Flying High With a World War II Legend
USC Marshall School of Business alumnus Kevin Gonzalez ’93 became familiar with World War II hero Gregory “Pappy” Boyington and his legendary fighter pilot exploits through the 1970s TV series Baa Baa Black Sheep. But it wasn’t until he moved to Idaho in 2005 that the life of the Medal of Honor recipient would become a passion for him.
Gonzalez, who served a four-year enlistment in the Marine Corps before attending USC, joined a local veterans’ group to get to know people in the area after moving from Orange County to Coeur d’Alene.
At the time, the veterans were lobbying to name the airfield after Boyington, the hometown hero. Gonzalez, who has a career in technology sales, decided to document the process. Little did Gonzalez know when he started that he would be self-financing a feature-length documentary that took three years to complete.
“I never imagined I would be involved in film,” Gonzalez said. “It’s something I was always interested in, and I’ve always been a fan of independent films. I saw the circumstances of what was going on, and it was such a compelling story and such an important story that I thought I should be documenting it as it went on in the community.”
The result was Pappy Boyington Field, a 65-minute documentary that includes interviews with Boyington’s son Greg, actor Robert Conrad (who portrayed the fighter pilot on TV) and Idaho veterans. The film, which features archival World War II footage, is currently on the festival circuit.
Gonzalez also has shown the film at military bases, air shows and aviation museums such as Seattle’s Museum of Flying. It has been favorably reviewed by a Marine Corps magazine. He is self-releasing the DVD later this fall. “That, in and of itself, is amazing to take a small project that was very important to you and then have it seen by some very important audiences,” he said.
Boyington, an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps, became famous for his heroism as a pilot during World War II, commanding the famous VMF-214, also known as the “Black Sheep Squadron.” He was captured and became a prisoner of war for nearly the last two years of the war. Upon his return, he was awarded the Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross.
Boyington later wrote Baa Baa Black Sheep, an best-selling autobiography and inspiration for the ’70s TV series of the same name. But the hero’s personal postwar life was plagued with problems, including alcoholism, which contributed to multiple divorces and bad debts. It was judgment of his personal life that initially prevented county officials from renaming the Idaho airfield.
“I do have a section of the film called ‘Pappy’s Reputation,’ which explores what the implications of his reputation were on the campaign locally,” he said. “As a filmmaker, you hope to be a part of dialogue about a subject. In screening the film about a WWII hero on military bases, some Marines bring up the point that as a society, we didn’t come to understand PTSD and its effects until after Vietnam.”
While the film doesn’t set out to explore post-traumatic stress disorder, Gonzalez feels that a modern take on Boyington’s personal life would reveal that his time in the war and as a prisoner probably exacerbated his own battles with the bottle.
One of the most satisfying aspects of screening the film, Gonzalez said, are the Q&A sessions where youngsters ask questions.
“It’s great that it’s an expansion of the legacy of Pappy Boyington, and an even younger generation will get exposure to his history and that of World War II,” he said.
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