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Before They were the Black Sheep: Marine Fighting Squadron VMF-214 and the Battle for the Solomon Islands

by Carl O. Dunbar, edited by Peter M. Dunbar, University Press of Florida, Gainesville, 2011, $32

Carl Dunbar’s book is interesting on two levels, depending upon the reader’s point of view. It is essentially the story of a young Marine fighter pilot’s experiences from flying school to combat, told through his unedited letters. For anyone seeking pulse-pounding combat tales, this is a bit of a drag. But for readers who want to comprehend the whole experience of a pilot’s tour of duty, Dunbar’s letters add detail not found in many other books.

The title draws upon the allure of Gregory “Pappy” Boyington’s VMF-214 tour, a good merchandising approach, but somewhat ironic given this book’s focus. During Dunbar’s tour of duty, VMF-214 was called the “Swashbucklers,” and while Dunbar may well have been a swashbuckler in combat, he was anything but that in his letters. His loving missives to his parents reflect a cerebral Ivy Leaguer’s approach to politics and the war. They also put things in the best possible light, to protect his parents from worry. Peter Dunbar, Carl’s son and the editor, stitches the letters together with commentary on the status of the war and details of the aircraft and locales. He makes use of his father’s logbook too, chronicling missions not mentioned in letters.

Hollywood will probably not make this book into a film, since it lacks Boyington’s flamboyant escapades. That’s a shame, for Dunbar portrays himself in his letters as the typical good, brave American, more than willing to risk his life for his country. World War II—and indeed all U.S. wars—was fought for the most part by Dunbars rather than Boyingtons.


Originally published in the September 2012 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.