BOOK REVIEW – Black Sheep: The Life of Pappy Boyington

John F. Wukovits, Black Sheep: The Life of Pappy Boyington. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2013. 250 pp.

Review by 2nd Lieutenant Jordan K.K. Bolster
Research Assistant USAF Academy

Pappy Boyington, the Marine Ace-of-Aces who earned his fame in World War II flying against the Japanese was a man of violent contrast. When flying he was the angel of death, while on the ground his demons found him and made up for lost time. Seemingly the perfect specimen for a combat pilot in the Pacific Theater, where the freedom of flight and terror of war saw him at his best, time on the ground often found him lost in a bottle and trapped by rules and regulations.

Wukovits portrays Boyington as a character capable of evoking both feelings of admiration and revulsion.  People either remembered him as a drunken brawler, or as an aggressive combat leader who helped raise morale. Black Sheep is a balanced history of Boyington’s life and is the perfect book to capture the essence of this dynamic man.  The author expertly weaves the life and military exploits of Boyington into a coherent story that is both meaningful and gripping. His account neither shies away from the moments that tarnished Boyington’s reputation, nor does it fail to offer praise for his accomplishments.  Black Sheep examines Boyington as a whole person, rather than focusing on only one or two aspects of his life.

Written with the feel of a novel, Black Sheep keeps the reader engaged through clever narrative and smooth transitions. The logical flow of the book adds to the ease of the read, preventing confusion and frustration. Wukovits ensures an in-depth and comprehensive look at Boyington’s life without going into the weeds of unnecessary detail. The reader follows Boyington from abused child to war hero.  From his first flight at the age of five over the rural Idaho town of St. Mary’s, to violent and sometimes comical alcohol infused brawls, to his exploits during combat over the Pacific, the reader gains an understanding of the Medal of Honor recipient that makes him as familiar as someone with whom they had grown up. This account moves readers to cheer Boyington’s accomplishments and feel disappointment in his defeats.  In essence the reader is made to care what happens to this man.

Wukovits has written extensively on World War II with a focus primarily on the Pacific Theater. That experience comes together in Black Sheep.  The book is well researched with abundant sources supporting the thesis that Boyington was not either a hero, or a brute, but rather a combination of the two. He answers the question “how can the same individual be vilified by people with whom he worked in 1942 and venerated by those he commanded a mere seventeen months later” (Wukovits, 2)? This biography will appeal to all those who are interested in Boyington’s life, the Pacific Theater of World War II, and Marine aviation.  Wukovits captures Boyington’s essence and leaves the reader with an understanding of the man behind the legend, demonstrating that Boyington’s life was a dichotomy and no matter where he was, he would forever be the black sheep of the flock.

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