Joe Foss was an incredibly well-rounded individual who accomplished many things in a very rich and fruitful life. Foss was a Marine Corps ace flying in World War II during the battle at Guadalcanal where he was awarded the Medal of Honor. After the war, he returned home and joined the Air National Guard and rose to the rank of Brigadier General.
Foss later became the 20th Governor of South Dakota, was the head of the National Rifle Association, was the first Commissioner of the American Football League and later became a broadcaster.
Foss was born Sioux Falls, South Dakota in April 1915. He grew up on a farm but dreamt of flying. When he was just 12, he went to an air expo to meet Charles Lindbergh who was touring the United States with his plane, “The Spirit of St. Louis” that he flew from New York to Paris across the Atlantic Ocean.
A few years later, he and father took their first aircraft flight in an old Ford Tri-Motor aircraft. He saw the Marine Corps aviation team led by Captain Clayton Jerome in old open cockpit biplanes and decided that aviation was going to be his calling. He took flying lessons at the Sioux Skyway Airfield working at a service station as well as the family farm to pay for his flying and college tuition. He graduated from the University of South Dakota with a degree in Business Administration in 1939. He had built up over 100 flying hours while in college.
He was in the South Dakota National Guard from 1937-1940 as a private but in 1940, he had both a college degree and his pilot’s certification and he enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve to enter into the Naval Aviation Cadet Program.
Military Service, WWII, and Beyond: Foss was commissioned as a 2LT, naval aviator but at 26 years old was deemed too old to be a fighter pilot. He was assigned to Photo Reconnaissance but continued to apply for a fighter pilot assignment. He checked out of F4F Wildcat fighters while assigned to photo reconnaissance and logged over 100 hours in fighters. He was finally accepted as the XO of the VMF-121 during the summer of 1942.
In October 1942, VMF-121 was sent to Guadalcanal to relieve VMF-223 who had been in combat there since August. The squadron would launch at sea from the escort carrier USS Copahee about 350 miles from Henderson Field and immediately began combat operations.
The Marines on the ground were desperately trying to hold Henderson Field from determined Japanese counterattacks. The Japanese were hoping to use it as a staging point to attack Australia, 1600 miles to the south.
Foss downed a Japanese Zero fighter on his first combat mission, but heavily outnumbered, his Wildcat was shot up and he was forced to land at full speed to avoid three Japanese Zeros on this tail A few weeks later, in his Wildcat, he was shot down again while strafing Japanese ships 150 miles from Guadalcanal, when machine gun bullets shot up his canopy and narrowly missed his head, and was forced to ditch at sea. There he floated in his life jacket while sharks circled close by. Five hours later a member of a Catholic mission in Malaita rescued him in canoes.
But his squadron, also known as Foss’ Flying Circus was racking up kills on the Japanese flyers who were tough and experienced. In three months his squadron shot down 72 Japanese planes with 26 of those credited to Foss. His 26 air victories equaled the total of World War I ace Eddie Rickenbacker. He shot his final one on January 15, 1943. But ten days later, his smart thinking may have saved Henderson Field.
The Japanese sent a large formation of Japanese Zeros to lure the Americans into a dogfight. And while they were mixing it up a large formation of Japanese bombers was supposed to slip in and bomb the airfield. Foss recognized this and maneuvered around the fighters. The Japanese feared they were ones being led into a trap and began to run low on fuel. They turned around with dropping a single bomb.
Foss caught malaria for the second time early in 1943 and was sent back to the United States to recover. There he learned that he’d be awarded the Medal of Honor by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The President cited Foss’ “outstanding heroism and courage” while leading his planes in combat. In addition to the Medal of Honor, Foss was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, Silver Star, Bronze Star, and the Purple Heart. He appeared on Life Magazine’s cover and was asked to take part in a war bond drive that stretched into 1944.
Early in 1944 he was sent back to the Pacific and commanded a Corsair aviation squadron. He got to meet and fly with his childhood hero Charles Lindbergh but didn’t add to his combat victories. He came down with malaria again and was sent home to Oregon to recuperate.
Post War Career: After the war was over, he was tasked with starting up the South Dakota Air National Guard. He also began his own flying service. He eventually reached the rank of Brigadier General. He retired for good from the military in 1955.
Foss entered politics winning two times a seat in the South Dakota legislature. In 1955 he became the youngest governor of the state of South Dakota serving one term. He ran for a seat in the House of Representatives but lost to another pilot, George McGovern.
In 1959, the fledgling American Football League asked him to be their first commissioner. He negotiated a couple of television contracts that kept the league afloat until they could compete with the NFL. He stepped down in 1966 with the merger of the two leagues about to take place.
During the mid-1960s, Foss hosted the popular television show,”The American Sportsman” about hunting and fishing. He later was elected twice to be head of the National Rifle Association. Foss suffered a serious stroke in October 2002 and was in a coma for three months before passing away on New Years Day 2003. He was 87.
Medal of Honor Citation:
The President of the United States takes pleasure in presenting the CONGRESSIONAL MEDAL OF HONOR to
CAPTAIN JOSEPH J. FOSS
UNITED STATES MARINE CORPS RESERVE
for service as set forth in the following CITATION:
For outstanding heroism and courage above and beyond the call of duty as Executive Officer of a Marine Fighting Squadron, at Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands. Engaging in almost daily combat with the enemy from October 9 to November 19, 1942, Captain Foss personally shot down 23 Japanese aircraft and damaged others so severely that their destruction was extremely probable.
In addition, during this period, he successfully led a large number of escort missions, skillfully covering reconnaissance, bombing and photographic planes as well as surface craft.
On January 15, 1943, he added three more enemy aircraft to his already brilliant successes for a record of aerial combat achievement unsurpassed in this war. Boldly searching out an approaching enemy force on January 25, Captain Foss led his eight F4F Marine planes and four Army P-38s into action and, undaunted by tremendously superior numbers, intercepted and struck with such force that four Japanese fighters were shot down and the bombers were turned back without releasing a single bomb. His remarkable flying skill, inspiring leadership and indomitable fighting spirit were distinctive factors in the defense of strategic American positions on Guadalcanal.
Photos: US Archives