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Original Black Sheep impart history to the new herd

By Cpl. Graham J. Benson | | April 21, 2011

Marine Attack Squadron 214 welcomed three of its founding members, along with the son of its legendary commander, to the station April 14, 2011, for a reunion with each other and the squadron they helped create and name.

Jim Hill, Ed Harper and Harry Johnson were all Black Sheep pilots who fought against the Japanese during World War II in the Pacific and are three of the only remaining five original Black Sheep still alive. They were joined by Greg Boyington Jr., son of VMA-214’s first commanding officer and Medal of Honor recipient, Gregory “Pappy” Boyington.

For the first time since 1994, each man traveled from various areas of the country to reunite with the men they once inhabited tight, wartime quarters with and also to see what has been built on the foundation they laid almost 70 years ago.

“I’m absolutely stunned to see what they are now,” said Johnson, who initially joined the squadron as a replacement pilot near the end of its Pacific combat tour in 1943. “This is so plush. This is like a palace,” joked the outgoing Johnson when speaking about the squadron’s hangar. “The Marine Corps was a tent somewhere that smelled real bad, and now we’ve come into a place that you don’t want to mess up, and you don’t see too many cigarette butts around anymore. I remember lots of cigarette butts.”

Within minutes of their arrival to the squadron, both Hill and Harper were enlightening current Black Sheep Marines about the origin of their squadron’s name.

“The initial idea was to call ourselves ‘Boyington’s Bastards,’” said Harper, a retired colonel who later in his career played an intricate role in the development of the AV-8A Harrier, which led to the AV-8B that VMA-214 and other Marine attack squadrons currently fly. “But the press didn’t think that’d be too good an idea and suggested we get something else, so we backed down to Black Sheep.”

The founders’ misfit moniker originated in the unusual circumstances in which they were formed.

Instead of forming their unit and training in the states like most squadrons at the time, the men were hastily assembled at Boyington’s request and trained in the Pacific, said Bruce Gamble, a author and original Black Sheep historian who accompanied the men to the station.

The squadron was far from underdogs in the air, however. Throughout their two six-week combat tours of 1943 they destroyed a record 97 confirmed enemy aircraft as well as another 35 probable kills, damaged 50 enemy aircraft, 27 enemy ships and saw nine pilots claim the title of ace, which required five or more confirmed kills.

Much of the squadron’s overwhelming success and accompanying fame has been credited to Boyington who led the squadron in confirmed kills with 26 before being shot down and kept as a Japanese prisoner until the end of World War II.

“He seemed to not have any fear. He was a fine leader, not conventional at all,” recalled Harper fondly. “The difference between Pappy and the other great leaders in the Pacific was his courage. Other’s idea was to always cover the guy in front of you, no matter what. He didn’t see it that way. He would say, ‘If you see something, shoot at it. Don’t worry about me; I can take care of my own butt.’ He made young men braver than they should’ve been and built confidence in them. That was the difference, and I think that’s why we had so much success and why he was so respected.”

Hearing the anecdotes and recollections from their forefathers left current VMA-214 Marines, from the top to the bottom of the chain of command, reminded more strongly than ever of their rich heritage.

“I tell every Marine that checks into this squadron, ‘This is your proudest day,’” said Lt. Col. Robert Schroder, VMA-214 commanding officer. “We’re very close to the top with any military unit in our country’s history. No squadron in the world is more renowned than the Black Sheep, and every Marine can be proud of that.”

Though the shadow casts by these history-making aviation giants is huge, they all agree that the Black Sheep and Marines of today are not only continuing their legacy but improving it.

“Every solid Marine gives a damn and performs when called on,” said Harper. “I’m an old Marine, and when I see them today I’m just as proud as I’ve ever been of anyone.”

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