A memorial to World War II hero Col. Gregory “Pappy” Boyington took a step forward this week, when Tacoma Public Schools officials settled on a location for it at Lincoln High School.
Boyington, who died in 1988 at the age of 75, was a 1930 graduate of the school and gained wartime fame as a Marine Corps fighter pilot. He won the Navy Cross and the Medal of Honor — initially awarded by President Franklin Roosevelt while he was missing in action, then later presented to him in person by President Harry Truman after he was freed from a Japanese prison camp.
Boyington is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Boyington led the famed Black Sheep Squadron, a collection of aviators that included inexperienced men along with some who’d been rejected by other units. Boyington whipped them into a fierce fighting force, whose legend grew with the post-war publication of his memoirs. Their exploits were later portrayed in a 1970s television series that starred actor Robert Conrad as Boyington.
It was as a leader of the Black Sheep, who flew combat missions over the Pacific, that Boyington earned his nickname. At age 31, he was about a decade older than the airmen who served under him.
Boyington whipped the Black Sheep Squadron — initially a collection of inexperienced pilots — into a fierce fighting force
Lincoln alumni and supporters have been raising money for several years to erect a monument in Boyington’s honor at Lincoln. On Thursday, supporters met with Deputy Superintendent Josh Garcia, who confirmed a site for the memorial and told them that the school district will assign a manager to the project.
The memorial will be placed on school grounds near the intersection of South 37th and South G streets.
Bill Connolly, who is helping raise funds for the planned project, describes it as a marble monument, about four feet tall, with a bronze image of Boyington in profile. He said an artist has already been commissioned, and the memorial committee has raised around $15,000.
There had been some back-and-forth discussions between the committee and the school district over the precise location of the memorial at Lincoln High. Backers had initially hoped to place it closer to the statue of President Abraham Lincoln that has stood on the grounds since 1918.
But Connolly said objections were raised.
He said at first there was a suggestion that Boyington’s memorial might detract from the imposing Lincoln statue. There were also questions about construction logistics in that area.
Connolly said he’s happy with the site that’s been chosen.
“We have a home for it,” he said.
“We’re excited to help the community honor a hero,” Garcia said.
Connolly said there is no definite timetable for construction of the monument, but added that the group hopes it will happen this spring.
Boyington was awarded the Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross for his wartime heroics
At Lincoln, Boyington was known as Greg Hallenbeck. That was his step-father’s surname. He later discovered his original last name — his parents had divorced when he was young — and took his birth father’s last name of Boyington.
The 1930 “Lincolnian” yearbook described him as an unbeatable athlete in football and wrestling.
In adulthood, Boyington was a man of his times — tough talking, hard living and a self-acknowledged problem drinker. He married four times.
And while Boyington won widespread praise for his exploits during the war, his actions would raise red flags for some people in subsequent years.
A group of veterans in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, led a hard-fought campaign to rename the local airport in honor of Boyington. Boyington was born in Idaho in 1912, and grew up there until his family moved to Washington. In 2007, the airport was renamed Coeur d’Alene Airport-Pappy Boyington Field.
In 2006, the student senate at the University of Washington rejected a move to build a memorial to Boyington — he graduated from UW in 1934 with a degree in aeronautical engineering.
One student at the time questioned whether it was proper to honor someone who killed people. There’s no question that he did plenty of that, in service of his country. In 1944, Boyington tied World War I ace Eddie Rickenbacker’s record of downing 26 enemy aircraft in the war over the Pacific. His record was later adjusted to 28.
Boyington was shot down and, for more than a year and a half, held prisoner by the Japanese, who failed to report his capture. He later spoke of beatings and starvation he and other prisoners endured. He was officially listed as missing in action, but at war’s end, he was released to a hero’s welcome at home.
In 2009, the university did erect a memorial to all its Medal of Honor recipients, including Boyington. His name was also included in a Tacoma war memorial honoring scores of Tacoma-area service members who were prisoners of war or missing in action, as well as on another monument that recognizes area Medal of Honor recipients.
But the committee at Lincoln, led by former school board member Connie Rickman, is glad that Boyington will finally be recognized in a public way at his Tacoma alma mater.
“It will let kids know that our freedoms are not free,” Rickman said. “People pay for it.”