Black Sheep One: The Life of Gregory "Pappy" Boyingtonby Bruce Gamble
Black Sheep One is the first biography of legendary warrior and World War II hero Gregory Boyington. In 1936, Boyington became an aviation cadet and earned the “wings of gold” of a naval aviator. After only a short period on active duty, however, he was “encouraged” to resign from the Marine Corps due to his unconventional behavior. Remarkably, this inauspicious beginning was just the prologue to a heroic career as an American fighter pilot and innovative combat leader. With the onset of World War II, when skilled pilots were in demand, he became the commander of an ad hoc squadron of flying leathernecks. Led by Medal of Honor winner Boyington, the legendary Black Sheep set a blistering pace of aerial victories against the enemy.
Though many have observed that when the shooting stops, combat heroes typically just fade away, nothing could be further from the truth for Boyington. Blessed with inveterate luck, the stubbornly independent Boyington lived a life that went beyond what even the most imaginative might expect. Exhaustively researched and richly detailed, here is the complete story of this American original.
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ROUGH AND TUMBLE
The vista that greeted Meriwether Lewis and William Clark as they trekked through Lolo Pass was breathtaking. Leading a congressionally funded expedition across the Bitterroot Range of the Rocky Mountains in September 1805, they became the first known whites to admire the soaring granite peaks and swift, cold rivers of what would later become the panhandle of Idaho. It had taken them sixteen months to come this far, and another year would pass before they returned to their own civilization. Meanwhile, the Shoshone Indians who guided them through the mountains surely saw the white men's presence as a sign that more would follow.
More did, just a trickle, barely noticeable at first. French trappers and missionaries arrived from Canada, giving their descriptive names to some of the tribes, the Nez Percé and Coeur d'Alene among them. For years the hardy trappers and devout reformers were the only newcomers to venture into the unforgiving mountains, but other settlers were eventually drawn by the promise of abundant resources and spectacular beauty. Then came the Civil War, after which the westward expansion mushroomed, precipitated by the joining of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads in 1869. The banging home of a ceremonial gold spike completed an engineering feat that changed the Indians' ways foreverand changed the land.
From the transcontinental railroad a network of tracks spread across the West like a crazy web. Adventure seekers, industrialists, and immigrants looking for the American Dreamrode the rails and wagon trails to newly accessible regions. The seekers surveyed vast regions of timber, found gold and silver, discovered bonanzas of natural bounty; the industrialists found ways to exploit these finds and extract the riches from the land. As the railroads brought more people, the towns grew in proportion, requiring ever greater quantities of lumber.
In 1902, a trained timber estimator named Joseph Boyington left his children in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and moved to the "stovepipe" of Idaho, not far from the trail blazed by Lewis and Clark. The surrounding mountains held an enormous belt of white pine, reputedly the largest stand in the world, providing plenty of opportunity for a "timber cruiser" such as he. If a landowner wished to sell acreage to a lumber company, Boyington could determine how much usable timber it held, depending on the size of trees the company wanted to log. By traversing the property at specified distances, or "chains," and counting the trees meeting the desired diameter, he could estimate the total board feet of lumber and assess its value.
The lure of opportunity brought Boyington to Dalton Gardens, a peaceful neighborhood of small farms and apple orchards north of Coeur d'Alene. Back in Eau Claire, he had farmed and was proprietor of a wholesale feed and flour business in addition to estimating lumber. A wife named Hannah had been with him at one time, though for the past fifteen years she had not been listed as a member of his household. Of his four children, the three youngest remained in Eau Claire to work or complete their education; the eldest left for Evanston, Illinois, and enrolled in the school of dentistry at Northwestern University.
This was Charles Barker Boyington, born on August 31, 1875. He completed his schooling in 1897, then clerked in Eau Claire until a bookkeeping job took him to Montana for a few years. After a visit to Eau Claire, he left again in 1902 to pursue a doctor of dental science degree. Three years latermaking him nearly thirtyhe collected his diploma in a ceremony at the Garrick Theater on Randolph Street, then left Evanston for the promise of the West. His destination: Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, a picturesque lakeside town on the western slopes of the Rocky Mountains, just a few miles from his father's home.
* * *
Charles Boyington did not own a horse, buggy, or riding equipment. Thus, like most people doing business in town, he walked. Setting up his first practice, he hung his shingle outside an office in the Dollar Block, then equipped his workplace with the latest furniture, including a fancy dental cabinet of dark wood. There was an autoclave for sterilizing tools, an upright telephone with its separate earpiece, a steel cuspidor, and an elaborate belt-driven hand tool that turned drilling and grinding attachments.
Soon after opening the practice, Boyington posed for a photograph beside his barber-style dentist's chair. His short hair was neatly combed, his face fully shaven, drawing attention to a long, straight nose and prominent chin. In this and later photographs he did not smile widely enough to show his own teeth, though his broad mouth had an amicable turn at the corners.
Within a few years his practice was earning a handsome income of about $300 per monththis during a time when a new three-room house on five acres outside town could be bought for $500. Charles put his money into property, purchasing a house on West Foster Avenue, and later mortgaging two more lots with a dwelling on Eleventh Street. Considering the value of the properties and the small lien on his expensive dental equipment, he had already accumulated a respectable net worth.
Such a successful dentist would have been considered a catch for the eligible ladies of Coeur d'Alene, but there was the stigma of divorce: Boyington had been married briefly to heavyset Maude Poore in Montana, a failed union that produced no children. He maintained a low profile for several years, then, at the age of thirty-six, applied for a license to marry Grace Barnhardt Gregory, a twenty-three-year-old with long, dark tresses who had recently arrived in Coeur d'Alene. If his decision seemed impulsive to some, at least the age disparity was nothing new; at about the same time, the county clerk signed a permit for a forty-two-year-old woman to wed a codger of sixty-eight.
Grace may have simply turned his head. She was full figured, with round cheeks that dimpled when she flashed a bright smile. She wore her long hair piled high, in the current style, and was accustomed to fashionable dresses.
Her story began in Monticello, a small crossroads in eastern Iowa, where she was born on January 11, 1888. She was the youngest of six children raised by a burly, mustachioed William Gregory and his wife, Ellen. Grace was eight when they moved to Mitchell, South Dakota, where William worked as a road master for the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad. Misfortune visited the Gregorys in 1901 when fifteen-year-old John was killed accidentally by gunfire at a local shooting gallery; more turmoil followed when William junior divorced his wife. Another son, Forrest, died in 1908 of peritonitis.
Despite the tragedies, or perhaps because of them, Grace was animated, cavorting with a large group of friends. The young ladies wore full-length skirts and high-collared blouses, the young men dressed as dandies. She was a racy teen, sneaking with friends behind the Corn Palace to smoke and probably drink. A talented pianist, in her late teens she traveled some nine hundred miles to enter the music program at a "normal school," the equivalent of a teachers' college, in Detroit, Michigan. The curriculum at the Thomas Normal Training School prepared her for a career in music education, but instead of teaching, she worked in theaters after her 1909 graduation, providing piano accompaniment to motion pictures before the advent of the "talkies."
Evidently she had been hired to play in Coeur d'Alene, either at the Rex Theater or some saloon, when she met Charles Boyington sometime after 1910. They appeared at the courthouse for a marriage license on December 27, 1911, then wasted little time once the union was approved. A traditional church wedding would have been unsuitable because of Charles's divorce, so they stood before justice of the peace Roger Wearne, a boarder at Wolf Lodge. The ceremony was performed on New Year's Day 1912, with Florence and Fred Tiffany (Grace's sister and brother-in-law) as witnesses. There is no indication that anyone else attended.
Charles bought Grace a piano on credit for five dollars a month, and they lived comfortably on his income, but whatever matrimonial bliss they enjoyed was brief. Grace was pregnant by early March, after which a terrible change apparently came over Charles. One night, according to Grace, Charles shoved her into a corner with his fist, then grabbed both her wrists and twisted them while calling her "all sorts of vile and vulgar names." He did not strike her again during the pregnancy, but the verbal abuse continued, "so often," she claimed, "that it would be almost impossible for anyone to remember."
There was little joy for the expectant mother when she reached full term in early December 1912. Snow covered the ground during the first few days of the month, followed by rain on the fourth, a Wednesday. The temperature climbed into the low forties, turning the streets into a quagmire. Fortunately, Grace did not have to be concerned about whether a midwife or attendant could reach her on this dreary day; she had a bed at the Coeur d'Alene Hospital.
At five o'clock, under the glow of newly installed electric lights, Grace gave birth to a healthy ten-pound son. Delivery and recovery were evidently normal for both mother and child.
The next morning their tranquility was shattered by the alarm of two dire emergencies. The first patient was a railroad brakeman, who suffered broken bones and a severe head injury after falling from a freight car. Barely two hours later an ambulance arrived with Hans Ostensen, crushed beneath a pile of rubble when his haberdashery suddenly collapsed. Brought in on a stretcher, he died a few hours later.
The little boy's birth, overshadowed by the drama of injury and death, was announced on an inside column of the Evening Press. The baby was as yet unnamed. Grace later gave him her maiden name, Gregory, with or without Charles's participation.
What should have been a cheerful time was but a minor distraction for the couple's imploding marriage. Within three weeks of Grace's discharge from the hospital, Charles began spending his evenings away from home, rarely returning before midnight, if at all. In April, when Gregory was four months old, Charles accused his wife of "having intimate relations with other men," identifying them by name, and proclaimed that he was not the baby's father. Throughout the spring and summer of 1913 he did not physically abuse his wife, but that streak ended in November. Charles stumbled home drunk at three o'clock one morning, cursing with a tirade he repeated often, calling her a "damned bitch" and "damned whore." He grabbed her arms, squeezing until his fingers left bruises visible for weeks. Grace later named specific dates for other beatings, including a violent episode five days before Christmas when Charles knocked her down, pinned her to the floor with his knee, and slapped her. He was ashamed of her, she said, and never took her out in public. Often the baby's crying would elicit outbursts of rage against both mother and child. When she nursed Gregory, Charles called her a sow. He moved out of the house for good the following June, a small gesture since the couple had been separated for the better part of a year.
Gregory showed that he was already something of a climber during the summer of 1914. Playing in Grace's bedroom with some of her combs and brushes one day, he ended up on the sill of an open window. Looking down at the ground below, he decided that he "could make it in the air" and jumped out. "I hadn't learned the law of gravity yet," he later said of the experience. Grace found him lying in a flower bed, momentarily stunned, but he got back on his feet after she brushed him off.
The tumble might have been fondly remembered, but his parents' marriage was nowhere near as resilient as his head. On August 14, Charles visited each of the banks in Coeur d'Alene and arranged for them to refuse credit to Grace, then he contacted several in Spokane and relayed the same instructions. The following day, he went to the Foster Avenue house and tried to coerce her into packing her trunk and returning to South Dakota. She took the initiative instead, saying she had been "reliably informed" that Charles was associating with other women. One of them, in fact, was a neighbor, and Grace decided to call the woman into the yard. Charles became outraged, but Grace called the neighbor anyway. A loud row ensued in the yard separating the houses, with Charles screaming threats at his wife and the neighbor. Nothing more came of it, except that everyone realized the marriage was done for.
On the nineteenth Charles paid for a public announcement in the Evening Press: "I hereby notify all parties that from this date I will not be responsible for any debts contracted by my wife, Grace B. Boyington." The following day, she hired an attorney and filed a detailed complaint along with a request for divorce.
Charles hired his own lawyer, and, at the divorce proceedings, produced a love letter Grace had written (but apparently not mailed) to one Ellsworth Hallenbeck, a "young man of Spokane." Their affair had begun in the spring, claimed Charles, when they held "clandestine, lascivious, and lewd meetings" in Coeur d'Alene and other communities. Grace had also entertained different men in the Foster Avenue house in early June, during which they furnished "intoxicating liquors." His proof was her letter to Hallenbeck, written the day after, in which she described being "piffled" during the party.
We expected father [Charles] to walk in every minute and find us in our sad plight. The boys had their hats in hand ready to fly when they heard the latch key turn. But thanks to our luck, father didn't turn up until twelve, and his little "wuf" was sound asleep and snoring when he climbed in.
Whether or not she actually committed adultery, another portion of her letter to Hallenbeck left little doubt about her intentions. "One question I would ask of you loved onehave you feather beds and no bed bugs in your apartment? I'm used to one and not the other." In addition to the damning letter, Charles claimed that she subsequently visited Hallenbeck in his Spokane apartment. She mustered a weak excuse in court, calling the letter a joke written at the urging of a friend, but offered no other defense against the allegations.
The claims, complaints, and countercomplaints continued for months, until finally at ten o'clock on March 4, 1915, the judge presented the final decree. The marriage ended with a whack of his gavel, but the court appearance was only a formality. Days earlier, both parties had signed the judge's stipulations regarding disposition of property and custody of the baby. Grace was awarded custody of her son, the house on Foster Avenue, and its furniture. Charles kept everything else, including the house on Eleventh Street and the right to visit Gregory "at any time during reasonable hours." He paid fifty dollars to fulfill a temporary alimony award, after which he was under no further obligation to Grace or the boy. Evidently, his documentation of Grace's affair had the desired effect on the judge, who took a dim view of her behavior and refused to grant continued alimony.
In the meantime, Grace was already living with Ellsworth Hallenbeck in Spokane, and taking no pains to hide it. She was even listed beside his name in the 1915 city directory, issued months before the divorce. Considering all the trouble she had gone through with Charles, she did not make much of a change; Ellsworth was merely a younger version, but otherwise cut from similar cloth.
Born in Geneva, New York, on May 2, 1888, Ellsworth was raised in Wenatchee, Washington, along the Columbia River, where he developed a reputation for shenanigans with a gang calling themselves the Dirty Dozen. According to family lore, he had the number five tattooed on the inside of his thigh, putting him roughly in the middle of the gang's hierarchy. Described as "the type that wasn't afraid to try anything," he once took up a challenge from another youth to cross the Columbia. The bet was only fifty cents, but the conditions made it stimulating: the river was frozen, and Ellsworth had to cross it naked. Presumably his clothing remained on the near bank, meaning that he had to cross the ice in both directions before he could get dressed again. He did not have to swim it, just run across, and he pocketed the reward.
He may have been bold, but independent he was not. At the age of twenty-four he still lived with his mother and a sister when they moved to Spokane in 1912, his mother Maude by then a widow. Ellsworth's own life seemed none too exciting. Short, already balding, he was a bookkeeper by trade and led a bookkeeper's sedentary life. He appeared well dressed in photographs, but moved nary a muscle around his eyes or mouth, giving him an utterly flat, emotionless expression. According to his descendants, he was a heavy drinker and smoker. A common trait among alcoholics is a tendency to move frequently and change jobs, thereby attempting "geographic cures" for their lack of self-control. Ellsworth fit this pattern, changing locations and jobs on a regular basis.
The first apartment he shared with Maude and his sister was on Monroe Street, near the Spokane River. Within a year they moved to another on Second Avenue, presumably larger digs to accommodate a fourth personEllsworth's "wife," identified only as Josephine in the 1913 directory. He was employed by the Centennial Mill, a large lumber mill beside the river, while his sister Mildred worked as a dentist's assistant. Soon the Hallenbecks moved a few blocks to their third apartment in as many years, but Josephine was out of the picture. This was the year that a new "wife," Grace, appeared with Ellsworth in the 1915 directory.
For the next year and a half, Grace and little Gregory were crowded with Ellsworth, his mother, and his sister into an apartment on South Wall Street. The building was located near the elevated main line in a working-class neighborhood, surrounded by the booming downtown of industrial Spokane.
From one of the upstairs windows, Gregory made his second flight. "For some reason I became airborne again," he remembered later, calling his predilection for tumbling "a habit." Incredibly, he fell to the wooden sidewalk below without sustaining a life-threatening injury, though the force of the impact popped one of his eyes out of its socket. While his mother raced down the stairs, "all excited and hysterical," a nurse who lived in the building was summoned. She performed a neat piece of sidewalk surgery, using her fingers to stuff the eyeball back into its socket ("the cords weren't broken or anything"). His eye was bloodshot for six or seven months, but the condition eventually cleared with no permanent damage.
Gregory's adventures continued. During an outing to a lake one summer, before he learned to swim, he walked into the water until it was over his head. Looking up, he was intrigued by the surface, "like watching the whirling of the water going out of the bathtub," before Grace snatched him out. He sputtered and coughed while she scolded him for the fright she had received.
Ellsworth relocated yet again in 1916 (when Maude and Mildred departed from Spokane), to a five-story brick apartment house on Howard Street, still within a few blocks of the Centennial Mill. By this time, Ellsworth and Grace had been living a common law marriage for two years, and there is little evidence that they tried to legitimize the union. Much later, in a Seattle courtroom, Ellsworth would testify that he and Grace "were married at Spokane, Washington, in the year 1917," but there is no documentation to support this claim. A search of records in both Washington and Idaho failed to locate any record that Grace and Ellsworth applied for a license, let alone were married. There was, however, good reason for them to consider doing so.
Grace was pregnant, having conceived in late April or early May of 1917. Rather than making it legitimate, however, Ellsworth moved them again, this time across the state line into Idaho. If the lack of marriage documents is not convincing, the timing of the move certainly indicates a desire to avoid embarrassment. They went southeast to the small lumber town of St. Maries as husband and wife with virtually no paperwork or burden of proof required. For all practical purposes, Gregory had a new surname: he would henceforth be raised as a Hallenbeck, though nothing had been done legally to change his name.
The move covered less than fifty miles, but the contrast was striking. St. Maries (pronouncedand often misspelledSt. Mary's) was a beautiful small town nestled in a scenic valley. Majestic mountains sloped gracefully down to a plain at the confluence of two rivers, where the St. Maries emptied into the meandering St. Joe, the highest navigable river in the world. The town was defined by a small commercial district consisting of two banks, an opera house, a public library, and an electric power plant. Dominating the hillside above town, the three-story Lincoln School had originally looked pretentious with only a few clapboard houses in the neighborhood, but in seven years it had become overcrowded. Near the rivers, the Milwaukee Mill and a couple of smaller sawmills worked nonstop shifts, cutting up timber as fast as it could be brought from the surrounding forests.
One of Ellsworth's first official acts was to register in St. Maries for the selective service. Some nine million American males were compelled to sign up for the draft, instituted after the United States declared war on Germany. Records prove that Ellsworth did his duty, but the unanswered question is whether he registered as a married or an unmarried man. The deference rate for married men was almost seventy-five percent, much higher than for bachelors. He was not called up in any case, a relief for a twenty-nine-year-old bookkeeper who smoked heavily and drank just as much. Ellsworth did not shy from challenges, but he was more comfortable with ledgers and balance sheets than the rugged life of soldiering.
As an office employee of the Milwaukee Mill, he earned approximately one hundred dollars a month, enough to house his pregnant "wife" and Gregory east of town on a small rise known as Silk Socks Hill, where the residents were said to be the only ones who could afford silk stockings for their ladies. Mill owner Fred Herrick's large home commanded the best view, below which the elevation of each house in descending order signified the relative status of employees: bosses, foremen, and office help. Common laborers occupied the low ground in Milltown, purchasing their necessities at the company store at prices that were guaranteed (along with rent) to absorb the lion's share of their wages.
For miles around, lumberjacks toiled to harvest the seemingly inexhaustible white pine. The labor was grueling and hazardous, conditions were deplorable, and life in the slapdash camps scattered throughout the woods was rugged. In remote cutting areas, loggers often slept on the hard ground. Paydays and holidays brought them stomping into town, where saloons and brothels outnumbered churches by a hefty margin. The 'jacks blew their wages in bars along the muddy streets or down on the waterfront, where they dallied with prostitutes named "Boathouse Nellie" and "Giggles" aboard their rough-hewn shanties on cedar rafts.
Growing up among them, young Gregory saw the lumberjacks at their worst, when they came to town to do their drinking and whoring and fighting with the same vigor they applied to toppling trees. The calendar might have shown it to be the second decade of the twentieth century, but St. Maries could be as rowdy as the cow towns of the Old West. Gregory's perspective was close enough to the ground that he was more impressed by the lumberjacks' footwear than their behavior. "They were familiar sights in their calk boots, which they wore all the time," he later remembered. "Those were their prized possessions; the best piece of equipment they had."
Considering the prevailing environment, it is no wonder that Gregory developed a headstrong nature, partly inherited from Grace's independence, but equally absorbed from his surroundings. He was almost completely unfettered, especially after Grace gave birth to another son on February 2, 1918. She became occupied with caring for William DeWitt Hallenbeck, a situation that suited Gregory just fine. At just five years old, he hadn't a clue to his half-brother's different lineage, and would remain oblivious to it for years.
Gregory's infant sibling was certainly no playmate for him at this stage, but he had two young friends, John Theriault and Reed Elwell, both within a few months of his age. Together they roamed the unpaved streets of St. Maries, the meadows near the river, and the woods left uncut by the loggers. They covered a sizable region, sometimes hiking to a peak several hundred feet above town where they played at being lumberjacks. When it came to climbing trees, Gregory had no equal. "I seemed to have a penchant for climbing in high, dangerous places," he recalled, "like the tallest trees that were available. Some of them that I loved to climb especially well were situated right on the edge of a cliff, which made the height even more fantastic."
Another early development was a love of fisticuffs. Grace would later recall that Gregory "was always a fighter, always coming home with a bloody nose." The bloodletting was a result of his size. Heredity had seen to it that his legs were short (and by his fifth birthday they were chubby too), but his stature did not prevent him from being aggressive. He was obstinate, unconcerned with the possibility of pain or humiliation. The outcome of a fight was secondaryit was far better to fight and get whipped than not fight at all. Even if his opponents were bigger or stronger, Gregory learned to face them, and he gave as good as he got. He was "still a little kid" when he fought an antagonist fitting the bigger-and-stronger description in his own neighborhood. Kenneth Fisher, several years older and about forty pounds heavier, lived a few doors away.
Their first encounter was brief. Kenneth "beat the living daylights" out of Gregory, who went home bleeding, his clothes torn. When Grace saw his condition she took pity and wiped away the blood, then helped him change clothes. Meanwhile, Mrs. Fisher called her son inside. Within twenty minutes Gregory returned to his opponent's house, knocked on the door, and asked, "Mrs. Fisher, is Kenneth home?" Again the fracas resumed, and again Gregory. stumbled home, his clothing asunder and blood dripping from his nose. Grace, less patient as she ministered to this round of injuries, scolded, "Now, this is the last timeyou stay away from Kenneth."
Gregory complied, but not before learning another valuable lesson. "I did go back for the third time," he later admitted, "and the same thing happened. I was all bloody and my clothes all torn up, but there was one thing different when I got [home] this time. My mother didn't clean up my clothing or my face; she beat the living daylights out of me."
Thus he established early the reputation that would echo throughout his life: of having a bulldog's tenacity despite being knocked down or hurt. Even when his enemies were not tangible, as Gregory learned was sometimes the case, he would never surrender.
Meet the Author
Brice Gamble is the author of The Black Sheep: The Definitive Account of Marine Fighting Squadron 214 in World War II. A retired naval flight officer, Gamble lives in Hendersonville, North Carolina.
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