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Shooting Down the Ace

The University of Washington's student senate takes a stand against honoring one of the schools most distinguished alums.

10:28 PM, Feb 28, 2006 • By JAMES THAYER
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Perhaps the students had never heard of the Ofuna crouch. The guards made the prisoner put his hands over his head, bend into a crouch, then stand on the balls of his feet. After five minutes it was excruciating. Sometimes it would last 30 minutes, sometimes several hours. If the prisoner fell over, he was beaten.

Or perhaps the students had never heard of the diet at the Ofuna camp: about 500 calories a day, mostly maggoty rice. The typical prisoner lost almost half his body weight, if he survived.

Or maybe the students didn't know of the camp's doctor, one Kitamura Congochyo, whose method of dealing with a prisoner's wound was to simply pack it with a filthy rag, and who for his troubles would be sentenced to death as a war criminal.

No, it's unlikely many of the University of Washington's student senators knew any of these things when they considered a resolution to erect a memorial on campus to the legendary fighter pilot Col. Greg "Pappy" Boyington, who was a Washington graduate, a Medal of Honor winner, and a Camp Ofuna alumnus.

During debate on the resolution, student senator Jill Edwards "questioned whether it was appropriate to honor a person who killed other people," according to the minutes of the meeting. Karl Smith said Boyington should be honored for his service, but Smith was also bothered by the killing thing. Senator Ashley Miller was against the resolution because "many monuments at UW commemorate rich white men." The debate went downhill from there.

This smelly little episode from the Pacific Northwest was overshadowed by Harvard's College of Arts and Sciences chasing away the school's president, which may have filled the press's monthly quota for campus hijinks. But to read the minutes of the UW's student senate meeting--where college students sitting around in the lovely campus's student union building, judged the worthiness of a Marine Corps ace who destroyed 28 Japanese aircraft and who was then tortured and nearly killed by his captors--is startling and revealing.

And it's an example of the raw ignorance and Through the Looking Glass logic endemic on college campuses.

Greg Boyington spent most of his childhood in the logging town of St. Maries, Idaho. His parents were divorced, and his step-father was an alcoholic. They moved to Tacoma, where Boyington attended high school. He entered the University of Washington in 1930, where he became a league-champion wrestler. To pay his way through school, he worked in mining and logging camps during the summers. He graduated with a degree in aeronautical engineering.

He became a cadet in the Marine Corps Reserve in 1936, and a year and a half later accepted a commission in the Marine Corps as a second lieutenant. He participated in aircraft carrier operations, and then became a flight instructor at Pensacola. Three months before Pearl Harbor, he resigned his commission to take a job with Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company, which provided personnel to defend China and the Burma Road, and which became known as the Flying Tigers, where Boyington became a flight leader. As a Tiger, he was credited with 3.5 kills.

Boyington left the Flying Tigers to join the Marines, where he was assigned to Guadalcanal. He later was named the commanding officer of Fighter Squadron 214, the Black Sheep Squadron. He was a decade older than most of his flyers, and so was called "Gramps" or "Pappy."

He flew the Vought F4U Corsair, known for its inverted gull wings and for being the first production single-engine warplane to reach 400 miles an hour. Due to the length of the plane's nose, which limited the pilot's visibility, the Corsair was a difficult plane to land, particularly on an aircraft carrier. But because of its six 50-caliber Brownings, it was generally safer to be in the plane's cockpit than in its gun sights. Boyington named his plane Lulubelle.

Boyington's most famous exploit occurred on October 17, 1943, when he and his squadron of 24 planes circled Kahili airfield on the island of Bougainville, until the 60 Japanese aircraft stationed there rose to challenge them. Twenty Japanese planes were downed. All the Black Sheep returned to their base. President Roosevelt would call his command that day "brilliant."

He claimed his twenty-fourth enemy plane (twenty-eighth if his kills as a Flying Tiger are added) on January 3, 1944 in the sky near the Japanese island fortress on Rabaul, but was himself shot down later that day. He described his injuries: "I nearly lost my left ear, which was hanging in a bloody mess. My scalp had a massive laceration, my arms, groin and shoulders were peppered with shrapnel, and a bullet had gone through my left calf. I had seen better days." He was picked up by a Japanese submarine, and eventually taken to Camp Ofuna, about thirty miles south of Tokyo.

The camp was officially known as the Navy Yokosuka Guard Unit Ueki Detachment. Most of the prisoners were airmen and submariners. Torture was routine. On easy days, the prisoners might be made to stand at attention for ten consecutive hours. When the guards were feeling more frisky, they would enter a prisoner's nine-by-six cell and beat him with clubs. The camp's commander, Yokura Sashizo, would later be sentenced by a war crimes tribunal to 25 years hard labor.

Because the Japanese did not report the names of prisoners held at Ofuna, the Marines listed Boyington as missing in action. The flyer's Medal of Honor was awarded posthumously, or so the Marine Corps thought. Above Franklin Roosevelt's signature on the citation appear these words: "Consistently outnumbered throughout successive hazardous flights over heavily defended hostile territory, Major Boyington struck at the enemy with daring and courageous persistence, leading his squadron into combat with devastating results to Japanese shipping, shore installations and aerial forces. A superb airman and determined fighter against overwhelming odds. . . ." Boyington also earned the Navy Cross.

After twenty months at the Ofuna Camp, Pappy Boyington and the other prisoners were liberated. He weighed 100 pounds, down 90 from his normal weight. He left the service in 1947. He could not find work at first, but then was hired on as a wrestling referee and a beer salesman. Alcoholism dogged him much of the remainder of his life. He died in 1988, aged 75. Marine Corps F-4s performed a missing-man-flyby as his body was lowered into the ground at Arlington National Cemetery.

So, let's see: does this fellow deserve to be honored by his college? Andrew Everett, a UW senior and a former Air Force weather forecaster, thought so, and he brought the resolution before the UW's student senate. He told the students that he wasn't interested in a large statue, but rather something smaller "so that all who come here in future years will know that the University of Washington produced one of the country's bravest men . . . ," according to the resolution. Asked where the money would come from, Everett said he was drawing up a proposal for funding from several UW departments and from certain alumni. He argued that Pappy Boyington had many of the qualities that the University of Washington hoped to produce in its students.

Faced with the possibility of honoring a warrior who fought with such efficiency for his country, the student senators sprang into action.

Jill Edwards moved to table the matter, saying other resolutions were there first. Another student senator asked why Everett was interested in honoring this particular alum. Another senator asked why a monument shouldn't commemorate all who fought in the war. Karl Smith wanted to strike the section of the resolution where Boyington was credited with destroying 26 enemy aircraft. Jill Edwards "didn't believe a member of the Marine Corps was an example of the sort of person UW wanted to produce," according to the meeting's minutes.

The resolution's sponsor, Andrew Everett, gamely said a destroyed aircraft didn't necessarily indicate the enemy pilot had died. Mikhail Smirnoff noted that the resolution didn't require that the statue necessarily be finished. Jon Lee said he didn't want the campus inundated with memorials. Deidre Lockman argued that the resolution focused too heavily on the negative aspects of war. Mikhail Smirnoff supported the resolution but said "he understood the sentiment of not wanting to reward those who fought in the war, but that he thought those who fought in WWII were heroes and that it was a much different war than the controversial war in Iraq," as per the minutes. Ashley Miller had her say about rich white men and Jill Edwards didn't favor that Pappy, like, killed the enemy.

A vote was taken on the resolution. It tied, 45 to 45. The senate chair, Alex Kim, then broke the tie with a nay vote. The resolution failed.

But the word got out via blogs and talk radio. Even in this bastion of progressiveness (in Seattle: John Kerry, 82 percent, George Bush, 18 percent), the reaction was predicable and furious. The student senators have been backtracking mightily ever since.

Jill Edwards claims to have found new respect: "Obviously he is a great man and I'm very proud he's an alumnus." But she couldn't help a little wiggle: "I don't want to feel like we're trying to impose an ideal of achievement on the UW." Ashley Miller said her comments were just part of a general discussion about memorials on campus, and not specifically about Boyington, according to an Associated Press report.

But the UW student body president Lee Dunbar blamed the critics of the student senate. "I think a lot of it was seized on by a political opportunity to blow things out of context," he said, according to an article by Christine Frey in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Some students have fallen back on the comments-taken-out-of-context defense, according to the P.I. Hard to do, given that minutes were taken of the meeting and are readily available on the internet.

The University of Washington student senate may now consider a memorial not just to Boyington, but to all four UW Medal of Honor winners.

Pappy Boyington would've laughed at Student Senator Ashley Miller's "rich white man" crack. A beer salesman is hardly rich, and Boyington had money problems most of his life. As for being white: he was part Sioux. But he was fully a man. At least she got that right.

James Thayer is a frequent contributor to THE DAILY STANDARD. His twelfth novel, The Gold Swan, has been published by Simon & Schuster.