While doing research for my 1/72 Boyington Corsair I realized my knowledge of Marine aviation in the Solomons in 1943 was woefully lacking (and basically limited to a mid-70's TV show, which is about like basing knowledge of German POW camps on Hogan's Heroes), so I picked the two best books on my subject – VMF-214.
I started with Pappy Boyington's Baa Baa Black Sheep, which tells his story from Flying Tigers days through the Black Sheep's formation and combat activities, to his being shot down and spending the rest of the war as a POW, to his postwar activities. The late 1950's memoir eventually became the basis for the Robert Conrad 1970's series, in which Boyington had a cameo as a Marine general. Thinking this was probably not the whole story, I then got Bruce Gamble's The Black Sheep, which tells the entire story of VMF-214, of which Boyington's "black sheep" were only a part, and not actually the part he claims.
VMF-214 – that's Marine fighter squadron 214 – first first organized in Hawaii in the summer of 1942 as the role of Marine aviation in the Pacific expanded in the wake of the Battle of Midway. It transitioned from no planes to trainers, to Brewster Buffaloes, to Wildcats and eventually to the initially defect-plagued Corsairs while deployed to the South Pacific for combat as the Marines began their drive north from Guadalcanal towards Rabaul. The first incarnation of VMF-214 was known as the "Swashbucklers".
While 214 was on leave following on of its tours of duty, Major Greg Boyington, a former Flying Tiger who was never addressed or even referred to by his pilots as "Pappy" – although sometimes "Gramps" – successfully persuaded his superiors to let him replace the existing pilots with a new group, with him as the commander. Given the intense need to get the squadron back into action as soon as possible, the unit was transferred to Boyington, and the existing 214 pilots were sent to other squadrons when their leave expired. But the band of green misfits that Boyington portrays in his book – and which was emphasized in the TV series – is not remotely accurate for the 214 he led. The pilots of the rechristened "Black Sheep" squadron in many cases had extensive experience as fighter pilots in the South Pacific, and their behavior was no worse than any other group of pilots of the time – with the exception of Boyington himself, whose bad behavior – principally his nonstop bouts of drinking and occasional bouts of fighting or wrestling – was and remains legendary. But he was an outstanding combat commander, leading his squadron to over 97 aerial kills and over 200 aircraft destroyed or damaged. The squadron's coat of arms retains a reference to the initial favorite name – "Boyington's Bastards" in the form of a black diagonal band, which was the symbol for a bastard, as well as the black sheep.
Unfortunately, five days before their second tour ended, Boyington was shot down over Rabaul while trying to beat Eddie Rickenbacker's World War I record of 26 kills. Both books tell the story of an increasingly frazzled Boyington, stressed and drinking even more than usual trying to break the record in what all knew was his last few days of combat, since squadron leaders weren't permitted to repeat. Because Boyington was not reported by the Japanese as a POW, he was believed dead until the end of the war, when he returned to a hero's welcome, including an unwarranted designation as the Marine Corps' leading wartime ace, which went fine until his drinking once again destroyed his career.
When the Black Sheep ended their second tour immediately after Boyington's disappearance they, like the Swashbucklers, were split among other squadrons as replacements, and VMF-214 was reformed stateside over the next 14 months, as the role of Marine aviation post-Solomons was debated. The decision was finally made to beef up carrier air groups with additional fighters to counter the kamikaze menace, and to fit the 36-aircraft slots available on carriers Marine Corsair squadrons like 214 were slimmed down from 24 aircraft to 18 so they could be paired with a second squadron. Accordingly, 214 finally shipped out in early 1945 on the carrier Franklin (CV-13) in new F4U-D Corsairs that had rocket rails for the aircraft's new role as a fighter-bomber.
VMF-214 had precisely one day of combat operations before the Franklin was hit by Japanese bombs on March 19, 1945. 32 Black Sheep pilots and associated crew were killed, and in the aftermath the surviving aircraft were reassigned to other units, mostly serving on escort carriers.
The squadron remained active on carriers in the late 1940's and served two tours in Korea, including as the first Marine squadron to see combat in that war. It still serves as VMA-214, shown here in Harrier jets on the amphibious assault ship USS Peleliu in 2010. Note the squadron coat of arms on the Harrier's nose, which still features both a black sheep and the diagonal stripe denoting the bearer as a bastard.