The Hallenbeck family moved to Tacoma when he was twelve. Gregory attended the University of Washington, graduating in 1934 with a BS in aeronautical engineering. He married and went to work for Boeing as an engineer and draftsman.
Gregory wanted to fly, not just work on airplane design. In 1935 he applied for a slot with the Navy as an aviation cadet. They rejected him because he was married. He wasn’t going to get a divorce, so that path into the air seemed closed. That is, until he got a copy of his birth certificate and learned that Ellsworth Hallenback, his father, was not really his father. Gregory’s father was a dentist by the name of Charles Boyington. Boyington and Gregory’s mother had divorced when Gregory was a baby.
Finding out your personal history was not what you thought it was might have been traumatic for the young man, but Gregory changed his name to his birth name and reapplied to the Navy program. Under that new/old name he didn’t bother to mention that he was married. They accepted him as an aviation cadet.
In 1937, Gregory Boyington became second lieutenant in the Marine Corps. Then in 1941, Boyington took what might have seemed to be a detour. He resigned his commission in the Marine Corps and went to work for the Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company. The company was real, but the job was a ruse. American entrepreneur William Pawley ran the company in China. In 1941 he began recruiting American pilots for his American Volunteer Group, also known as the Flying Tigers. President Franklin Roosevelt had authorized the covert operation where the US pilots would fly airplanes marked with the colors of China, fighting the Japanese. Ironically, they didn’t see their first action until 12 days after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Boyington was credited with the destruction of three Japanese aircraft during his brief stint with the Flying Tigers, two in the air and one on the ground. In September of 1942 he rejoined the Marine Corps where his story would become legendary. A year later he would become the commanding officer of Marine Fighter Squadron 214, nicknamed the Black Sheep Squadron.
It was while he was with the Black Sheep that he earned a nickname. They called him “Gramps” because at 31 was years older than most of the pilots. That morphed into “Pappy,” giving him the moniker that would stay with him in the history books, Gregory “Pappy” Boyington,
During his first tour “Pappy” took down 14 enemy fighters in 32 days. He shared the bravura and a bit of the PR man with Pangborn, the barnstormer who first took him into the skies. Boyington and his men would buzz enemy airfields luring fighters into the sky where they could be picked off. The PR man appeared when he boasted that he and his squadron would shoot down a Japanese Zero for every cap the ball players in the World Series would send them. They got 20 hats. The Japanese lost 20 aircraft, and then some.
But his luck didn’t hold. In January, 1944, Boyington was shot down over the Pacific just after making his own 26th kill. He was presumed dead, but he had actually been plucked out of the water by a Japanese submarine. For nearly two years Boyington was a POW, freed finally when American forces liberated the Omori Prison Camp.
For his wartime heroics Gregory “Pappy” Boyington received the Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross. His 1958 autobiography, Baa Baa Black Sheep was used as the basis for the TV series that ran for a couple of years in the 70s.
Boyington, a heavy smoker, died of lung cancer in 1988 at age 75.