Gregory “Pappy” Boyington lived hard and battled his demons, but his courage and skill as a fighter pilot in World War II are legendary and worth recognizing by naming Coeur d’Alene Airport for him, say a group of retired Marines.
Marine Corps League Detachment 966, itself named for the Coeur d’Alene-born ace, hopes Kootenai County officials will reconsider a previous suggestion to name the airport for Boyington – a figure whom detachment members revere as a genuine hero. The idea last surfaced about a year ago, but county and airport officials were unenthusiastic about it.
Boyington, who died in 1988, was awarded the Navy Cross and the Medal of Honor. He was credited with shooting down 28 enemy planes in China and Burma and later in the South Pacific, and he spent 20 months in a Japanese prison camp. But the Marine also was known for his exploits on the ground. He drank heavily, got into fights and struggled to pay debts – behavior that ended his military career and stained his reputation.
“Regardless of his personal life, he was a national hero,” said detachment Commandant Donald Glovick, of Rathdrum. “He distinguished himself in combat by battling our enemies in the air in a thin-skinned aircraft that was out there and vulnerable.”
Boyington’s legacy recently made headlines when the student senate at the University of Washington refused to honor the UW alum with a campus memorial. One student leader questioned whether it was appropriate to “honor a person who killed other people” and said she didn’t believe a member of the Marine Corps was “an example of the sort of person UW wanted to produce.”
The episode sparked a blaze of outrage among veterans, alumni and aviation buffs and renewed discussion of how best to pay tribute to Boyington, who grew up in St. Maries and Tacoma and graduated from UW in 1934 with a degree in aeronautical engineering.
“Who’s to judge a hero?” said Noelan “Mac” McCormack, judge advocate for Detachment 966 and a resident of Coeur d’Alene. “He paid his dues.”
Glovick said it would be a fitting tribute to have pilots land at Boyington Field. The man’s roots were here, and he returned to North Idaho during his summers in college, working in mines or the woods, he said.
And Boyington was one of the region’s most renowned pilots, having distinguished himself with the American Volunteer Group – the Flying Tigers of China – and later as commanding officer of the VMF-214, the famed Black Sheep Squadron, during the war. The 1970s television show “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” starring Robert Conrad as Boyington, was loosely based on the aviator’s autobiography.
Members of Detachment 966 hope the community gets behind their proposal.
“I think there’s going to be a lot of public interest in it,” said Glovick, a career Marine who retired as a gunnery sergeant.
“Maybe we ought to get a petition out and get it on the ballot,” said McCormack, who served as a corporal in the drum and bugle corps and met Boyington at several air shows.
Airport Manager Greg Delavan said the airport advisory board discussed the idea a year or more ago and that county commissioners were briefed as well.
“The idea wasn’t strongly embraced by anyone, and frankly there wasn’t a very strong movement behind it,” Delavan said.
Officials were reluctant in part because of Boyington’s “personality characteristics,” he said.
“He wasn’t the kind of guy I want my children to emulate, but he certainly was a significant war hero,” he said.
“To honor his military accomplishments I think is something we should do, but I’m not sure changing the name of the airport is the right way to do that,” Delavan said.
He also said he’s averse to changing the name of the airport because it can cause confusion among pilots. The airport’s three-letter identifier, COE, is used in navigation.
There also has been talk over the years of naming it Hayden Airport because the airport is just outside the city of Hayden, closer than Coeur d’Alene city limits. Others have wondered if it should be called the Kootenai County Airport.
County Commissioner Rick Currie said he’s inclined to leave it be. “It’s a name that has served the area quite well a good number of years,” Currie said.
Someone recently asked Delavan if a statue of Boyington might find a home at the airport. That’s a possibility, he said, if an appropriate spot could be found. A public terminal would be an obvious choice for a statue or bust, but the airport doesn’t have a terminal, he said.
But Glovick said other airports have been named for aviation heroes, including Butch O’Hare (Chicago) and Clyde Pangborn (Wenatchee, Wash.).
Gene Soper, a propeller plane pilot and local aviation history buff, said he researched Boyington’s life when the proposal last came up and wasn’t convinced the fighter pilot was the right choice for such an honor.
“He had absolutely no connection aviation-wise with Coeur d’Alene at all,” said Soper, who has been based at the airport for nearly half a century.