February 2021

A Marine's Story: Improvise, Adapt, and Overcome

by Bob Larkin and Erin Yeagley

"Marines are trained to improvise, adapt, and overcome all obstacles in all situations. They possess the willingness and the determination to fight and to keep fighting until victory is assured." This purpose statement is on the official USMC website.

One of the many famous Marines to live this motto was Major Gregory "Pappy" Boyington, who stands out in aviation history as a renegade legend. At 31 years old, Boyington was a decade older than most of his pilots, thus the call sign "Pappy." He is credited with shooting down 28 enemy aircraft from 1943-1944. For this he received the Congressional Medal of Honor from President Truman.

In 1943, Pappy convinced his superiors to let him put together a unit from replacement flyers known as the VMF 214 or "Black Sheep" squadron. Their experience ranged from new substitute pilots to combat veterans with several victories. Under Pappy's command and in just 12 weeks, this misfit fighter squadron went on to destroy 94 enemy fighters, making headlines in the United States. 18 years later, the squadron was made famous once again when Boyington's memoirs inspired the NBC television show, "Baa Baa Black Sheep," a dramatization of their trials and tribulations during World War II.

It's rumored that Pappy rarely flew the same aircraft more than a few times, and would choose the one in the worst shape so that none of his pilots would be afraid of flying their own. Although his methods gave him the reputation of a "fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants" aviator with a reckless and cavalier attitude, he was actually quite the opposite when it came to preparation for combat and the development of his crew.


Pappy was committed to developing the pilots and crew under his command to be proficiently trained in all combat tactics, techniques, and procedures.

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Prior to every mission, Pappy was one of the first to conduct a thorough briefing, or "Commander's Intent," to the pilots and crew. During this briefing he would share the following:

Enemy Intelligence

When it came to the enemy, Pappy was just as knowledgeable of their aircrafts as he was of his own. He studied their rate of agility and the capabilities of their artillery. This helped him adapt his tactics to best conduct and complete the mission.

Finding value and exercising an "Improvise, Adapt and Overcome" mindset gives a great leader a huge advantage. When Leaders show flexibility in their plans, their actions, and their directives for the good of their team and mission, that leader gains influence and momentum from the top down to win, especially during times of adversity. Like Major Boyington, they do not get hemmed in by the plan. Rather, they work with the mindset that "the plan" will only survive 1st contact with the enemy. After that, they must be willing to abort "the plan" and quickly assess each situation, strategically making decisions with purpose. For Pappy Boyington, preparation was paramount to the plan.


Caratola PhD, John M. (2016, February 24). Pappy Boyington — Leader Beneath the Myth. Warbirds News. http://warbirdsnews.com/warbirds-news/wwii-events/pappy-boyington-leader-beneath-myth.html

Gregory Boyington — Our 'Black Sheep' Hero. University of Washington. https://www.washington.edu/alumni/columns/dec98/back_pages1298.html