Gregory (Pappy) Boyington, 75, a retired Marine Corps colonel who was one of the most highly decorated and colorful combat fighter pilots of World War II, died of cancer yesterday in a hospice in Fresno, Calif. He lived in Fresno.
From Sept. 12, 1943, to Jan. 3, 1944, Boyington, then a major, commanded Marine fighter Squadron 214 (The Black Sheep), which flew the legendary F4U Corsair against Japanese forces in the central Solomons area. During that time he earned the two highest decorations for valor a Marine can earn, the Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross.
Col. Boyington gained a reputation as one of the corps' finest natural pilots and leaders. He took a group of green pilots, replacements and men widely regarded as misfits and rejects from other commands and molded them into a unit that shot down more than 100 enemy aircraft.
He himself was credited with 28 kills before he was shot down during a sweep over Rabaul, New Guinea, the day he shot down his last three enemy aircraft.
In 1958, Col. Boyington published an autobiography, "Baa Baa Black Sheep," which included an account of his service with the famous "Flying Tigers" in China as well as his service with the Marine Corps and his 20 months as a prisoner of war. The book inspired a network television series that ran in 1976-78.
Col. Boyington resigned his commission in the Marine Corps before the United States entered World War II and joined Gen. Claire Chennault's American Vounteer Group. The unit, which was called the "Flying Tigers," was made up of U.S. fighter pilots who had volunteered to fight with Chinese forces against the Japanese. During his year with the AVG, Col. Boyington shot down six enemy aircraft.
After breaking a leg, he left the "Tigers" and went to the South Pacific as a major in the Marine Corps Reserve. He eventually took command of the "Black Sheep Squadron." In keeping with his generally informal approach to things military except for combat, his men were well known for their lack of polish and disregard for service regulations.
In his book, Col. Boyington said the Marine Corps sought to discipline him and his men by withholding decorations. He said it was only after he had been shot down and presumed killed that the corps -- prompted by questions from Congress and the public about why an officer with so many kills had no decorations -- awarded him the Navy Cross and Medal of Honor.
The citation for the Medal of Honor includes a summary of a typically colorful Black Sheep adventure. It said, "Maj. Boyington led a formation of 24 fighters over Kahili on 17 October and, persistently circling the airdrome where 60 hostile aircraft were grounded, boldly challenged the Japanese to send up planes. Under his brilliant command, our fighters shot down 20 enemy craft in the ensuing action without the loss of a single ship."
As evidence of his attitude toward things military other than flying Col. Boyington said he never bothered to get any "dog tags," the metal identification discs that all servicemen wear. He also said he had no difficulty refusing to answer questions from his captors about the Marine "order of battle" -- the line up of units commited in the area -- because he had never bothered to learn it.
When the Japanese insisted that he identify a "secret" site they wanted to bomb he said he used maps to pinpoint the location of the tent of a desk-bound superior officer whom he despised.
But little about his 20 months of captivity was funny, and nothing in his ensuing life seemed to equal his short time in combat. He had an admitted and severe drinking problem that started during his years in the Marine Corps.
After a hero's welcome in Washington after the war, Col. Boyington left the Marines in 1947. He found himself working at such pastimes as barnstorming, refereeing professional wrestling matches, and making appearances signing his book.
He made headlines in barroom brawls and ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1960. A last moment in the sun came during his work as technical adviser on the television series based in his wartime exploits.
Col. Boyington was a native of Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. He once said that one of his early memories was running out of his first-grade schoolroom to watch a barnstorming pilot. He found the pilot and rode in the plane later that day.
After the war he said of the Japanese, "Hell, I don't think I ever looked at them as bitter enemies, just combatants on the other side. Pilots are pilots, no matter what country they fly for, and they were just doing their jobs."
Col. Boyington had two children by his first wife, Frances Baker, whom he married in 1946 and divorced in 1960. In 1978, he married his fourth wife, the former Josephine Wilson Moseman, who survives him and lives in Fresno.