I hadn't learned the law of gravity yet," he later said of the experience. Grace found him lying in a flower bed, momentarily stunned, but he got back on his feet after she brushed him off. The tumble might have been fondly remembered, but his parents' marriage was nowhere near as resilient as his head. On August 14, Charles visited each of the banks in Coeur d'Alene and arranged for them to refuse credit to Grace, then he contacted several in Spokane and relayed the same instructions. The following day, he went to the Foster Avenue house and tried to coerce her into packing her trunk and returning to South Dakota. She took the initiative instead, saying she had been "reliably informed" that Charles was associating with other women. One of them, in fact, was a neighbor, and Grace decided to call the woman into the yard. Charles became outraged, but Grace called the neighbor anyway. A loud row ensued in the yard separating the houses, with Charles screaming threats at his wife and the neighbor. Nothing more came of it, except that everyone realized the marriage was done for. On the nineteenth Charles paid for a public announcement in the Evening Press: "I hereby notify all parties that from this date I will not be responsible for any debts contracted by my wife, Grace B. Boyington." The following day, she hired an attorney and filed a detailed complaint along with a request for divorce. Charles hired his own lawyer, and, at the divorce proceedings, produced a love letter Grace had written (but apparently not mailed) to one Ellsworth Hallenbeck, a "young man of Spokane." Their affair had begun in the spring, claimed Charles, when they held "clandestine, lascivious, and lewd meetings" in Coeur d'Alene and other communities. Grace had also entertained different men in the Foster Avenue house in early June, during which they furnished "intoxicating liquors." His proof was her letter to Hallenbeck, written the day after, in which she described being "piffled" during the party. We expected father [Charles] to walk in every minute and find us in our sad plight. The boys had their hats in hand ready to fly when they heard the latch key turn. But thanks to our luck, father didn't turn up until twelve, and his little "wuf" was sound asleep and snoring when he climbed in. Whether or not she actually committed adultery, another portion of her letter to Hallenbeck left little doubt about her intentions. "One question I would ask of you loved onehave you feather beds and no bed bugs in your apartment? I'm used to one and not the other." In addition to the damning letter, Charles claimed that she subsequently visited Hallenbeck in his Spokane apartment. She mustered a weak excuse in court, calling the letter a joke written at the urging of a friend, but offered no other defense against the allegations. The claims, complaints, and countercomplaints continued for months, until finally at ten o'clock on March 4, 1915, the judge presented the final decree. The marriage ended with a whack of his gavel, but the court appearance was only a formality. Days earlier, both parties had signed the judge's stipulations regarding disposition of property and custody of the baby. Grace was awarded custody of her son, the house on Foster Avenue, and its furniture. Charles kept everything else, including the house on Eleventh Street and the right to visit Gregory "at any time during reasonable hours." He paid fifty dollars to fulfill a temporary alimony award, after which he was under no further obligation to Grace or the boy. Evidently, his documentation of Grace's affair had the desired effect on the judge, who took a dim view of her behavior and refused to grant continued alimony.