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Pacific World War II Book Review  
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by Bruce Gamble
Presidio Press  2000
466 pages
Index, photos, appendixes
ISBN: 0-89141-711-7

Language: English

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The Black Sheep
The Definitive Account of Marine Fighting Squadron 214 in World War II

Marine Fighting Squadron 214 (VMF-214) nicknamed the "Black Sheep" is one of the best know squadrons of the Pacific theater. Despite this fame, there is plenty about this Marine fighter squadron not covered in the "Ba BA Black Sheep" television show. For those that read Bruce Gamble's account, they are treated to an exhaustive summary of the unit, day by day and pilot by pilot.

For fans of air combat, the book covers some of the most vicious aerial warfare over the Solomon Islands with rich testimonials regarding every dog fight and interception, from both official records and interviews with the pilots themselves. This book succeeds in capturing the excitement and ferocity of what it was like to fly and fight in the South Pacific, while exploring volumes of information regarding the group's little known first and third tour of duty, and the well known service in the Central Solomons with VMF-214's famous Commanding Officer (C. O.) Major Gregory "Pappy" Boyington.

After the battle of Midway, VMF-214 was commissioned and humbly began its wartime service with only two officers and twenty enlisted men, and several obsolete F2A fighters. Rapidly, the new unit took shape with the leadership of its first C. O. George F. Britt at Ewa airbase on Ohau. Soon, new pilots joined the group and flying practice missions began with newly acquired F-4F Wildcats to supplement their initial F2A's. The book follows the fates of each pilot in the squadron, and also their rigorous but monotonous training routine. By February 1943, the group was shipping out for the South Pacific, overseas to New Hebrides and then to Guadalcanal, but not without operational losses. In the vast Pacific, survival was difficult and those rescued were very lucky.

First Tour: "Swashbucklers" on Guadalcanal
The next section of the book deals with VMF-214 first combat tour, flying out of Guadalcanal in F-4F Wildcats, not the F4U Corsair normally associated with the group. During this tour the group was know as the "Swashbucklers"and met the enemy for the first time, achieving its first victories, and losses in missions to protect Henderson Field from Japanese attackers and occasionally escort dive bombers or forays to targets in the central Solomon Islands including Munda. By the end of their tour in September, the now hardened pilots were ready to fight the so-called "Battle of Sydney" and well deserved rest and recuperation.

Flying the F4U as "Black Sheep"
After the completion of thier first tour, the "Swashbucklers" squadron number was taken by another new group, but the old group would not be broken up, rather added to it, with pilots from VMF-124. It was at this point that Major Gregory "Pappy" Boyington, who served with the AVG "Flying Tigers" came to join the squadron and become its commanding officer. Additionally, the group was equipped with brand new F4U Corsair fighters and began the process of training on these powerful new planes for their second, and arguably most famous tour of duty.

Second Tour: The Solomons & Rabaul
The second tour of the VMF-214 saw them based at a variety of famous island bases in the central Solomons, like Munda and Vella Lavalla. This was the beginning of their most well know combat tour, and the beginning of a furious period of air combat that would end the naturalizing of Bougainville and Rabaul.

"The Black Sheep" details many little known facts, like Boyington's verbal duels with a Japanese controller on the ground, or the truths about his brawling and drinking the earned him the distinction of being one of the few aviators who was able to fly better drunk! These exploits, both fact and fiction made Boyington into a larger than life fighter pilot to the men around him and the press in the states. One thing that was not exaggerated was his leadership and daring that ultimately earned the Medal of honor.

Air Combat: Research From Both Sides The book is particularly interesting as the losses and claims of VMF-214 are compared side by side with those of the Japanese Kokutai that opposed them over Bougainville and Rabaul. This reveals both sides often inflated claims, but also helps to collaborate events. For this research alone, this book is worth acquiring as it provides a far more accurate look at the outcomes of each mission than simply the official unit records or recollections of the veterans themselves.The group's incredible successes in the air came at their price: many pilots were wounded, missing or killed as well as Boyington, who bailed out over Rabaul and became a POW of the Japanese until the end of the Pacific War.

February 1944 - Starting Over
The third section of the book deals with the third incarnation of the VMF-214, this time in February 1944. As with the first commissioning, nineteen month earlier, the unit began this last tour with no aircraft, and a mostly novice pilots. Aside from this similarity, the mission of the squadron would prove to be very different. The war in the Pacific was accelerating and the role of land based Marine aviation was much in doubt with the looming operations in the Philippines and beyond that would rely more upon aircraft carriers than land based fighters, like during the Solomons campaign.

The new aviators of VMF-214 would have to qualify for carrier operations - a difficult task in the F4U due to limited visibility over the nose when approaching head on. Aside from this deference in operations, the unit was training with new weapons for the F4U-1D models they would be using during this third tour - HVAR (High Velocity Aircraft Rockets), large "Tiny Tim" rockets and napalm based aboard aircraft carrier USS Franklin (CV-13) their new, mobile home. After only one combat mission against Izumi airbase, Japan a single enemy dive bomber hit the Franklin while planes were refueling and hatches open. The Judy's two 250kg bombs knocked the carrier out of action, and took the lives of 32 of the squadron's men. For the "Black Sheep" the war was over as the ship returned to Brooklyn Navy yard and the group did not participate in the last three months of combat.

At the end of the Pacific War, Major Gregory "Pappy" Boyington returned from captivity as a Prisoner Of War (POW) after being shot down in January 1944 over Rabual. The USMC awarded him two unobserved kills on his last mission, making him the highest scoring U.S. Marine Corps ace, a controversial decision that the author debates and makes a sound case about why these two kills were unlikely. Despite his immediate fame, the leader and former ace rapidly self-destructed his personal life and soon faded from the headlines to a more private but but pointed personal life, until his death in 1988.

The fates of the other pilots are equally interesting, including aces like John Bolt, and aces in both WWII and Korea. Or Chris Magee who served as a fighter-pilot-for-hire in Israel. As the years went by, the press lost interest in the "Black Sheep, but even to this day the contemporary VMF-214 still memorializes its most famous C.O.

Appendixes & Special Features
The last forty pages of the book are dedicated to an exhaustive series of appendixes and indexes that interested readers will truly enjoy. The first is a complete rooster of VMF-214 pilots and essential ground officers. For each name, notes on their tours, and fate are detailed. A second appendix is the list of all operational and combat losses, followed by the combat sorties of Major Greg Boyington, and multi-kill pilots and aces of the group. Also of interest is a list of typical flight gear and survival equipment carried, followed by the verbatim text of the unit's presidential unit citation, the first for a USMC fighter squadron. Lastly are the book's notes and index section for further cross-reference. Also available in hardcoverThe Black Sheep (Hardcover).

Interview with author Bruce Gamble

Review by  Justin Taylan  

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Last Updated
September 21, 2023

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