This is perhaps one of the most powerful books I have ever read in my life. I grew up in the 1960's and by the time I was fifteen I knew about VMF=214 aka The Black Sheep, and their infamous leader Gregory Pappy Boyington... and by the time I was sixteen I was watching the T.V. series that was a fictional account of Gregory Boyington and his squadron.
So it comes as no surprise that I would end up reading this book, what came as a surprise, was how much I did not know. With the exception of reading Boyingtons auto biography "BAA BAA BLACK SHEEP" and watching the T.V. Series I had been unfamiliar with the history of the squadron. I had seen one program on the History channel, but beyond that I had no real understanding of this squadron.
The first thing that you discover, as you read the opening paragraph is that VMF 214 had a rather interesting history before Boyington came on the scene, for VMF-214 had been organised as a Marine fighting wing in early 1942 at Ewa airfield in Hawaii as a result of Marine Air wings being decimated so badly in the early days of the war.
You learn of how this squadron, originally called "The Swashbucklers" gained a reputation as one of the best Marine squadrons, who had racked up a fair record of victories in their two combat tours, and how they had been disbanded before completing their third combat tour, due to fear that the entire squadron would be killed by the Japanese. The squadron number 214 was reassigned to a brash young man and his squadron that had arrived in the Solomon islands in August of 1943, that of course was Major Gregory Boyington.
The book dispells the myth that the pilots of VMF-214 were misfits and screwballs totally, if anything several of the pilots of the Black Sheep, were established pilots, a few aces, and others who were already on their way to becoming aces. The rest were fresh pilots from the states on their first tour of duty. Boyington did teach these pilots skills to survive in combat, and the squadron became a legend, racking up a record of 129 planes destroyed,
One of the original leaders of the Swashbucklers was Captain John Burnett, whom Major Boyington replaced, when the squadron was rebuilt as The Black Sheep.
Bruce Gamble goes out of his way to dispel myths about Boyington and paints the man as someone who deliberately misrepresented aspects of the record, for his own purposes. Since Boyington died in 1988 we will never know for sure if Boyington deliberately rewrote history, or if his misrepresentations came from the time he was a prisoner of war.
Perhaps one of the most intriguing aspects of this book, is what happened after Boyington was shot down. For VMF-214 and the name BLACK SHEEP did not fade away, the squadron was reformed, and had some of its' previous members in the new squadron formed. This incarnation was taught carrier landings, because it was now a point where the land based Marine units would not have effective range, so the Black Sheep were all carrier qualified and served on the U.S.S. Franklin, a fast carrier that had barely survived a Kamakazie attack prior to the assignment of the Black Sheep to it.
For the second Black Sheep Squadron, their history would be short, and unfortunate.
The book chronicles the three incarnations of VMF 214 and is breath taking at points, you will find yourself caught up in some of the most amazing moments in history. It is well worth the reading.
Some images of the SWASHBUCKLES and Black Sheep.