Fascinating pictures of America’s famous WW2 Black Sheep Squadron whose efforts helped win the war in the Pacific have been released in vibrant color.
The series shows the squadron’s commanding officer, Colonel Gregory ‘Pappy’ Boyington who received the Medal of Honour and the Navy Cross, briefing his men on strategy and tactics before the 17 October 1943 attack on Kahili airdrome at Bougainville island, Papua New Guinea.
In this raid ‘Pappy’ and 24 fighters circled the field where 60 enemy aircraft were based to goad them into sending a large force. In the ensuing air battle, 20 enemy aircraft were shot down and the Black Sheep (VMF-214) squadron suffered no losses.
The Black Sheep squadron initially fought for 84 days and achieved a record of 203 Japanese planes destroyed or damaged, produced nine fighter aces with 97 confirmed air-to-air kills. They also sank several troop transports and supply ships.
The squadron’s commanding officer, Colonel Gregory ‘Pappy’ Boyington received the Medal of Honour and the Navy Cross. He had 28 kills, making him the ‘ace of aces’ for the U.S. Marine Corps. His exploits even hit the small screen in the 1970s with the TV series Baa Baa Black Sheep, starring Robert Conrad.
Pilots of the Black Sheep squadron flew Vought F4U Corsair fighters which saw service primarily in WW2 and the Korean War. Mostly a carrier-based aircraft, they came to prominence through land-based use by U.S. Marines, and were seen by some Japanese pilots as the most formidable American fighter of the war.
According to a Marine Corps biography, ‘Pappy’ Boyington got his nickname because at 31 he was older than most of the pilots he commanded. He was shot down in his Corsair in January 1944, but not before downing two enemy planes, and went on to survive internment at the Otami prison camp. Boyington released his memoirs, entitled Baa Baa Black Sheep, before his death in 1988.
Other shots show Pappy in the cockpit, being interviewed on television at his homecoming and reuniting with his Black Sheep comrades, Chris Magee and Bill Case at a bar at San Francisco’s St. Francis Hotel after the war in late 1945.
The series of pictures, most originally taken in the South Pacific between September 1943 and January 1944, were brought into the 21st century by colorist, Craig Kelsay (54) from Pearland, Texas.
‘The Black Sheep are a famous squadron from WW2. When I was a kid there was a television fictional show about the squadron that I watched regularly. It made me curious about the real Black Sheep and I found the real story much more compelling than the fictional story could ever be,’ said Craig.
‘These are brave men who faced impossible odds to defend their nation and win the war in the Pacific.
‘The founding members of VMF-214 were exceptional men who overcame incredible odds to become one of the best fighting squadrons of WW2.
Originally the squadron called itself ‘Boyington’s Bastards’ in honor of its new commander and because most of the pilots had been ‘orphans’ in that they were not attached to a squadron when they got together and possessed few reliable planes and no mechanics.
The series of pictures were mostly taken in the South Pacific between September 1943 and January 1944 and contain many images of ‘Pappy’ Boyington, the charismatic leader of the Black Sheep squadron. He was sent to lead the squadron in August 1943 after a successful tour in China where he had been credited with multiple kills of Japanese aircraft.
The American war machine was not slow to realize the exploits of Black Sheep pilots needed to be publicized and ‘Pappy’ Boyington was in many respects box office material. Although the squadron was disbanded after 84 days in the far east, it was reformed soon afterwards and saw service in Korea (late 1950s-early 1960s), the Vietnam war and more recently in Afghanistan and Africa.
‘Pappy’ briefing his men ahead of the 17 October 1943 attack on Kahili airdrome at Bougainville island, Papua New Guinea. In this raid ‘Pappy’ and 24 fighters circled the field where 60 enemy aircraft were based to goad them into sending a large force. In the ensuing air battle, 20 enemy aircraft were shot down and the Black Sheep (VMF-214) squadron suffered no losses.
‘Much more interesting than the image created by the television show back in the 1970s. Many of the members of the squadron hated the television show because they felt that it made them out to be ridiculous misfits when in reality they were well educated fighting Marines.
‘I love that people can see the photos in a new light and learn about the real Black Sheep. I also love that many people feel it brings them closer to the history once they see what the photo looks like in colour.’
Marine Attack Squadron 214 (VMA-214) is best known as the Black Sheep of WW2 and for one of its commanding officers, Colonel Gregory Boyington who was sent to lead the squadron in August 1943 after a successful tour in China where he had been credited with multiple kills of Japanese aircraft.
Bill Case, with eight kills, was the third-highest scoring Black Sheep member. He is famous for cheating death on his last combat mission when for reasons unexplained he decided to lower his Corsair’s seat a notch (the only time he ever did so). In battle, a Japanese Zero fighter’s bullet smashed into the cockpit, bloodying his scalp. If he had been sitting an inch higher, the bullet would have killed him. William Case survived and lived for another 52 years, passing away in 1995.
‘Pappy’ and Bill Case. The Black Sheep got their nickname because of the motley nature of their pilots. Boyington himself had a reputation as a troublemaker, brawler and drinker – a black sheep who often upset his superiors. He was the ideal person to assemble a crack team of pilots who were rejected by other units.
John F Bolt was the only Marine to become an ace in WWII and the Korea campaign. In WW2 he flew with The Black Sheep, shooting down six Japanese planes in the Solomons. Ten years later he shot down an equal number of of Soviet MiGs in Korea. He practiced law after active service and attended a Black Sheep reunion in California in November 2000.
‘Pappy’ was given a hero’s homecoming at the end of the war. Stories of his exploits are legion, from his formation of the legendary Black Sheep squadron to his time in China as a member of the American Volunteer Group, the famed Flying Tigers. ‘Pappy’ spent 18 months as a Japanese POW, was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor and was recognized as the Marine Corps top ace. Always hard-drinking and hard-living, ‘Pappy’s’ post-war life was as turbulent as his wartime experiences.
The Black Sheep squadron fought for 84 days. They achieved a record of 203 Japanese planes destroyed or damaged, produced nine fighter aces with 97 confirmed air-to-air kills and sank several troop transports and supply ships.
They were awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for extraordinary heroism in action. The Black Sheep ended their second combat tour on January 8, 1944, after Boyington was shot down and captured by the Japanese.
Craig explained how he first got involved in colourisation and what he loves the most about it.
The images brought to life by Texas colorist Craig Kelsay show men of the Black Sheep squadron at work and during their time off. ‘When I was a kid there was a television fictional show about the squadron that I watched regularly,’ he said. ‘It made me curious about the real Black Sheep and I found the real story much more compelling than the fictional story could ever be.’
First Lieutenant Don Fisher became a friend of ‘Pappy’ Boyington when he lost a case of beer to him on an aerial gunnery bet. He joined the Black Sheep in August 1943, flying as Boyington’s wing during a major confrontation with the Japanese a month later and scoring two kills. He died in 1995.
‘Pappy’ and other Black Sheep fliers including Chris Magee and Bill Case stayed in touch after the war – they are seen here at a bar at San Francisco in late 1945. During the course of the war, the squadron suffered 23 pilots killed in action or missing and lost 48 aircraft to accidents or enemy contact.
Frank Walton, intelligence officer with the Black Sheep squadron. He became a member by a circuitous route. As sergeant in charge of War Traffic Control Planning for the Los Angeles Police Department, he was draft exempt. But by mid-1942 he read of the Japanese advances in the South Pacific and knew that ‘the place for every able-bodied man was in the service’. He wrote afterwards that his wife, Carol – ‘not one of those weeping ‘don’t leave me type’ – was fully in agreement’.
‘I got interested in photography and started using learning photoshop. I colorised a picture of my father from World War II and became obsessed with getting better at it and I am still working on getting better,’ he said.
‘My favourite reaction is where people feel closer to the history because they feel the photo looks real.
‘When family members look at them and feel closer to their loved ones, I feel that all the time is more than worth the effort.’
Striking images like these are featured in British author Michael D. Carroll’s new book, Retrographic, which is available on Amazon now for £16.85.