The Blog

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.