Aging Marines are planning to make another push to rename Coeur d’Alene Airport after the storied World War II fighter ace and North Idaho native Gregory “Pappy” Boyington.
Despite widespread support for the change among veterans, Kootenai County officials ignored a request last summer to add the aviator’s name to the county-owned airport, which serves mostly private pilots and a summertime fleet of firefighting aircraft. The inaction infuriated many veterans and has attracted some national attention, including from the Distinguished Flying Cross Society and news pundit Oliver North.
“It means everything to us,” said Garth Haddock, a Coeur d’Alene retiree who, like Boyington, flew a Corsair F4U fighter during World War II. “I can’t see why they wouldn’t do that. Why don’t they give it a little glory?”
It could happen soon. Two of the three county commission seats are changing hands next month, and the incoming leaders have expressed tentative support for the idea of adding “Boyington Field” to the airport’s name.
“I’m very in favor of it,” said Commissioner-elect Rich Piazza. “He won the Congressional Medal of Honor. He’s from our area. I think it’s appropriate. Everybody I’ve talked to in the public is for it.”
The other incoming commissioner, Todd Tondee, said he’s in favor of the change, but he stopped short of making an unconditional pledge. That decision won’t come until he fully reviews all the facts, Tondee said. “I would be interested in looking at it. I think we need to honor our heroes.”
After a childhood spent in Coeur d’Alene and St. Maries, then in Tacoma, Boyington went on to become one of the nation’s most decorated wartime fliers. He’s credited with shooting down 28 planes in the Pacific theater and served as the commanding officer of the famed Black Sheep Squadron.
County officials have previously ignored the name change request and have never offered an official reason for their inaction. Airport Manager Greg Delavan could not be reached for comment this week, but he previously attributed some of the reluctance to the name change to Boyington’s “personality characteristics.” Outside of flying, Boyington was also known as a powerful fighter with his fists and a heavy drinker.
Because they’ve heard no other explanation, many local veterans suspect these traits might be the reason for the foot-dragging, said Don Glovick, a retired Marine and commandant of the Marine Corps League Pappy Boyington Detachment. Glovick joked that only “the pope or Jesus Christ” would be suitable airport namesakes if purity and clean living were required by county officials.
Glovick said veterans are frustrated by the lack of explanation. “Whoever has an ax to grind has yet to reveal himself,” he said. “We have so many people behind us. It’s beyond us why it hasn’t happened already.”
County officials have previously suggested naming a park after Boyington, but military aviators pushing for the airport name change scoff at the idea.
“An airfield is so much more important,” said Haddock, 85, who knew Boyington.
Like Boyington, Haddock was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. Haddock earned his medal for valor in the battle for Okinawa. The retired businessman now lives in an assisted-living facility, but he continues to share war stories and the occasional glass of scotch with other men who served in the Marines. Often, the gatherings have served as strategy sessions for the Boyington Field push.
Spokane resident and U.S. Air Force veteran Allan Hagelthorn, who earned his Distinguished Flying Cross while piloting a bomber through missile and anti-aircraft fire over Baghdad in 1991, is also doing what he can to build support for Boyington Field.
Hagelthorn is founder of the northwest chapter of the Distinguished Flying Cross Society; his father also earned the nation’s top flying honor during World War II.
Members of the group are closely following the effort, he said.
“How many other communities can say Pappy Boyington was born and raised here?” Hagelthorn asked. “This guy was a true American hero.”
Hagelthorn and others behind the effort say they will make a renewed pitch to county leaders shortly after New Year’s. They insist the change won’t be costly or require a lot of federal paperwork.
If they succeed, the group is also hoping to raise funds to build a statue of Boyington at his namesake airport. There’s even been discussion of someday organizing a museum at the airport to honor other area pilots.
The plans might seem lofty, but Hagelthorn insists Boyington Field will draw the attention – and landing gear – of pilots nationwide. “You name it and they’ll come,” he said.