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Pappy or Joe?
Who is the Marine Corps' ace of aces: Joe Foss or Gregory "Pappy" Boyington? The answer would seem crystal clear. As executive officer of VMF-121, Foss became America's top gun in January 1943 by downing his 26th Japanese aircraft at Guadalcanal. he held the title until May 1944, when P-47 ace Bob Johnson notched his 27th kill against the Luftwaffe. But on V-J Day, 17 months later, no Marine had equaled Foss' score.
In 1945, Boyington returned from captivity claiming two unwitnessed kills on his last mission; they were credited without verification. Even so, why did the Marines recognize Pappy Boyington as its leading ace? And, despite all logic, why does the Corps do so today?
BY THE NUMBERS
In 1942, after expulsion from the Flying Tigers, Boyington requested and was granted readmission to the Marines, and his dossier reflected his claim of six aerial victories in China. Boyington's assertion became official-to the Marine Corps. To the American Volunteer Group, which paid a bonus for every confirmed victory, he shot down only two Japanese planes. That fact was confirmed when Flying Tiger records were published in 1986. The Marines were unimpressed. They insisted that Boyington's score was 28, including 22 in USMC service. Nor did they take notice when the American Fighter Aces Association published Boyington's total score as 24.
The problem is as much semantic as it is numerical. Who is "the top Marine ace"? If, logically, it is the pilot with the most victories in Marine Corps service, then clearly it is Joe Foss and has been since 1943. Is it the Marine with the most career victories? In 1945, that was Boyington, with 28. But after publication of the AVG records, it was still Foss-26 to 24. Says one Marine veteran, "I may not know much, but I know that 22 and 24 are less than 26."
Other Marines felt that Foss deserved better treatment from his Corps. One was Maj. Gen. Marion Carl, a legendary aviator and the Marines' seventh-ranking ace. After Boyington's death in 1988, Carl approached the History and Museums Division to seek acknowledgment of Foss as the Corps' ace of aces. His efforts were rebuffed on the grounds that "We don't speak ill of the dead."
Therein lay the problem. The Marine Corps chose to personalize the matter. But Carl and many others feel that acknowledging the incontestable fact that Foss outscored Boyington would not be an insult to Boyington. It would simply reflect the facts.
PASSING THE BUCK
Shortly after Foss' death in January 2003, many of his admirers wrote to the assistant commandant, Gen. William L. Nyland, who had spoken at Foss' memorial service. They urged Nyland to amend the record. Instead, he passed the ball back to the History and Museums Division.
The chief historian, Charles Melson, wrote, "Records are most uncertain during the period when pilots were busiest fighting the enemy." He added, "To challenge retroactively the decisions of the Marine Corps leadership of that period concerning the validity of these scores could serve to inflict unnecessary emotional stress on the families of those heroes who sacrificed so much for their corps and country."
Neither contention stands scrutiny. First, nobody contests that air combat is the province of confusion. But that's irrelevant. What matters is what the Corps did administratively after the chocks were kicked into place. second, the concern of emotional distress is nonexistent. Boyington biographer Bruce Gamble notes, "Pappy's relatives never said a word about his score being revised. It just didn't come up." Furthermore, the U.S. Air Force, with vastly more victories than the Marines, has frequently changed the record in the interest of accuracy. For instance, all USAAF WW II fighter scores were re-examined in Historical Study 85, including the controversial claims from the 1943 Yamamoto mission. Obviously, if the "blue suiters" can undertake a reassessment, so can the leathernecks.
Apart from what Marion Carl called "an institutional inability to admit a long-standing error," intraservice politics also figures. The Marine Corps is about riflemen; aviation exists to support the infantry, and there has never been an aviator commandant. Shooting down enemy airplanes does little for the "grunts" (never mind that airplanes can sink amphibious shipping), and "the ground" has always run the Corps. The History and Museums Division takes orders from Headquarters, which demonstrates no interest in an aviation controversy, or, apparently, in the facts.
The Marine motto is Semper fldelis: always faithful. Joe Foss remained faithful to his Corps throughout his life, even after it refused him a permanent commission because of a bureaucratic error. Almost 60 years later, it's high time that the Corps demonstrates loyalty to Joe Foss and to the history he represents.
To help, you may write the assistant commandant: Gen. William L. Nyland, USMC, 2 Navy Annex, Washington, D.C. 20380.
Copyright Air Age Publishing Jun 2003
Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved
R.W. "Dick" Gaines
GnySgt USMC (Ret.)
1952 (Plt #437)--'72
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