Student vote against Boyington memorial sets off firestorm

Several members of the Student Senate at the University of Washington in Seattle managed to offend the Greatest Generation, the United States Marine Corps and many others with comments made during a debate about the creation of a monument on campus to honor Marine Lt. Colonel Greg “Pappy” Boyington.

Boyington, a 1934 graduate of the school, became famous during World War II as the leader of the Black Sheep Squadron. He shot down 26 enemy aircraft and is still the Marine Corps’ top ace.

UW senior Andrew Everett introduced the resolution during the Feb. 7 meeting. Everett said he had read about Boyington and thought his achievements warranted recognition in the form of a small statue on campus.

The resolution noted that Boyington was a member of the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity, an ROTC cadet, and represented the school as a swimmer and wrestler in intercollegiate sports. He held the Pacific Northwest Intercollegiate middleweight wrestling title before graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree in aeronautical engineering and a commission in the Coast Artillery Corps. He was also a volunteer with the Flying Tigers before America entered World War II.

During the war Boyington fought in the Pacific Theater earning the Navy Cross. He was captured by the Japanese and spent 20 months in a prisoner of war camp. In 1958 he wrote a book about his experiences, calling it “Baa Baa Black Sheep.” In the 1970s the book was made into a movie, then a television series. He died in 1988 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. He was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

According to the minutes of the meeting, Student Senator Jill Edwards questioned whether it was appropriate to honor a person who killed other people, and said that she didn’t believe a member of the Marine Corps was an example of the sort of person UW wanted to produce.

Senate Vice President Ashley Miller commented that “many monuments at UW already commemorate rich white men.”

Boyington was of Native American descent and was never rich. He worked his way through school and throughout his life struggled financially. After leaving the Marine Corps he had several careers, including beer salesman and wrestling referee.

Another student, Karl Smith, objected to the line in the resolution stating “he was credited with destroying 26 enemy aircraft” because he said the resolution should commend Boyington’s service, not his killing of others.

Student Mikhail Smirnoff stated he understood the sentiment of not wanting to reward those who fought in the war, but that he thought those who fought in World War II were heroes and it was much different from the controversial war in Iraq.

The resolution failed by one vote.

Within hours of the posting of the minutes on the Internet, the students’ comments were the topic of fodder for conservative talk show hosts and Internet blogs. The student senators have received verbally abusive and threatening emails from around the world. Several people called the students’ statements ignorant and insulting, and questioned the quality of education at the university.

Both Miller and Edwards say their comments were taken out of context.

In an email to General Aviation News, Miller said that the minutes do not quote people word for word but “simply try to catch the essence of what they are saying.” Miller said the point she was trying to make was that nearly all memorials on campus “are named in honor of rich, white heterosexual men. This is not to say that rich white men do not deserve to be honored, but in our institution (which sits on Duwamish Indian land), leaders of color and women have been overlooked. Pappy’s race or economic status was not the reason that this legislation failed, nor the reason that I personally voted against it. I honor the sacrifices that he and many others have made to enable my freedom of speech that allows me to express my opinions, however ridiculous others may find them.”

Attempts to reach Edwards were unsuccessful. However, within days of the meeting, Edwards issued a public apology in the form of a resolution to the Student Senate. Edwards noted that she will read Boyington’s book or she will give up her senate seat.

One positive outcome of the negative publicity is the establishment of the Lt. Col. Gregory “Pappy” Boyington Memorial Scholarship Fund through the University of Washington Foundation. The fund will provide scholarships to undergraduate students who are either U.S. Marine Corps veterans or the children of Marine Corps veterans.

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