One was a hard-drinking brawler who inspired a television series about his Black Sheep squadron. The other was a straight arrow who became a general, governor and football commissioner.
Depending on who is doing the counting, one or the other is the top flying ace in Marine Corps history.
Black Sheep leader Gregory (Pappy) Boyington, who died of cancer at 75 in 1988, and Joe Foss, 79, recently were enshrined together in the Naval Aviation Hall of Honor for their World War II heroics.
The pair of aces, both Medal of Honor winners, were friends and never considered themselves in competition to shoot down the most enemy planes, Foss recalled.
“Combat--you don’t look at that as a game,” Foss said. “Combat’s dangerous. You are liable to end up losing your breathing process. All we were interested in was knocking down every plane that we could so the suckers wouldn’t be back the next day.”
Boyington’s record remains as controversial in death as he was in life. The American Fighter Aces Assn. of Mesa, Ariz., credits him with 24.5 aerial victories, the Naval Aviation Guide gives him 25.5 and his Marine Corps biography puts the number at 28.
That’s two more than Foss, but Foss still can be considered the top Marine ace because all 26 of his kills came as a Marine. Boyington’s 28 total included six kills as a Flying Tiger in China. The Aces Assn. and Naval Aviation Guide credit him with fewer Flying Tiger victories.
Flying Tigers is the nickname of the American Volunteer Group, mostly former U.S. military pilots, who flew for the Chinese air force before America’s entry into World War II. The AVG later was incorporated into the U.S. Army and many pilots such as Boyington returned to their former services or duties.
The Hall of Honor is part of the National Museum of Naval Aviation at the Pensacola Naval Air Station. That’s where Foss, who returned for the enshrinement, and Boyington met in 1940.
“Back 50 some years ago when I was roaming around here I never had any idea I’d be receiving any honors,” Foss said. “I was just figuring maybe I’d be lucky to get through the training.”
Foss, now residing in Phoenix, left the Marines as a major, but advanced to brigadier general in the South Dakota Air National Guard.
He was twice elected governor of South Dakota in the 1950s. Foss later served as commissioner of the American Football League, president of the National Rifle Assn. and host of television outdoors programs.
Boyington’s fame revived when his 1958 autobiography, “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” became a television series of the same name, later retitled “Black Sheep Squadron,” in the 1970s.
Actor Robert Conrad played Boyington as a likable rogue, but that was a sanitized version of the real thing, the ace’s son said after the enshrinement ceremony.
“He was a lot tougher. He was smart and clever and pugilistic,” said retired Air Force Lt. Col. Gregory Boyington Jr. “He enjoyed the rowdiness of the men. He loved it. He wasn’t a bad guy, but he was a tough guy.”
“He was a great fighter pilot, great shot and could handle an airplane as well or better than anyone else,” Foss recalled. “His only problem was with alcohol. When he drank . . . he’d want to whip somebody twice his size.”
Boyington acknowledged his drinking problem and told of overcoming it in the final chapter of his book.
Television also portrayed the Black Sheep as military misfits.
“That’s a crock,” said Foss, who reviewed the show for TV Guide. “What they were was a pool of people waiting to make replacements. . . . That wasn’t any group of bandits or guys waiting for court-martial.”
But Foss said it was an interesting story and he watched every show.
Foss got all his victories on the first of two tours in the South Pacific from September, 1942, through April, 1943. Shortly before he went home to give war bond speeches and train new pilots, Boyington arrived.
“Joe’s final score was 26 before the Marines finally yanked him out of combat, full of malaria and worn down to a nub, and the first American to tie Eddie Rickenbacker’s World War I record,” Boyington wrote in his book.
His most remarkable feat came on his final day at Guadalcanal. Foss led a group of eight Marine F4F Wildcats and four Army P-38 Lightings that intercepted a Japanese force of more than 100 fighters and bombers.
Foss played hide-and-seek in the clouds to keep the Japanese guessing how many planes he had. He stalled long enough for the rest of the American planes, parked like sitting ducks, to get airborne. The Japanese fell for the bluff, aborted their attack and dropped their bombs in the ocean.
Foss had not fired a shot.
Boyington, an Idaho native who grew up in Tacoma, Wash., had to talk his way into a command after recovering from a broken ankle suffered in a brawl. He suggested the replacement pilots be used to create a new squadron.
His Black Sheep called him “Pappy.” He considered it a form of respect, figuring it was because at 30 he was older than the other pilots, none over 22. Boyington wrote that he later found he actually got the name because he had reminded his pilots of a flight school legend about a white-bearded instructor who never failed anyone.
Boyington himself was shot down and spent the last 20 months of the war as a prisoner. After retiring as a colonel to Burbank, Calif., his civilian occupations included that of wrestling referee and beer salesman.
The religious Foss recalled visiting Boyington shortly before his death.
“I witnessed to him . . . because I figured one of these days he was about to be a-leaving,” Foss said. “He just listened. He never said anything. But I have a hunch that he . . . will be sitting up there in heaven when we come by.”