Old flyboys sure do fade away, just like the old planes they used to pilot: museum relics of a forgotten era.
So it was nice to see a spark of life yesterday at the National Air And Space Museum's -- get this title, folks -- Paul E. Garber Preservation, Restoration and Storage Facility in Silver Hill, Md., where they wheeled out a perfectly restored Vought-Sikorsky F4U-1D Corsair.
This was the item responsible for downing 2,140 Japanese aircraft during the Second World War, and into the hot seat climbed Maj. Gregory "Pappy" Boyington, who holds the Marine WWII record for splashing 28 enemy planes.
Pappy Boyington, the man who resigned from the Marines in 1941 because the U.S. military wasn't seeing any action, joined Gen. Claire Channault's legendary mercenary group, the Flying Tigers and downed six Japanese bombers. The man who rejoined the Marines the following year, and just when he was getting too old to fly, formed his own squadron overseas from a bunch of misfits, as legend goes, who didn't even have a typewriter for their office. Hence the name Black Sheep, later ensconced in the annals of televisionland as "The Black Sheep Squadron," with Robert Conrad playing the major.
Pappy Boyington looked pretty good yesterday sitting up in that cockpit. It fit him well, and anybody who understands which end of a plane points up could tell that if there had been any gas in the wing tanks, Boyinton would have sent that hulk skyward in an instant.
But first things first: war stories. A photographer, perched on the wing to replicate those old WWII flyboy-in-cockpit photos, asked Boyington if he could re-create any of the standard hand signals that used to come naturally to air aces. And without missing a beat, 67-year-old Pappy Boyington flipped the photographer a digital expletive.
"Some things," said the major, "never change."
Nowadays the major is self-employed, so to speak.
"I'm like a load of wheat," he said. "If you need me you have to rent me from The Corporation," and with this he tipped his hand to Jo, his fourth wife, who hereinafter shall be referred to as The Corporation. They have been married for five years, and spend much of their time traveling around the country to different air shows, where Pappy sells personally autographed books, record albums and art prints. They fly commercially because , said Pappy, "there's so damn much paper to haul around, and paper weighs more than lead."
And then again, The Corporation does not like the idea of Pappy flying off alone in his RV3, a single-seat, single-engine, home-built that cruises at 190 mph.
"He can get very hard to find in that thing," The Corporation said playfully. "Sometimes he calls me dear heart . Hah. That's when he can't remember which wife he's talking to."
Indeed, Pappy Boyington was known to America not only for his daring exploits in the air, but also for a rather sensational San Diego court case brought by a Mrs. Lucy Malcolmson, who claimed the major had pledged undying love to her before disappearing for 20 months in a Japanese POW camp.
"In the interim there, I saw the light," Boyington said yesterday. "I was one of those lucky few -- like Lazarus -- who had the opportunity to be considered dead for a while. And when you have the chance to be dead and then come back to life, you can really see what people think about you."
The major said he holds no grudge against the Japanese, as do many of his colleagues who saw action in the Pacific theater.
"The Jap[anese]s," said Boyington, "were pretty good fellows.I almost got mobbed for saying that after the war. I was an undeclared prisoner of war. And sure, they beat me with a baseball bat. But I couldn't call that a war crime. That was something they did to each other, too. I have a Sony Tv now, and some Sony recording equipment."
Not so Fred Avery, one of the 48 pilots who made up the Black Sheep squadron.
"I won't have anything Japanese," he said yesterday in Silver Hill, where he joined Boyington and 16 other Sheep in viewing the Corsair. "No sir. No Toyotas, no Hondas, no Sony TVs. I was even in Japan once after the war and had a chance to shack up with a Japanese girl. I wouldn't touch her."
Now they are an odd lot, these WWII fighter pilots with 201 downed enemy planes to their credit, who went on to become doctors and lawyers and independent businessmen. The war is just history to almost all of them. They're not out there selling memories, the way Pappy Boyington is.
"I knew at the age of 6 that flying would be my life," he said. "I was in first grade in St. Maries, Idaho, population slightly under 3,000, and I ran out of class because I heard a plane go over. And the teacher called me back and I said, 'I can't. This plane is gonna land in the hay field.' and sure enough, Clyde Pangbourne landed that Jenny in the field, and took me up with him so I could throw handbills out of the plane announcing that he'd take people up for a dollar a minute. That was over 60 years ago. That's like $100 a minute now."
He misses flying hot planes, these days, having gotten a taste of jets in an F100 and an F9F. He sure doesn't miss the war and getting shot at, although any of these pilots will tell you, often, that dogfights are the ultimate test of your flying skill.
No, these memories have little to do with hardware and warfare.
"What I miss," Boyington said, "is the association with fine people. Every one of these guys couldn't deliver the same, but you knew what they could deliver and you could count on that.
"Nowadays, I don't see a fraction of that. How many guys can you trust in business deals today? That's what I miss."