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Dare the Impossible – Achieve the Extraordinary.
Vol. 12, No. 4
(626) 791-8973
Copyright © by William A. Cohen 2006, 2015

Combat Flying When Tired and Drunk*

Some years ago there was a television series called “Baa Baa Black Sheep.” That series told the story of Colonel Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, a unique Marine Corps fighter squadron commander and his squadron during World War II. They called him “Pappy” because at age thirty something, he was the oldest member in the squadron.

Pappy Boyington was a real person, and the story of his successful leadership of this squadron in combat was true. Although some instances in the television series were fictional, the one I’m going to tell you about was real, and was described in Colonel Boyington’s autobiography also called Baa, Baa Black Sheep. Of course when the incident occurred, he was still a major, not a full colonel which he eventually became..
Boyington’s story began because he was a Marine Corps fighter pilot who was on a Pacific Island during World War II, but he didn’t have a flying job. He found that there were a number of other Marine pilots who for one reason or another were in the same situation unassigned to flying duties, but they all wanted to fly. Most just weren’t trained for fighters. Others were awaiting assignment. And others yet like Boyington himself were just plain miss assigned.

In Boyington’s case he had actually flown in combat in China as one of General Claire Chennault’s “Flying Tigers” and shot down enemy aircraft. Of course, in the television series they made this more colorful by stating that each pilot was “grounded” due to some serious discipline problem and had been court-martialed for one offense or another. This wasn’t true, but since they were unassigned or miss-assigned, they did consider themselves “Black Sheep” and that was the name eventually given to the members of their squadron. However before there was a Black Sheep squadron, parked near the runway, and not being used, were a number of brand new F4U Corsair aircraft. They were awaiting assignment to another fighter squadron still in training in the States. Boyington convinced his superiors to let him form an ad hoc squadron of volunteers to fly these airplanes while the other squadron was still enroute. After all, there was a war on, and these aircraft were just sitting there. Boyington trained them and led them in combat and before the other squadron in training in the states came to claim their aircraft, the Black Sheep had become one of the best fighter squadrons in the theater. It had not only become a permanent squadron, it was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for extraordinary heroism in combat.
At one point, the Black Sheep had been in combat for a fairly long time. They received word that the following day they would withdraw to a relatively safe area for rest and relaxation on another island. Another squadron would fly their airplanes during this period. What do you think happens in a combat squadron when its members know that their last combat mission is over for a while? Having been in such a squadron myself, I can tell you that if it can, the squadron makes one huge party. The consumption of alcoholic beverages goes up significantly. This is exactly what happened to the Black Sheep.

When the last aircraft landed that evening, they began to party. After hours of partying, by the “wee hours” most pilots had retired for the night and were sleeping soundly, awaiting their coming departure in the morning. Boyington himself was about ready to turn in when he received a message from headquarters on the main island. It was critical that he fly a night strafing mission before his squadron was flown to a rear area in the morning. To accomplish this he had no time to prepare. He had to get four aircraft in the air and on their way to the target right away in order to strike and return in time to depart the next morning.

What would you do if you were Pappy Boyington? Tell headquarters that you couldn’t do it, that your men were “incapacitated?” Ask for a delay of 24 hours? Say that it just couldn’t be done for unspecified reasons?
At first Pappy Boyington didn’t know what to do either. His entire squadron had just had a party at which large quantities of alcoholic beverages had been consumed. Most were already sound asleep. None were prepared psychologically to risk their lives in yet another combat mission before departure. How could he get several of them to form a flight to do exactly that? How could any leader get his subordinates to do anything like this under these circumstances?

Here’s what Pappy Boyington did in his own words:

“I walked up and down between the cots for some time, trying to think this thing out, occasionally looking at some of the nude bodies that were completely crapped out beneath the mosquito netting. These perspiring and motionless forms were dreaming of anything but a night strafing mission, I was positive. I didn’t have the heart to order a flight, or to even ask the members who were assigned to my own flight to go with me.

“As I was thinking, I hear my own voice, not too loudly, and it said: ‘Are there any three clowns dumb enough to want to strafe Kahili and Kara with me tonight?’”

One of the Black Sheep looked up, blinked his eyes and said, “I’ll go with you, Pappy.” Two others mumbled something about “that sounds like fun.”
Before you knew it, Boyington had his flight of four Black Sheep to do the job. They went out together, and they strafed the two targets. They went out on a dangerous combat again, even though a couple hours earlier they had thought that their combat was over for two weeks.

Pappy Boyington didn’t give any better reason for strafing Kahili and Kara than their being “dumb enough” to do so. And, a night combat mission was frequently a lot more dangerous than day missions which they usually flew. Still, the flight of Boyington’s Black Sheep readily accepted the task. Will such a tactic of enlistment always work? Of course not. But, it can work and like a doctor who must sometimes try different medicines before he or she finds the right one, the leader must do the same. The heroic leader does things that other leaders simply won’t or can’t do.

*Adapted from Heroic Leadership (Jossey-Bass, 2010).


In war, nothing is impossible, providing you use audacity. – General George S. Patton, Jr., U.S. Army


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