View Full Version : WWII pilot wants ‘Black Sheep’ record clarified

11-24-04, 12:49 PM
November 22, 2004

The Lore of the Corps
WWII pilot wants ‘Black Sheep’ record clarified

By Robert F. Dorr
Special to the Times

When he speaks to groups about being a fighter pilot during World War II, Thomas M. Tomlinson likes to think of himself as debunking a myth.
“I tell them I was in fighter squadron VMF-214,” Tomlinson said. “Then, I have to add, ‘No, no, not that one!’”

A generation of Americans grew up knowing about a “Black Sheep Squadron,” commanded by Medal of Honor recipient Maj. Gregory “Pappy” Boyington. Thanks to a long-running television series and several books, the “Black Sheep” may be the Corps’ most famous flying outfit.

But they were not the best, insists Tomlinson, who flew with the original Marine Fighter Squadron 214, the “Swashbucklers,” commanded by Maj. George Britt. Tomlinson said his outfit “did a lot of hard fighting” on Guadalcanal before Boyington “hijacked” the squadron’s identity.

“Boyington’s VMF-214 didn’t ‘hijack’ the number,” said Barrett Tillman, author of “Wildcat Aces of World War 2.” “It was simply assigned to the unit Boyington formed. The original Swashbucklers had completed their tour, leaving the designation vacant.”

Tomlinson sees himself as the anti-hero. He knows that fighter pilots often compare themselves to the eagle or some other noble bird. But Tomlinson chose “The Threadbare Buzzard” as the title of his biography, published recently by Zenith Press. “Most of us were ordinary men,” he said.

Tomlinson, 83, of San Rafael, Calif., and a former captain, belongs to a generation of Americans that joined the military in 1941 before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Tomlinson joined the Royal Canadian Air Force and underwent flight training north of the border. Before he could see combat, the United States was in the war and he became a Marine.

On April 7, 1943, the Japanese launched one of their biggest air raids against Guadalcanal with 67 Val dive-bombers and 110 Zero fighters. The “Swashbucklers” were part of an intercepting force that included portions of three Army and four Marine squadrons. VMF-214 was credited with shooting down four Vals and six Zeros with its F4F Wildcats. Tomlinson got behind a Val and shots bursts of machine-gun fire that ripped into the Val’s rear-cockpit gunner.

In June 1943, Tomlinson’s squadron converted to the F4U Corsair and flew additional combat missions in the South Pacific.

The “Threadbare Buzzard” transferred to a different unit and experienced further combat, including ditching and being rescued by a submarine. Today, Tomlinson salutes the veterans of Boyington’s VMF-214. But he also takes pride in “shooting down,” as he puts it, the notion that VMF-214 was in any sense the best or the greatest. Under Boyington, the members of VMF-214 “were competent and took their losses and made their contribution,” Tomlinson said. “Just remember that many other Marines did the same thing.”

Robert F. Dorr, an Air Force veteran, lives in Oakton, Va. He is the author of numerous books on Air Force topics, including “Air Force One.” His e-mail address is robert.f.dorr@cox.net.