A week ago a curious package addressed to me arrived at my office. Having no (known) enemies I opened it at my desk and out fell a DVD with a hand-written post-it note attached. The note was from film producer Kevin Gonzalez asking if I would be so kind as to view and review his one hour documentary, Pappy Boyington Field, about the efforts to have the Coeur d’Alene, Idaho airport re-named in honor of its most famous son. I was happy to do so.
For those who do not know, Major Greg Boyington, USMC, was arguably the most famous American flying ace of the Pacific Theatre. With between 22 and 28 kills (depending on the source) first with the AVG “Flying Tigers” in China and then the Marine Corps, he was not our country’s top scoring ace – that title goes to USAAF Maj. Richard Bong. But he was certainly the most colorful, and his leadership of the squadron he soldered together, VMF-214, better known as “The Black Sheep” solidified his reputation as a hard living, hard drinking, hard flying s.o.b. But above all else, Boyington was a superb fighter pilot and a commander his men trusted, respected and emulated in the skies over the Solomons, New Guinea and the Bismarck Archipelago throughout the heavy combat of 1943, much to the chagrin of his Japanese opponents. In January 1944, Boyington was shot down in a chaotic hundred-plane melee over Rabaul and endured a year and a half of brutal treatment in a succession of Japanese prison camps. Upon his release at war’s end, he was awarded the Navy Cross and our nation’s highest commendation, the Congressional Medal of Honor. In 1947 he retired from the Marine Corps a full colonel. He passed away in 1988 from cancer.
If we were to look up in a dictionary the term “war hero” we might find Boyington’s weathered face, with its squinting eyes, pudgy jowls, and pursed-lipped sneer, glaring back at us. He was just that gifted of a fighter pilot and combat leader. At thirty-one he was a decade older than most the men he commanded and thus earned the affectionate sobriquets “Gramps” and “Pappy” (the latter being the one the press latched onto) and I challenge anyone to find a veteran who flew either with or against this man to utter a word of disrespect. Don’t waste your time. They don’t exist.
So then with Boyington’s outstanding record of service to country it would seem that the idea of re-christening the airfield of his hometown in his honor is about as no-brainer as they come. Not so fast. Believe it or not, it took several years and a mammoth grass-roots effort from several Marine veterans groups, Pappy’s family members, and even the weight of celebrities like Col. Oliver North (USMC Ret.) and actor Robert Conrad (who played Boyington in the 1970s series “Baa Baa Black Sheep”) to convince the town council to even consider a vote on the motion let alone get it passed.
Gonzalez’s documentary, released April 1, 2010, chronicles the campaign from 2006-2007 and explores the question of why there was any debate over the motion at all. What was so incendiary about renaming a small airfield after a famous war hero? The town fathers cited “safety concerns” as the official reason behind their initial foot-dragging over the name change. This wafer-thin excuse was rooted in the notion that changing the name may have created confusion, increasing the chances for aerial mishaps. But that argument was bogus to say the least. Airport’s names are changed all the time. Orange County Airport was re-named John Wayne Airport in 1979 and Washington National Airport became Ronald Reagan Airport in 1988. And anyone flying into New York before 1963 flew into Idlewild, not JFK. The city council also suggested at one point naming a park after Boyington instead! C’mon, how can you name anything but an airfield after Pappy? Just how detached were these people??
So, what was the real issue here? We must remember that we are living in the age of the political correctness run amok. Apparently even in rural Idaho. Thus could Pappy’s sketchy personal life have been what was actually on trial here. However brilliant his exploits in the aerial battlefield, Greg Boyington was an alcoholic and not very successful in civilian life, either in his work or his many failed marriages and relationships with several estranged children. Indeed, like many soldiers who are so at home during times of war, peacetime was difficult, even tragic, for him. Perhaps someone, somewhere decided that he was not a good enough “role model” to be honored.
Okay. So the guy wasn’t Saint Francis after the shooting stopped – or before the war or during it for that matter. But we do not honor warriors for their achievements in their personal lives but rather their conduct on the battlefield. And who are we today to judge men and women who have experienced things that we cannot even fathom such as combat? I for one have no clue as to how I’d behave under live fire. Would I be able to keep my cool and turn an F4U Corsair into a screaming death machine that shredded Japanese planes by the score as Boyington did? Or would I be a babbling baby in soiled undies screaming for my mommy as I crouched down in a fetal position in the cockpit? I will never know the answer. Men like Boyington did face that test…and they passed it with flying colors. For his service alone he deserves our gratitude. For his leadership of VMF-214 he earned special recognition.
In 2007, after several years of controversy, the airport was finally renamed Pappy Boyington Field. The vote was two in favor, one abstention. That the vote was not swift and unanimous from the moment the idea came into being says much about the growing disconnect between our noble if imperfect past and uncertain future. Gonzalez’s film, which leads off with interviews of aging Marine veterans from Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima and morphs into a tale of denying one of their comrades the recognition he earned because he did not pass a personal litmus test of what is a “good example” set by men far removed from the war and its impact, provides yet another small piece of the puzzle of what has gone awry with America. Although today when visiting Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, you do indeed fly into Pappy Boyington Field, showing that people, if organized and determined, can still have a voice as to the direction of their community and nation. So all may not be lost.