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WWII ace’s belongings donated to Marine station

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YUMA, Ariz. — When retired Air Force officer Greg Boyington Jr. decided to preserve some of his famous father's possessions, he said the choice of what to do with them was an easy one.

He gave them to a squadron assigned to Marine Corps Air Station Yuma.

"It just seemed to me that is where they belonged," said Boyington, who flew the F-4 Phantom in Vietnam. "They were just sitting in a box in a drawer here at my home."

Arguably the most fabled Marine Corps fighter squadron is VMF-214, and it is forever linked with its legendary leader, Maj. Greg Boyington, better known by his nickname of "Pappy."

Greg Boyington's father, a World War II ace who shot down 28 enemy Japanese planes, was a prisoner of war and a Medal of Honor winner, also formed the legendary Black Sheep Squadron in 1943.

The squadron, composed of 49 replacement and inactive pilots, shot down in 84 days of combat 98 Japanese planes over Kahili, Bougainvilla and Rabaul in the South Pacific and annihilated or damaged at least 130 other enemy aircraft on the ground.

The modern-day Black Sheep have been based at MCAS Yuma since 1987. Boyington recently added to its rich history by donating his father's golden aviator wings to the squadron.

In addition to the aviator wings, Boyington gave his father's wristwatch to the squadron. In the early 1980s, the Sieko watch company released a special edition watch that was given to all of the living Medal of Honor winners. Boyington's watch was the 34th one issued.

"My father wore that watch for a number of years," Boyington said. "Then I used to wear it occasionally to my fighter pilot reunions."

Retired Lt. Col. Jim Hill, one of the five living members of the squadron's original 49 pilots, thought Boyington's gesture was very appropriate.

"It was mighty nice of him," said the 90-year-old Hill, who served two tours of duty with the Black Sheep with "Pappy" as his commanding officer.

Lt. Col. Robert Schroder, the squadron's current commander, said the squadron is very rooted in "Pappy" Boyington's legacy and that it was an honor to receive some of the items that signified him as the hero that he was.

Boyington had contacted the squadron in October about giving the base his father's items and offered to have them shipped to the air station, which Schroder would not let him do.

"Absolutely not, because this was such a big deal for us," Schroder said. "We told him we would come and get them."

Schroder said when Boyington gave them the items, he requested that they be incorporated in the squadron's activities, which they have already done.

According to the Schroder, as of Nov. 10 the squadron has implemented some new traditions that honor Boyington's request. He said the squadron's commander will wear the watch during change-of-command ceremonies, the Marine Corps Birthday Ball and other special occasions.

As for the golden aviator wings, the privilege of wearing them for special occasions will always fall to the squadron's newest pilot. "Imagine being a new aviator and being handed Boyington's wings," Schroder said.

The first modern-era Black Sheep pilot to wear those wings was Capt. Srivatsan Santhanam, of Fairlawn, N.J., who wore them during the Marine Corps Ball celebrating the Corps' 235th birthday earlier this month.

"It was pretty awesome. I had only been in the squadron a week and was told I get to wear 'Pappy's' wings," Santhanam said. "I was like, 'Wow, I showed up at the right time.'"

Hill said VMF-214 was actually three different squadrons that all used the same squadron number and that Boyington was its second commanding officer.

The first VMF-214 was nicknamed the Swashbucklers and fought in mid-1943 in the Solomons campaign under Maj. George Britt, flying Wildcats and then Corsairs. The pilots from the squadron claimed 20 aerial victories and included two aces.

The famed Black Sheep squadron was its second formation and fought above the Northern Solomons and Rabaul from August 1943 through January 1944. The squadron shot down 98 Japanese planes and counted eight aces in addition to Boyington.

The third VMF-214 was a carrier-based squadron that flew off the USS Franklin against Japan in late 1944-1945.

"It was the original squadron that became famous," Hill said. "Other squadrons picked up on our name over the years."

The aviator wings and watch aren't the only items that belonged to "Pappy" that Boyington has given to the squadron. About 20 or so years ago, Boyington said, he gave a saber that belonged to his father to the squadron.

According to Boyington, when his sister lived in Spokane, Wash., a woman came to her home saying she bought the saber at a garage sale. The woman noticed later that it had the name Boyington etched into the blade and tracked his sister down because she wanted to return it to the family.

"Somehow it had gotten away from the family," Boyington said. "She wouldn't take any money for it, either."

That saber, along with a bust of Boyington, is on display outside the commanding officer's office.

Schroder said he considers it an honor to command VMF-214 because of its proud legacy. He added that he tells Marines who are new to the squadron that it is their "lucky day" when they join.

The colonel added that every Marine who has ever been in the squadron is aware of the historical significance of being a Black Sheep and strives to continue the tradition of excellence that was forged by all those who came before them.

"This squadron has proven itself throughout the years," Schroder said of VMF-214, which was also the first Marine squadron to see action in the Korean War and has served numerous deployments during the War on Terrorism.

Kevin Gonzalez, a documentary filmmaker who made a movie about getting an airfield in Boyington's hometown named after the famous pilot, said the historic squadron actually has a second connection to Yuma.

According to Gonzalez, after VMF-214 was broken up after its third rotation, many of the pilots were transferred to VMF-211, the Wake Island Avengers, which is also now stationed at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma.

Incidentally, Gonzalez said, Boyington's donation of the aviator wings and watch coincided with the time of year in 1943 in which the Black Sheep were about to begin their second combat tour in the Solomons, a tour in which "Pappy" was shot down.

Boyington said another reason he decided to give the wings and watch to the squadron was that he considers them and his father as national treasures.

Hill, who still occasionally speaks at air shows, said he is surprised about all the notoriety he and the squadron still receive to this day.

"When (he and other pilots) would go to air shows, we would have people lined up for half a block waiting to take our picture and get our autographs."

What really helped create that notoriety, according to Hill, was the popular TV show "The Black Sheep Squadron," which he said appealed to a new generation of Americans.

Hill also spoke fondly about meeting some members of the Black Sheep squadron in San Diego about six to eight years ago.

"I had lunch with the commanding officer," Hill said. "They put me in the cockpit of a Harrier, but I wasn't interested in a flight."

He also admitted to still getting excited whenever he talks about the Corsair, which has become an icon in aviation.

"Flying a Corsair was much simpler than flying one of today's planes. The plane is so unique. It was difficult to fly, but once you got the hang of it, you could do anything."