Joe Foss – A Proud American

Joe Foss – A Proud American
Joe Foss – A Proud American

Joe Foss and The Cactus Air Force  Guadalcanal

Major “Smokin’Joe” Foss

I met Joe Foss at Ann Faught’s funeral in 1990.  I was there with my Dad, “Pic” Walker.  I had known Ann my entire life.  She was special.

Joe was there to speak about Annie and the long friendship they shared.   To Joe, Ann was special.

Joe, along with C. K. “Buddy” Faught (1923 – 1992) were Marine F4U “Corsair” pilots during WWII.  Buddy was a colorful product of the great State of Wyoming.  My Dad taught him to fly at Plains Airways.  Buddy and my Dad were life-long friends and fly-fishin’ buddies.  All my memories of Buddy and Ann Faught are good ones. They were special people and anyone who flew a Corsair was tops in my youthful judgement of people.  That they both were fly-fishermen (is that also fisherwomen?) was another credit moving them high on the ladder of people I most admired.  To top it all they both tied their own flies!  Purists they were!

Ann Faught (1924 – 1990) was always “Annie.”  She was never without her trademark smile, a smile bright enough to light up a dark-filled room.  Both Annie and Buddy were a lot of fun to be around.  Joe had much to say about “Annie” but it was not enough to pull Buddy out of his complete devastation.  Buddy was gone just two years later.  Buddy and Ann left a hole in a good many hearts.  I think of them often.  I still have several flies that Annie tied and gave me nearly a half century ago.

Buddy lost his left leg during a Kamikaze attack on the USS Franklin October 30th, 1944.  He got off lucky!  Buddy and just one other pilot in his ready-room survived the attack.

Greg “Pappy” Boyington, another Marine Ace is shown signing Buddy’s wooden leg:

Buddy in his Corsair with Dale Oaks

Joe with Charles Lindbergh

How easy it is to get side-tracked from one story to another.  I started telling about the late-great Joe Foss and rambled on about Buddy & Ann Faught. Then again, their stories are intertwined.

There is a story about Joe and Pappy Boyington.  Boyington was a hell-raiser and a heavy drinker.  When he drank he loved to fight and thought he was pretty tough.  Well ol’ Pappy was NOT happy with Joe Foss having ended the war with a record of 26 victories VS Pappy’s 22 (P’sappy claimed 28 but there is still a lot of controversy on Pappy’s score as he flew with the Flying Tigers as well).

Pappy tried to coax Joe into a fight and became belligerent.   Joe one-punched Pappy knocking him cold. Joe walked away just shaking his head.   In my book no one had more class than Joe Foss.  His value system should be the example for everyone.

This is a 1943 file photo showing Joe Foss standing fourth from left with members of Joe’s Flying Ciricus. Foss, a World War II hero who shot down 26 enemy planes as a Marine pilot and later became governor of South Dakota, died Wednesday. He was 87. Foss led a Marine air unit known as Joe’s Flying Circus that shot down 72 Japanese planes. He downed 26 planes himself, tying the U.S. aerial record Eddie Rickenbacker set in World War I. Foss became a well-known war hero; a 1943 Life magazine cover proclaimed him “America’s No. 1 Ace.


On the 22nd of January 2003 the remains of former South Dakota Governor Joe Foss were laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia.

Foss, a World War II flying ace, suffered an apparent aneurysm while in Michigan last fall and never regained consciousness. He died January 1 in a Scottsdale, Arizona, hospital at the age of 87.  Joe was a friend and everyone who met him instantly thought they were Joe’s best buddy.  He made me feel like that. For a decade I was president of OX-5 Aviation Pioneers.  I was the founder, along with my friend, Barry Goldwater, of Silver Wings Fraternity of Arizona.  These two groups held monthly meetings of which I presided.  

Every year I would invite Joe and DeDe to our gathering.  We could count on Joe for a wonderful extemporaneous talk.  No notes.  Never.  Joe shot from the hip.  He had a way of assessing his audience and gave them what they wanted.  Never the same talk.  Always something new and fascinating.  Joe would mesmerize our nefarious bunch of aviation aficionados.  Some of our group were close in stature to Joe.  Regardless, Joe would make each of us feel his equal.

Vice President Dick Cheney, retired Colonel Oliver North and South Dakota native and NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw were among those who attended. North delivered the eulogy.

Foss shot down 26 Japanese planes in 44 days, earned a Congressional Medal of Honor and had his picture on the cover of Life magazine.

Foss is one of 365 Congressional Medal of Honor recipients buried at Arlington National Cemetery. He is buried in the same area of the cemetery as boxer Joe Louis and actor Lee Marvin.

Foss’ widow, Donna, was given a U.S. flag at the service.

Joe was South Dakota’s governor from 1955 to 1959, was the first president of the American Football League and a president of the National Rifle Association.


‘He Flew With the Eagles’
WWII Ace Joseph Foss Remembered at Arlington

The following are numerous albeit not all the tributes to “A Proud American.”  As a member of the “Greatest Generation” I think Joe was the greatest of ’em all!  I will always be grateful for his friendship.  

I nominated Joe for the National Aeronautic’s ‘Elder Statesman of Aviation Award’ which was presented to Joe in a special ceremony at the National Aviation & Space Museum in Washington, D.C. in 1993 just a year after my father, W. Dillard “Pic” Walker received the award.  

The 1984 Enshrinee into the National Aviation Hall of Fame was Joe Foss.  According to the HOF, Joe was the Marine Corps’ “Ace of Aces”, scoring 26 victories and earning the Medal of Honor while flying F4F Wildcats with VMF-121 in the Pacific Theatre.  Now if we can just coax the Marine Corps to correct this oversight…

Joe’s in the center

By Phil McCombs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 22, 2003

They buried World War II Marine fighter ace Joe Foss out at Arlington National Cemetery yesterday. With snow falling gently on the huddled mourners, there was a long drum roll and the sharp report of rifle fire as a company of Marines paid tribute. Then, a single bugler sounded taps.

Joseph Jacob Foss was one of the great American warriors of his generation, a man of enormous courage who during a few months of intense combat in 1942 and 1943 at Guadalcanal in the South Pacific personally shot down 26 enemy aircraft and severely damaged another 14. No amount of training, he wrote in his 1992 autobiography, “A Proud American,” can “fully prepare you for the almost inconceivable realities of the dogfight. The early engagements with the enemy can be so bewildering and terrifying that only luck or providence bring the flier through alive.”

He recalled, too, how “the daily hell that was life on Guadalcanal — the nerve shattering, life-or-death missions, combined with malaria and dysentery and poor food — was simply too much for some men.” They broke under the strain and had to be assigned less rigorous tasks.

But Foss thrived. On June 7, 1943, his picture appeared on the cover of Life magazine as “America’s No. 1 Ace,” a title he later gracefully yielded to fellow Marine Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, who’d scored 28 kills. Foss wasn’t interested in rivalry, once telling a reporter he just wanted to knock down Japanese planes “so the suckers wouldn’t be back the next day.”

On May 18, 1943, he went to the White House to receive his Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for bravery. “President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was seated at his desk,” Foss wrote, “wearing a rather rumpled seersucker suit, looking just the way he had in so many newsreels.” When FDR read aloud the citation about Foss’s “indomitable fighting spirit,” the modest aviator found it slightly “embarrassing.”

Still, it was “the proudest moment of my life.”

And what a life! After the war Foss was elected to South Dakota’s House of Representatives and, in the 1950s, was a popular two-term governor. In 1959 he became commissioner of the American Football League and played a key role in the creation of the Super Bowl. Later he hosted ABC-TV’s “The American Sportsman,” and in 1988 became president of the National Rifle Association. The father of a child with cerebral palsy, he was also president of the National Society of Crippled Children and Adults.

Yet all of it was built on that early courage. When Foss died Jan. 1 after a stroke at the age of 87, South Dakota’s governor, Bill Janklow (now a congressman), said that all his later accomplishments “pale in comparison to the fact that back in the deep, dark days of the early 1940s, when America needed a hero, Joe Foss was there.”

Yesterday in the snow at Arlington and at an earlier “Memorial Service for an American Patriot” in the old chapel at nearby Fort Myer, family, friends, military personnel and dignitaries remembered him fondly.

At the service, Vice President Cheney said he often thinks of Foss when he meets with the president these days in the Oval Office — how it’s the same room where FDR presented that Medal of Honor. And Cheney recalled talking with Foss once, how “Joe said, ‘There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for this country,’ and like all he said, he meant it.”

Quoting from NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw’s book “The Greatest Generation,” which includes a chapter on Foss, the vice president spoke of the oath America’s service men and women take to defend the United States:

“That’s what we went out there to defend,” Foss had told Brokaw. “I can still see my pals sitting around when we weren’t flying, guys like Casey Brandon and Danny Doyle . . . talking about what we were going to do when we got back from the war. Well, they didn’t get back. I lost half my squadron. We all knew what an oath was about.”

Added Cheney: “I like to think right now he’s with his fellow Americans, guys like Casey Brandon and Danny Doyle . . . a faithful servant of God, his country and his fellow man.”

“The history of Joe Foss was written in the skies over Guadalcanal,” said Gen. William L. Nyland, assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, at the service. Yet in later years, the general said, Foss continued to be “a warrior, and he flew with the eagles in everything he did.”

General Nyland recalled how Foss, in recent years, went to schools and talked to young people about patriotism. He’d give them a positive message: “No matter what you’ve done in the past, from this minute forward you and you alone are responsible for your actions! Nobody can stand in your way but yourself.”  This was the beginning of what became the ‘Joe Foss Institute.’

C. Gus Grant, the retired founding president of Sprint, said at a reception after the burial that he was carrying on Foss’s youth work through the Joe Foss Institute, of which he’s chairman. In a new program to be announced today at a National Press Club luncheon, American combat veterans will visit elementary and high schools across the country.

The vets have to have been “shot at” in combat, Grant said. “They’ll work to restore feelings of patriotism, to give an understanding of what freedom is and how we protect it, how we’ve sacrificed to keep it.

“We want to give young people someone to look up to other than Dennis Rodman.”

Former senator and astronaut John Glenn will stand in for Foss at today’s event, which Foss had originally planned to attend.

“Joe was one of our truly greatest patriots,” Glenn said at the reception. “He lived it.”

“I wanted him around for at least 10 or 20 more years,” said his widow, Donna “DiDi” Wild Foss. “But we’re going to move forward with his idea of promoting virtues and values through the institute.” She led a group of 48 Foss relatives attending the service and burial.

In “The Greatest Generation,” Brokaw recalled how a severe illness three decades ago, and the influence of DiDi, led Foss to become “an enthusiastic born-again Christian. For an old whiskey-drinking, cigar-smoking master of profanity who had been an absentee father and husband for much of his first marriage, it was a complete makeover.”

In a brief graveside eulogy yesterday, Lt. Col. Oliver North, who has had a few problems of his own, during the Reagan administration, recalled a bit of serious humor during his first meeting with Foss in 1988.

“I have prayed for you,” Foss told him.

“Thank you, sir.”

“Do you know the Lord?”

North said he did.

“Fine, then you’re saved!”

Tom Brokaw stood graveside with all the others yesterday, snow melting on his gray hair, his eyes closed as the sound of “Taps” drifted over the ghostly landscape.

A South Dakotan himself, Brokaw recalled earlier yesterday how, when he was governor of Boys State at age 17, Gov. Foss had taken him under his wing. Foss would call him frequently, asking him to help out with this event or that.

Then Foss took him to New York for a joint appearance on a TV game show, “Two for the Money.” This was in 1957. It was Brokaw’s first appearance on television.

Later, Foss talked him out of attending the U.S. Naval Academy, saying that because of his interest in journalism military life wouldn’t suit him.

“I valued his counsel,” Brokaw mused yesterday. “For South Dakota to have a hero like that, it gave us all a sense of pride. His heroism was so unalloyed.

“But he was one of us.”

Joe & DiDi Foss


The Joe Foss Institute is trying to overcome the horrid lack of knowledge of our rich American History.   Volunteer former military men and women visit schools around the country to explain what patriotism means and the importance of learning how we Americans came to enjoy being the richest country in the world with opportunities that abound all from the sacrifices of our military men and women.

Feeling more patriotic duty, Joe & DeDe began this important mission.  Another close friend, retired Major General Carl “Duke” Schneider has spent countless hours visiting schools from Arizona to Tennessee with great success.  

The Arizona Republic
Jan. 10, 2003

Foss Memorial Service - Arizona - PHOTO
General William L. Nyland, the Assistant Commandant of the Marines consoles Dede Foss, widow of Joe Foss.

Joe Foss wasn’t just a member of the “greatest generation,” he was one of its greatest heroes.  In a generation that prided itself on achievement, he achieved more than most.

Nearly 2,000 people came together Thursday at Scottsdale Bible Church for a farewell befitting a flying ace who dedicated his life to public service, his church and family. 

Actor Charlton Heston, another member of Foss’ generation, which is fading from the stage, gave a brief but powerful tribute to his friend despite limitations caused by symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.

Foss was also a mentor to NBC news anchorman Tom Brokaw, who said in videotaped remarks that Foss had the “aura of a hero but the openness of the guy next door.”

Former first lady Barbara Bush sent her family’s regards in a letter saying, “The whole Bush family thought the world of you.”

The memorial service was full of military pomp and circumstance, including a flyover by F-16s in a missing-man formation.

But Foss wasn’t just an ace pilot. He was also a former governor of South Dakota, first commissioner of the American Football League and a past president of the National Rifle Association, which Heston leads.

Cars with American flag decals and bumper stickers including “I’m the NRA and I vote” and “Proud to be an American” filled the parking lot.

Foss died Jan. 1 at 87 in Scottsdale after suffering an aneurysm in October.

Brokaw, a native of South Dakota, and Foss became friends in 1957 when Brokaw was 17. Foss, then governor of South Dakota, invited Brokaw, governor of Boy’s State, to be his partner on a national quiz show, where they won $612 each. 

Foss was a key inspiration behind Brokaw’s 1998 book The Greatest Generation, about Americans who came of age during the Depression and World War II and helped shape the country.

When Heston walked to the podium, he got a standing ovation. It was a poignant moment and a show of respect for the actor and his struggle with early signs of Alzheimer’s. 

He bowed to the audience, then spoke briefly about his friend who had served two terms as NRA president. 

“I’ve known no man of more honor than Joe Foss. I’ll miss his smile, his passion and his friendship,” he said, reading from text.

Bill Bright of Orlando, founder of Campus Crusade for Christ International, also videotaped his remarks.

“Joe Foss was the original John Wayne. John Wayne was an actor, but Joe is real,” he said.

Mourners were told that Foss turned down a Hollywood offer to have Wayne play him in a movie because there was a love interest in the script.

With President Bush and a room full of Vets!

Gen. William Nyland, assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, bade a tearful goodbye to a man he had heard about for decades from when he was in officer’s training in the Marines.

“I would later learn that there wasn’t an aircraft in the world that could account for all the victories of Joe’s life,” he said of the 26 flags posted on Foss’ fighter plane that symbolized the 26 planes he shot down in World War II.

“We will miss you. Your Corps will miss you,” Nyland said, his voice cracking.

After a bagpipe bellowed a mournful Amazing Grace, a 21-gun salute exploded into the sky and F-16s thundered overhead.

Thursday was also officially declared Joe Foss Day, and state flags flew at half-staff.

In the end, Foss got the last word when he spoke to the mourners in an old videotape about his Christian faith.

“Each one of us is one breath away from leaving this great world of ours, and it’s better to know where you’re going,” he said. “God bless you all and have another great day.”


From a contemporary news report: 4 January 2003:

Funeral for Joe Foss set for Thursday in Arizona

A memorial service for the late Joe Foss, a war hero and former South Dakota governor, will be held Thursday in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Foss, 87, died Wednesday at an Arizona hospital. He had not regained consciousness after suffering an apparent aneurysm last fall.

The memorial service is set for 2 p.m. at Scottsdale Bible Church, 7601 S. Shea Blvd.

Burial will be in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

Funeral arrangements are being handled by Messenger Mortuary, 7601 E. Indian School Road, Scottsdale.

Pastor Daryl DelHousaye of the Scottsdale Bible Church was Foss’ spiritual leader for the last 23 years, and he was with him when he died.

”He was very much at peace, a strong witness in marvelous ways,” DelHousaye said.

”He never lost his most wonderful crystal-clear athinking. You always knew where Joe stood, never wishy-washy,” he said.

Like so many others, U.S. Senator Tom Daschle, D-S.D., also had kind words for Foss.

“Joe Foss was, quite simply, a South Dakota legend. Every time I fly into Joe Foss Field Airport in Sioux Falls, I am reminded that America today is the land of the free because people like Joe made it the home of the brave,” Daschle said.

“As an activist on behalf of so many causes, Joe never did anything halfway. For all of his varied accomplishments, there was one constant – he never forgot the lessons he learned growing up on that farm in Minnehaha County. Joe achieved more in one lifetime than many of us could hope to achieve in 100 . . . ,” the Aberdeen native added.

Foss is survived by his wife, two children and two stepchildren.


January 28, 2003

On behalf of Joe Foss’s thousands of friends and admirers, thank you for Phil McCombs’s coverage of Joe’s burial at Arlington National Cemetery.

Although there was a well-attended memorial service in Scottsdale, Arizona, on January 8, few of us were able to make the trip.

Mr. McCombs cited the Marine Corps’ official position that the late Colonel Gregory “Pappy” Boyington is the service’s leading fighter ace, with 28 victories. That position, which dates from late 1945, contradicts the facts. Then-Major Foss finished the war with 26 confirmed victories, all in the Marine Corps. Colonel Boyington was credited with 22 victories as a Marine and (according to American Volunteer Group records) with two previous air and two ground claims in the Flying Tigers. Nevertheless, Marine Corps headquarters accepted Colonel Boyington’s claim of six aerial victories in China and acknowledged him with a total of 28, even though Major Foss clearly was the “top gun” in the Marines.

Joe Foss was too much of a gentleman to make an issue of the “ace race” even when he wrote the foreword to my book “Above and Beyond: The Aviation Medals of Honor.” But now that both aviators have passed, surely the Marines can correct an error of 58 years and acknowledge that, by any measure, Joe Foss is the top-ranking fighter pilot in the history of the corps.

BARRETT TILLMAN
Mesa, Arizona


Foss was big influence on NBC’s Brokaw
The Arizona Republic
January 4, 2003

Decorated World War II hero Joe Foss influenced many people’s lives over the years, including one of America’s most admired news anchors.

Foss, who died this week at 87, was one of the inspirations for Tom Brokaw’s 1998 best-selling book The Greatest Generation.

“That whole generation came together for me in the personality and the life of Joe Foss,” Brokaw said in a telephone interview.

“I can’t say there’s just one representative member, but Joe comes the closest to anyone I know.”

But their connection dates back even farther – to 1957, when Foss was governor of South Dakota and Brokaw was the 17-year-old governor of South Dakota’s Boy’s State.

Brokaw described the Medal of Honor recipient as a “very big figure in my life.” In fact, he was responsible for Brokaw’s first big trip to New York City, where he now anchors the nation’s top-rated national newscast, NBC’s Nightly News with Tom Brokaw.

The two clicked on their first meeting when Foss came to a Boy’s State luncheon honoring the teenage Brokaw.

Foss invited Brokaw to be his partner on the national quiz show “Two for the Money,” which was featuring Foss because of his wartime celebrity. They each won $612, a tidy sum in those days. It gave Brokaw his first nationwide exposure.

It was Brokaw’s first visit to New York City, and he was eager to see more of the city. But he was supposed to return home after the TV show. Foss encouraged him to stay and told Brokaw to tell his parents it was the governor’s idea.

They could hardly say no, recalls Brokaw.

In The Greatest Generation, Brokaw wrote that his father told him, “Well, I think you should. You’ll probably never see New York again.”

Brokaw wasted no time watching the Dodgers in their final summer in Brooklyn, going to the top of the Empire State Building and listening to Dixieland jazz in Times Square.

Brokaw went on to graduate from the University of South Dakota and worked as a journalist in Omaha and Atlanta before joining NBC news in 1966.

But he never forgot Foss. He was a natural for The Greatest Generation, which featured Americans who came of age during the Great Depression and World War II and helped shape the country.

One favorite memory is when Brokaw was preparing a documentary based on his book.

“We were going to his birthplace, and I asked him about the men who didn’t come back (from the war), and he ticked off their names and their hometowns. It was very impressive,” Brokaw said.

Brokaw last saw Foss at the 2002 Super Bowl. Brokaw and his wife, Meredith, sat with Foss and his wife, Didi. They talked of the great times they had, about dogs and hunting.

“He was a huge part of my life,” Brokaw said.

He still remembers his first impression of the man who walked into his Boy’s State luncheon in 1957 and stayed a constant influence throughout his life.

Brokaw recalls the hero’s charisma.

“His zest for living was evident from the moment he entered the room or came over to shake your hand,” Brokaw said.

“He was every inch the hero, even in civilian clothes.”


Memorial service for WWII hero Joe Foss set for Thursday
The Arizona Republic, January 3, 2003

Dignitaries from around the country are expected at next week’s memorial service for Joe Foss, the decorated war hero and Medal of Honor recipient who died Wednesday at age 87.

Foss, a longtime resident of Scottsdale and Paradise Valley, had a wide circle of acquaintances that included NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw, who featured him in his recent book, The Greatest Generation, in addition to actor Charlton Heston and rock star Ted Nugent, fellow National Rifle Association members.

Even the White House weighed in on his life Thursday, calling him “an American hero.” Foss was a former governor of South Dakota, the first commissioner of the American Football League and a past president of the NRA.

The memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Thursday at Scottsdale Bible Church, 7601 E. Shea Blvd.

Gus Grant, a family friend, said the family plans to bury Foss at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia.

“He was an extraordinary man and a decorated veteran who courageously fought for his country,” said Scott Stanzel, a White House spokesman. “He dedicated his life to serving others and the causes he believed in. He left an indelible mark on this nation.”

Life magazine put Foss on the cover of its June 7, 1943, issue, calling him “America’s No. 1 Ace.”

Foss is perhaps best known for shooting down 26 Japanese planes during the Battle of Guadalcanal in 1943. President Franklin Roosevelt personally awarded him the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest honor for valor.

“He was a thoroughbred,” said friend Bill O’Brien, 79, of Paradise Valley. “He was top-quality, top-character.”


Joe Foss, 87, Flying Ace Who Led Football League, Is Dead

Joe Foss, a Medal of Honor winner as a Marine fighter pilot in World War II who was a two-term governor of South Dakota, commissioner of the upstart American Football League and head of the National Rifle Association, died yesterday at a hospital in Arizona. Mr. Foss, who lived in Scottsdale, was 87.

A cigar-chomping curly haired six-foot captain who looked like his friend John Wayne, Mr. Foss inspired the nation as a wartime ace. Flying a Wildcat that was slower than the vaunted Japanese Zeros, he shot down 26 fighters and bombers in the battle for Guadalcanal from October 1942 to January 1943. With his 26th “kill,” he became the first American pilot of World War II to equal Captain Eddie Rickenbacker’s record in World War I.

Captain Foss was brought home in the spring of 1943 to receive the Medal of Honor from President Franklin D. Roosevelt and to go on a national tour to sell war bonds, spur military recruiting and inspire workers in war plants. Thrilling an America still reeling from Pearl Harbor, Captain Foss was pictured in his dress uniform on the cover of Life on June 7, 1943, described as “America’s No. 1 Ace.”

Joseph Jacob Foss was born on April 17, 1915, on a farm near Sioux Falls, South Dakota. When he was 12, he visited a tiny airport near his home to see Charles A. Lindbergh, who was taking his Spirit of St. Louis on a national tour after flying to Paris. The boy envisioned soaring through the skies himself one day. Four years later, he went up in a plane for the first time, a $1.50 sightseeing ride in a Ford Tri-Motor. After watching a Marine aerial team perform acrobatics in open-cockpit biplanes, he was convinced that the aviator’s life was for him.

But a month before Joe’s 18th birthday, his father was electrocuted by a downed power line in a lightning storm. The teenager had to help his mother and his brother, Cliff, work the farm while the dust storms of the Depression piled sand knee high. Working at odd jobs, he managed to afford occasional flying lessons and, at 25, graduated from the University of South Dakota with a bachelor’s in business administration.

Seeing a chance to fly at government expense, he joined the Marines and won his wings in March 1941, nine months before the United States entered the war. On October 9, 1942, he landed his Wildcat on Guadalcanal at the southern end of the Solomons, the setting for the first American land offensive in the Pacific.

The First Marine Division had gone ashore on August 7, 1942, to seize a partly completed airstrip that was later renamed Henderson Field. In October, the marines were hanging on to the strip in the face of fierce Japanese efforts to retake the island and use it as a staging point to attack Australia, 1,600 miles to the south.

Flying out of Henderson Field over the next three months, Captain Foss and his fliers, a band known as Joe’s Flying Circus for its acrobatic maneuvers, played a major role in defending Guadalcanal.

Early in November, while Captain Foss was strafing Japanese ships 150 miles north of Guadalcanal, machine-gun fire from a Japanese plane pierced his engine and shattered his canopy, narrowly missing the aviator’s head. When the engine quit, Captain Foss ditched the plane in the ocean. It quickly sank. He freed himself and struggled in his life jacket for five hours in a rainstorm while sharks circled him. Finally, members of a Catholic mission from the island of Malaita, who were paddling by in canoes, rescued him.

On January 15, 1943, Captain Foss downed his 26th plane. Ten days later, he was credited with a feat that may have saved Henderson Field.

A large force of Japanese bombers and fighters approached Guadalcanal, hoping to obliterate the airstrip. Captain Foss and his 11 pilots went up to engage them. He quickly realized that the enemy fighters were seeking to lure them into a confrontation while the bombers slipped through. Instead of battling the fighters, the Americans maneuvered nearby without attacking. Soon, the Japanese began to run out of fuel. Fearing that Captain Foss’s group was a decoy for other Americans hidden in the clouds, the Japanese returned to their bases on Bougainville and Munda, leaving Henderson Field untouched. It never again came under a sustained attack.

In April 1943, stricken with malaria, Captain Foss went home. At a White House ceremony, President Roosevelt gave him the Medal of Honor, citing “outstanding heroism and courage” on his many missions to defend Guadalcanal. He also received the Silver Star, Bronze Star and a Purple Heart.

After the war, he rejected several offers from big business. “I didn’t want to be a dancing bear,” Time quoted him as saying in 1955.

He returned to Sioux Falls, where he and a friend ran the Joe Foss Flying Service, building it into a venture with 35 airplanes. He also organized the South Dakota Air National Guard and commanded a squadron.

When the Korean War broke out, the Marines recalled him, and he was a colonel who directed training.

He was elected to the South Dakota Legislature as a Republican in 1948. Six years later, at 39, he was elected the youngest governor in the history of the state. After serving two two-year terms, he ran for Congress against George McGovern, the future Democratic presidential nominee, who was seeking a second term in the House of Representatives. Mr. McGovern, also a highly decorated pilot in the war, defeated him.

In November 1959, the club owners forming the American Football League selected Mr. Foss as commissioner, hoping that his contacts in Washington could help them in an anticipated struggle with the long-established National Football League. Even though his football experience had been limited to benchwarming as a guard for the University of South Dakota, he accepted.

Under Mr. Foss, the A.F.L., out of necessity, divided broadcast revenues evenly among the teams. One move he made for the league was signing a five-year $10.6 million television contract with ABC in 1960 that included his pioneering idea.

As commissioner, Mr. Foss indulged his lifelong passion for hunting and fishing as host of “The American Sportsman” on ABC. He was criticized by some A.F.L. club owners who said he spent too much time filming his outdoors shows and flying as a brigadier general in the Air National Guard.

Mr. Foss, who advocated an association with the N.F.L. under a single commissioner while hoping to keep the leagues’ identities separate, resigned as A.F.L. commissioner on April 17, 1966. Less than two months later, the league announced plans to merge with the N.F.L. in 1970.

Mr. Foss turned to television again, appearing on his syndicated series “The Outdoorsman: Joe Foss” from 1966 to 1974. The programs drew barbs from environmentalists and advocates of animal rights.

Much more controversy arrived when Mr. Foss was president of the National Rifle Association from 1988 to 1990.

On January 29, 1990, he appeared once more on the cover of a national magazine, Time, which showed him with a pistol in his hand.

“I say all guns are good guns,” he told Time for its article on gun control. “There are no bad guns. I say the whole nation should be an armed nation. Period.”

Mr. Foss is survived by his second wife, Didi; a son, Frank, of Mankato, Minnesota; a daughter, Mary Joe Finke of Billings, Montana; a stepson, H. Dean Hall, and a stepdaughter, Coni Foss, both of Scottsdale; a sister, Flora Kanan of California, and six grandchildren. His marriage to his first wife, June, ended in divorce.

In the late 1990’s, Mr. Foss was honored far from the spotlight when he appeared at a tribute to American heroes at a school near his home in Arizona.

“Well, I got there and I was the only living hero,” Mr. Foss told Tom Brokaw in “The Greatest Generation” (Random House, 1998). “All the rest were George Washington and those guys. But at least the school was studying history and thinking about heroes.”


January 01, 2003

Former governor Joe Foss dies in Arizona

Joe Foss, a former South Dakota governor and bona fide war hero, died Wednesday afternoon at a hospital in Arizona, Governor Bill Janklow said. He was 87.

Foss had not regained consciousness after he suffered an apparent aneurysm last fall, the governor said.

Funeral arrangements are pending.

Janklow said Foss, who served in World War II, had always told him he wanted to buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

A Republican, Foss served in the state Legislature from 1948-53 and then as governor from 1955 to 1959. He won the Medal of Honor as a Marine pilot during World War II. He also earned the Distinguished Flying Cross.

“I always had the attitude that every day will be a great day,” Foss said in a 1987 interview. “I look forward to it like a kid in a candy store, wherever I am. My parents helped start me in that direction.”

Foss was born April 17, 1915, on a farm east of Sioux Falls and graduated from the University of South Dakota in 1940. He also attended Augustana College and Sioux Falls College.

Foss once said his love of flying dated back to childhood days. As a youngster, he said he watched pilots fly over his family’s home and wave to him from the cockpit.

“I thought, `Someday I’m gonna trade these horses for an airplane,'” he said.

He was one of the most prominent World War II heroes and led a Marine Air Force unit known as Joe’s Flying Circus which shot down 72 Japanese planes. Foss destroyed 26 of those planes.

Foss was believed to be the first to break the 1918 aerial record of Eddie Rickenbacker, who shot down 25 German planes during World War I.

Foss returned to active duty as a colonel in the Air Force during the Korean War, becoming director of operations for the Central Air Defense Force. Later, he helped organize the Air National Guard in South Dakota and retired from the guard as a brigadier general.

Janklow said of all Foss’ successes one in particular stands out.

“All the things that he accomplished pale in comparison to the fact that back in the deep dark days of the early ’40s when America needed a hero, Joe Foss was there,” said Janklow.

“Joe Foss became that hero that spurred an entire nation into a resolve that we would win the second World War and make the world a safer place. That’s the way I think a lot of us are going to remember Joe Foss.”

Foss was the first commissioner of the American Football League. He also hosted the television show “The American Sportsman” on ABC and was chosen president of the National Rifle Association in 1988, serving through 1990.

“I’ll keep working until the day I die,” Foss said. “I can’t imagine sitting down and saying this is the end of the trail.”

Foss was visiting Beaverton, Michigan, last fall when he became sick. He had lanned to give a speech in support his great-nephew, Justin Mishler, who had applied to attend the U.S. Military Academy.

He was later moved from a hospital in Michigan to Scottsdale, Arizona, where he and his wife lived.


Joe Foss, first AFL commissioner, dies at 87
January 1, 2003

Joe Foss, the first commissioner of the American Football League, died Wednesday. He was 87.

Foss also was a World War II fighter ace, who won the Congressional Medal of Honor and the Distinguished Flying Cross after shooting down 26 enemy planes. After leaving the Marine Corps, Foss entered politics and became governor of South Dakota in 1955.

Foss never regained consciousness after suffering an apparent aneurysm in October. He died at a hospital in Arizona, South Dakota Gov. Bill Janklow said.

He became commissioner of the AFL in 1960, and remained in the job until 1966.

Foss also served as a colonel in the Air Force in the Korean War.

He also hosted the television show “The American Sportsman” on ABC, and was president of the National Rifle Association from 1988-90.

“I always had the attitude that every day will be a great day,” Foss said in a 1987 interview. “I look forward to it like a kid in a candy store, wherever I am.”

Foss was born in 1915 on a farm near Sioux Falls. He once said his love of flying dated to his childhood, when he watched pilots fly over his family’s home and wave from the cockpit.

“I thought, ‘Someday I’m going to trade these horses for an airplane,’ ” he said.


WWII ace Joe Foss dies at 87
Medal of Honor recipient led a storied life
The Arizona Republic
January 2, 2003

Joe Foss, a decorated war hero, former South Dakota governor, first commissioner of the American Football League and past president of the National Rifle Association, died Wednesday in Scottsdale. He was 87.

Foss, a longtime Paradise Valley and Scottsdale resident, never regained consciousness after suffering an aneurysm in October.

A prominent World War II hero, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt personally awarded him the Medal of Honor in 1943 after the Marine fighter pilot shot down 26 Japanese planes during the battle for Guadalcanal.

Life magazine put Foss on the cover of its June 7, 1943, issue, calling him “America’s No. 1 Ace.”

“With him, it was God, family and country. He lived by that,” said his stepson, Dean Hall, 62, of Scottsdale.

In his later years, he was a popular speaker on patriotism and leadership at schools, conventions and National Rifle Association events.

“He was really a fine person because people could trust him to get the job done. He was dedicated to whatever he did,” said Bob Corbin, former Arizona attorney general and a friend for two decades.

Joseph Jacob Foss was born on April 17, 1915, on a farm near Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He once said his love for flying dated back to when he attended an air show in Sioux Falls, S.D., at age 12 that featured aviator Charles A. Lindbergh.

But the road to becoming a pilot was not easy.

A month before Joe’s 18th birthday, his father was electrocuted by a downed power line in a lightning storm. The teenager had to help his mother and his brother, Cliff, work the farm. Working at odd jobs, he managed to scrape together enough money to afford flying lessons and graduate from the University of South Dakota with a bachelor’s degree in business administration at age 24.

Seeking a chance to fly, he joined the Marines and won his wings in March 1941, nine months before the United States entered the war. On October 9, 1942, he landed his Wildcat on Guadalcanal at the southern end of the Solomons, the setting for the first U.S. land offensive in the Pacific.

The 1st Marine Division had go ashore on August 7, 1942, to seize a partly built airstrip that was later renamed Henderson Field. In October, the Marines were hanging onto the strip in the face of fierce Japanese efforts to retake the island and use it as a staging point to attack Australia, 1,600 miles to the south.

Flying out of Henderson Field over the next three months, Foss and his fliers, a band known as “Foss’ Flying Circus” for its acrobatic maneuvers, played a major role in defending Guadalcanal. Foss shot down 26 Japanese planes, earning a distinction as the first fighter pilot to break the 1918 aerial record of Eddie Rickenbacker, who shot down 25 German planes in World War I.

In May 1943, Foss was called back to Washington, D.C., to lead the campaign for U.S. War Bonds. In addition to the Medal of Honor, the highest honor for valor in the United States, he received a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. He also earned the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Returning to South Dakota, he ran the Joe Foss Flying Service and organized the South Dakota Air National Guard.

He soon found his way into politics.

A Republican, Foss served in the South Dakota Legislature for five years before becoming, at 39, the youngest governor in the history of the state in 1955. He served two two-year terms.

In November 1959, the club owners who were forming the American Football League selected Foss as commissioner, hoping that his contacts in Washington could help them in an anticipated struggle with the long-established National Football League.

As commissioner, Foss indulged his lifelong passion for hunting and fishing as host of The American Sportsman on ABC.

Foss resigned as AFL commissioner on April 1966. Less than two months later, the league announced plans to merge with the NFL.

Foss turned to television again, appearing on his syndicated series The Outdoorsman: Joe Foss from 1966 to 1974. The programs drew criticism from environmentalists and advocates of animal rights.

He encountered controversy again as president of the National Rifle Association from 1988 to 1990.

On Jan. 29, 1990, he appeared on the cover of Time magazine with a pistol in his hand.

“I say all guns are good guns,” he told Time for its article on gun control. “There are no bad guns. I say the whole nation should be an armed nation. Period.”

Friend Todd Rathner, 37, of Tucson said among NRA board members only the actor Charlton Heston outshone him in terms of celebrity.

“He had a great sense of what America is all about, and how precious our freedoms are, and how important it is to fight for them every day, in every way you can,” said Sandy Froman, 52, of Tucson, second vice president of the NRA.

Foss found himself unexpectedly in the news last February when Sky Harbor security guards pulled him aside, in part, because he was carrying his Medal of Honor and someone thought the star-shaped award could be used as a weapon.

He also had two dummy bullets in his pockets. One was a hollowed bullet on a key chain. The other was a piece of silver metal molded into the shape of a bullet and given to him by Heston.

Security guards agreed to let Foss mail the key chain home to himself, but confiscated his “silver bullet.”

Foss was visiting Beaverton, Michigan, in October when he suffered an aneurysm. He had planned to give a speech in support his great-nephew, Justin Mishler, who had applied to attend the U.S. Military Academy. He was later moved from a hospital in Michigan to Scottsdale where he and his wife lived.

Foss, is survived by his wife, DiDi; son Frank Foss of Mankato, Minn; daughter, Mary Joe Finke, of Billings, Mont.; and stepdaughter Connie Foss. Funeral arrangements are pending at Scottsdale Bible Church.


1 January 2003

Joe Foss, WWII hero, AFL commissioner and former South Dakota governor, dies at 87

Joe Foss, a former South Dakota governor and World War II hero who shot down 26 enemy planes, died Wednesday. He was 87.

Foss had not regained consciousness after he suffered an apparent aneurysm last fall. He died at a hospital in Arizona, said South Dakota Gov. Bill Janklow.

A Republican, Foss served in the state Legislature for five years before becoming governor in 1955. He won the Congressional Medal of Honor as a Marine pilot during World War II. He also earned the Distinguished Flying Cross.

“I always had the attitude that every day will be a great day,” Foss said in a 1987 interview. “I look forward to it like a kid in a candy store, wherever I am.”

Foss was born April 17, 1915, on a farm east of Sioux Falls. He once said his love of flying dated back to his childhood when he watched pilots fly over his family’s home and wave to him from the cockpit.

“I thought, Someday I’m gonna trade these horses for an airplane,'” he said.

He was among the most prominent World War II heroes, shooting down 26 enemy planes. He also served as a colonel in the Air Force in the Korean War.

Foss was the first commissioner of the American Football League. He also hosted the television show “The American Sportsman” on ABC and was chosen president of the National Rifle Association in 1988, serving through 1990.


WWII Hero, Ex-S.D. Gov. Joe Foss Dies
2 January 2003

People who knew Joe Foss say he lived his life with energy and conviction – no surprise for a World War II hero who later served as governor of South Dakota, president of the National Rifle Association and the first commissioner of the American Football League.

So long to another genuine American hero.


Reply 1 – Posted by: Laocoon10, 1/2/2003 3:18:16 PM

Check six Joe…ya’ got Gabriel coverin’ ya…cleared on through to a safe landing.

Thanks Joe.


Reply 2 – Posted by: acuto, 1/2/2003 3:21:16 PM

Joe Foss. What a man. He scored nearly all of victories while flying F4F Wildcats with the “Cactus Air Force” from Henderson Field on Guadalcanal. Not an easy feat.

He is most famous recently for making the mistake of trying to get on an airplane in Las Vegas, shortly after 9-11, wearing his Medal of Honor. The idiot screeners said it was a weapon and wouldn’t let him on the plane with it.


Reply 3 – Posted by: usmcsarge, 1/2/2003 3:36:50 PM

Semper Fi Joe. RIP.

To expand on the airport bit…He was invited to speak at West Point with a formal dinner with dignitaries to follow. He decided to bring his original MOH, which was awarded by FDR, to wear for the occasion. It was in his carry on. Two idiots thought it was a weapon and wanted him to throw it in the trash! A supervisor and (I think) a manager appeared. Two of the four had no idea what a MOH was. After a brief conference the top guy made the dangerous and risky decision to let Joe keep his MOH! An 86 year old American legend and he’s hassled for 25 minutes about his medal. We are doomed.

Old Marine Sarge


Reply 4 – Posted by: GOPJihad, 1/2/2003 3:45:35 PM

The problem is that not enough people know who Joe Foss is or was. One of my heroes growing up and I’m only 32. He truly lead a remarkable life. It also broke my heart when Marion Carl was murdered a couple years back and it merited barely a mention in the newspaper. Sometime I think the mainstream media’s one unifying goal is to tear down or bury American greatness.


Reply 5 – Posted by: Schnauzer, 1/2/2003 3:52:00 PM

R.I.P. Joe. You deserve it. Thanks.


Reply 6 – Posted by: rubberneck, 1/2/2003 3:57:14 PM

Joe Foss has flown home. I’ll miss the ol’ boy.


Reply 7 – Posted by: Jr Sample @ BR549, 1/2/2003 4:19:33 PM

Sempi Fi, Marine.


Joe Foss, WWII hero and former South Dakota governor, dies at 87

Joe Foss, a World War II hero who shot down 26 enemy planes as a Marine pilot and later became governor of South Dakota, died Wednesday. He was 87.

Foss — who also served as president of the National Rifle Association, commissioner of the American Football League and a TV outdoorsman — had not regained consciousness after suffering an apparent aneurysm last fall. He died at a hospital in Arizona, said South Dakota Gov. Bill Janklow.

Foss navigated his many careers with energy and optimism.

“I always had the attitude that every day will be a great day,” he said in a 1987 interview. “I look forward to it like a kid in a candy store, wherever I am.”

Foss led a Marine air unit known as Joe’s Flying Circus that shot down 72 Japanese planes. He downed 26 planes himself, tying the U.S. aerial record Eddie Rickenbacker set in World War I.

Foss became a well-known war hero; a 1943 Life magazine cover proclaimed him “America’s No. 1 Ace.”

Foss “spurred an entire nation into a resolve that we would win the second World War and make the world a safer place,” Janklow said. “All the things that he accomplished pale in comparison to the fact that back in the deep dark days of the early ’40s when America needed a hero, Joe Foss was there.”

Foss was featured prominently in Tom Brokaw’s book “The Greatest Generation.”

“He had a hero’s swagger but a winning smile to go with his plain talk and movie-star looks,” Brokaw wrote. “Joe Foss was larger than life, and his heroics in the skies over the Pacific were just the beginning of a journey that would take him to places far from that farm with no electricity and not much hope north of Sioux Falls.”

Foss, who also served as a colonel in the Air Force in the Korean War, was awarded the Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Bronze Star, Silver Star and Purple Heart. In 1984, he was enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame in Dayton, Ohio.

Born April 17, 1915, on a farm east of Sioux Falls, Foss said he loved flying since he was a child, when pilots waved to him as they flew over his family’s home.

“I thought, `Someday I’m gonna trade these horses for an airplane,”‘ he said.

After the war, Foss, a Republican, served in the state Legislature for five years before becoming governor from 1955 to 1959.

He then became the first commissioner of the American Football League, which began play in 1960 to challenge the established National Football League. Foss held the post until 1966, and the leagues merged in 1970.

He also hosted two television sportsmen’s shows, “The American Sportsman” and “The Outdoorsman: Joe Foss” and was president of the National Rifle Association from 1988 to 1990.

“I’ll keep working until the day I die,” Foss said. “I can’t imagine sitting down and saying this is the end of the trail.”

Foss was visiting Beaverton, Mich., last fall when he became sick. He had planned to give a speech in support of his great-nephew, who had applied to attend the U.S. Military Academy.

He was later moved from a hospital in Michigan to Scottsdale, Ariz., where he and his wife lived.


January 02, 2003

Friends remember Joe Foss

Kristin Anderson was just a baby when Joe Foss moved into the governor’s mansion that had been home to her family for four years. And now that he’s gone, so is part of South Dakota’s history, she says.

“I hope people remember the past with pride,” said Anderson, daughter of the late Sigurd Anderson, whom Foss replaced as governor in 1955.

Foss, who was governor from 1955-59, died Wednesday in a hospital near his home in Scottsdale, Arizona, at the age of 87.

“I remember Joe Foss as being a very distinguished and elegant gentleman, very caring about South Dakota and South Dakotans,” Anderson said Thursday.

The last time she saw Foss was at the dedication of the Joe Foss and Sigurd Anderson office buildings in Pierre. “It was a very wonderful ceremony honoring two individuals who served South Dakota with pride and dignity,” she said.

No one had to wonder where they stood with Foss, Gov.-elect Mike Rounds said.

“He was beyond reproach. He was truly a class act,” said Rounds, who takes office January 7.

Foss, who graduated from the University of South Dakota in 1940, was well-liked by all, said Beryl Ritz of Sioux Falls.

“Liking Joe was no big deal. He was a man-about-campus. Even when he was a senior and I was a lowly freshman, he was very nice to me and friendly,” Ritz said.

Larry Ritz of Sioux Falls helped Foss, a Republican, run for governor.

“I just thought he was a good, honest, humble person, and I wouldn’t have to worry about giving him the key to the state,” Larry Ritz said.

“He would sit there in the chat sessions, smoking a big cigar, hoisting a libation, and he told stories,” Ritz said. “He had a lot of war stories. He told about being in the water when he had a plane shot out from under him. He was a great storyteller.”

Current USD President Jim Abbott agreed.

“He had such an interesting life. One moment he would be talking about being on a quiz show with Tom Brokaw, and the next moment he was talking about Madame Chiang Kai-shek at the Waldorf Towers in New York, where he lived when he was commissioner of the American Football League.”

Foss earned the moniker of war hero after shooting down 26 Japanese fighters in World War II and was featured prominently in NBC news anchor and South Dakota native Tom Brokaw’s book “The Greatest Generation.”

“He had a hero’s swagger but a winning smile to go with his plain talk and movie-star looks,” Brokaw wrote. “Joe Foss was larger than life, and his heroics in the skies over the Pacific were just the beginning of a journey that would take him to places far from that farm with no electricity and not much hope north of Sioux Falls.”

Another World War II hero from South Dakota, George McGovern, defeated Foss in a U.S. House race in 1958.

“He was a gentleman in that race,” McGovern said. “He and I completed that campaign better friends than we began. It is sad he couldn’t have had a few more years.”

Beryl Ritz was a close friend of Foss’ first wife, June. They had four children and separated in 1959.

“He was a wonderful husband to June because he had a real good sense of humor,” Beryl Ritz said. “He would tease her in a very friendly way, and she loved it.

“But one thing happened that was very sad. His work took him away, and he was home very little. He wanted June to come with him, but it wasn’t possible for her. She had Cheryl, who had cerebral palsy, and she felt she belonged here in Sioux Falls so Cheryl could go to the Crippled Children’s Hospital school.

“That did not do well for their marriage.”

Those who knew Foss said he had strong religious convictions.

“He was active in the Campus Crusade for Christ, and that is what brought him back here to South Dakota most often,” said Gordon Fosness of Sioux Falls, regional director for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

“I heard him say once that he was bobbing up and down in the Pacific Ocean and he thought he would have received Christ and began praying, but he didn’t,” Fosness says.

“He was very outspoken about things, very wholesome, spoke from the heart.”

Foss’ second wife, DiDi, was the inspiration in his spiritual life. “She had a very strong impact on him,” Fosness said.

Rounds said Foss will go down in history as one of South Dakota’s most respected leaders.

“He was one of those special gifts, a treasure a state is blessed with on a very rare basis. He was a war hero. At the same time, he was a politician and a statesman,” Rounds said.

“He was very much a strong believer in our way of life, our rights, our freedoms and our liberties.

“You remember Joe Foss as being for the American way.”


WWII Hero and Politician Joe Foss Dies at 87
Thursday, January 2, 2003

Joe Foss, 87, a South Dakota farm boy who became one of the greatest Marine Corps flying aces of World War II and later held high-profile jobs in politics, sports and lobbying, died yesterday at a hospital in Arizona of complications following an aneurysm last fall.

Mr. Foss was a Republican governor of South Dakota in the 1950s, first commissioner of the American Football League in the 1960s and president of the National Rifle Association from 1988 to 1990. Over the years, he also hosted nationally broadcast television programs about outdoor sportsmanship, lectured widely on guns, morality and mettle and enjoyed renewed popularity after being profiled in Tom Brokaw’s book “The Greatest Generation.”

His initial renown came from his spectacular war record, which culminated in receiving the Medal of Honor, the military’s highest award for valor.

Mr. Foss was officially credited with 26 personal downings of enemy aircraft, making him the second-ranking Marine Corps ace of the war, said Dan Crawford, head of the reference section at the Marine Corps’s Historical Center. One is considered an ace after destroying at least five enemy aircraft during aerial combat.

Some debate whether he was the top ace. The Marine Corps’s Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, who died in 1988, shot down 28 planes, but six were when he served with the American volunteer force in China called the “Flying Tigers.”

Mr. Foss downplayed any rivalry. “All we were interested in was knocking down every plane that we could so the suckers wouldn’t be back the next day,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1994.

Mr. Foss’s war exploits earned him enormous media attention. Then-Capt. Foss was the subject of quickie book and appeared on the cover of Life magazine June 7, 1943, as “America’s No. 1 Ace” (Boyington’s record-breaking service came later).

The aviation unit Mr. Foss led, known as Joe’s Flying Circus, was credited with shooting down 72 enemy aircraft during about two months of combat over Guadalcanal, a key stronghold in the South Pacific.

Mr. Foss engaged in almost daily encounters with the Japanese from Oct. 9 to Nov. 19, 1942. Besides the 23 planes he downed during that period, he also led several escort missions involving reconnaissance and bombing raids.

The following January, he shot down three more enemy craft. He also led eight F-4F Marine planes and 4 Army P-38’s through intensely hostile fire and overwhelming odds.

“Undaunted by tremendously superior numbers, [he] intercepted and struck with such force that 4 Japanese fighters were shot down and the bombers were turned back without releasing a single bomb,” his Medal of Honor citation read. “His remarkable flying skill, inspiring leadership, and indomitable fighting spirit were distinctive factors in the defense of strategic American positions on Guadalcanal.”

His other decorations included the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart.

In 1955, he signed a deal with producer Hall Bartlett to the story of his war experiences, to be called “Smokey Joe” because of Mr. Foss’s cigar habit. In his autobiography, “A Proud American,” he said the deal turned sour when he read the script, which involved a fictional romance.

In recent years, he and Japanese ace Saburo Sakai worked with Microsoft on a computer game about aerial combat. The game, “Combat Flight Simulator 2: WWII Pacific Theater,” featured scenes of the Pacific islands taken from satellite photographs and precise reproductions of the cockpits and gauges of World War II aircraft.

In his autobiography, he said he and Sakai became “the best of friends” and often shared the stage at college campuses when reminiscing about the war.

Joseph Jacob Foss was born in Minnehaha County near Sioux Falls. As a young man he became entranced with flight shortly after meeting Charles Lindbergh, fresh from the aviator’s historic trip across the Atlantic in 1927.

As a teenager, he took over farm duties when his father died in a car accident. He also did odd jobs and saved $64 to complete private flying lessons. In 1940, he graduated from the University of South Dakota.

He enlisted in the Marine Corps after college and was a flight instructor in Florida when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and triggered the American entry into World War II.

His first wartime duty was doing base security on bicycle. He protested but was reportedly told he was too old – at age 27 – to be a fighter pilot. He made his case repeatedly to the Navy’s Advanced Carrier Training Group, which only took him when he volunteered to do funeral duty.

He became an expert in the F-4F Wildcat, flying 156 hours in just over a month and achieving one of the best gunnery scores in ACTG. Within weeks he was sent to Guadalcanal and from the start demonstrated awesome ability to kill and then escape from enemy fire.

Although the F-4F Wildcat had less speed and maneuverability than the Japanese Zero, Mr. Foss said the Zero was susceptible to bursting into flames if hit near the wing mount.

He often tried to shoot into the Zero’s wing base. “Side shots – deflection shooting we called it – required good marksmanship,” he said in his autobiography. “To a farm boy it was like shooting a pheasant on the fly.”

In combat, he said he was sometimes surprised by the number of near-death encounters he had. During one gunfight, a bullet whistled through his cockpit glass. He survived only to have his engine cut off.

He flew low to the water and sat the plane down tail first. The plane hit the water but bounced and sent the craft in head first. Two problems: He never learned to swim, and his parachute straps were caught on his seat.

It took several seconds before he could wrestle free, and he bobbed up in shark-infested waters five miles from land. He said he broke a chlorine capsule to keep them away until he was rescued hours later. “It’s a good thing I didn’t know, as would later be proven, that chlorine doesn’t protect swimmers from shark attacks,” he wrote in his autobiography.

After the war, he returned to South Dakota, operated a flying service and a Packard dealership. He helped organize the Air National Guard in South Dakota and retired from the guard as a brigadier general.

He was elected to the state House of Representatives in 1948 and 1951 and won the governorship in 1954 and again in 1956. He called himself a “natural-born salesman” who liked bringing businesses to the state.

He also said his style was abrasive in those years: “If someone did something I didn’t like, I’d shout, “Fire that sucker!”

He became commissioner of the fledgling American Football League in 1959 because of his “connections in Washington,” league founder Lamar Hunt once said.

During the following seven years, Mr. Foss helped expand the franchise and make lucrative television deals to broadcast AFL games. But there were some reports of the league not catching up fast enough with the dominant National Football League. He resigned a year before his contract expired and months before the AFL agreed to merge with the NFL.

He said he always enjoyed the political arena and did government affairs work in Washington for KLM Royal Dutch Airlines in the 1970s.

He also maintained a rigorous speaking schedule and spoke out for conservative causes and what he considered a weakening of gun-owners rights.

Starting in 1988, he was elected to two consecutive one-year terms as president of the NRA.

“The thing I haven’t figured out yet is why so many of the First Amendment people try to destroy” the Second Amendment, he told one audience. “Because one day they’ll need our help to try and save the First Amendment, the way some of these people think.”

He enjoyed safaris, hunting polar bear in the Arctic.  His support for gun rights is remembered by we enthusiasts.  Below – the entry to the Joe Foss Public Shooting Range near Buckeye in Maricopa County, Arizona:

Joe was inducted into National Aviation Hall of Fame in 1984.

Mr. Foss, who had a child with cerebral palsy, was a former president of the National Society of Crippled Children and Adults. He also was a former president and board chairman of the Air Force Association.

His marriage to June Shakstad Foss ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife, Donna Wild “Didi” Foss, whom he married in 1967; three children from the first marriage and two stepchildren.


Medal Of Honor
Fails to Impress Airline Security

“They just didn’t know what it was but they acted like I shouldn’t be carrying it on,” retired Marine Corps General Joseph J. Foss of Scottsdale, Arizona said yesterday in a telephone interview.

“I kept explaining that it was the highest medal you can receive from the military in this country, but nobody listened,” he said.  General Foss, an 86-year-old former South Dakota governor whose resume also includes stints as president of the National Rifle Association and as commissioner of the old American Football League, said he was “hassled” about the medal by two separate security crews at Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix.  He was trying to board an America West airliner January 11 to attend an NRA meeting in Arlington.

“I received the medal in 1943 from President Franklin Roosevelt,” after shooting down 26 enemy planes in the Pacific, said Gen. Foss, who was a Marine fighter pilot during World War II.  “It states all that stuff on the back of the medal,” he said.  “I was held up for 45 minutes, while they decided what to do about the medal.  I almost missed my flight, as they went back and forth,” Gen. Foss said.

He stressed that he would not have boarded the plane if he had been stopped from taking the medal aboard.  “I’m one of only about 140 surviving Medal of Honor recipients,” he said.

General Foss acknowledges that a commemorative metal nail file – also bearing a Medal of Honor inscription – and a dummy bullet were also in the same pocket of his sports coat as the military medal.  Those items were seized before he boarded the plane, but he was allowed to keep the Medal of Honor.

Metal nail files and other instruments with blades are prohibited from aircraft cabins under Federal Aviation Administration regulations that went into effect after the September 11 terrorist attacks.  Bullets and other ammunition are not permitted on an aircraft in a passenger’s possession.  However, the bullet taken from Gen. Foss was harmless, as it has a hole in it so that it will fit on a key chain.

An FAA spokesman was unable to say whether a dummy bullet would be banned under the federal regulations.  But he pointed out that airlines are allowed to impose restrictions that go beyond those of the federal agency.

Gen. Foss said he normally doesn’t travel with his medal.  “I do not carry the medal around with me.  But I had it with me this time to show to cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point,” where he was a guest speaker last week.

Patty Nowack, spokeswoman for America West, said she could not respond to specific questions about the Foss case, as she cannot verify he flew on the airline.  She could not say whether there would be any security concerns about a medal but that it would cause a metal detector to go off.

“Our primary objective is to ensure the safety and security of all passengers and employees.  We’re not trying to single out any individual,” she said yesterday.

Gen. Foss says he believes his one-way, first-class ticket, coupled with the 10-gallon hat and western boots he was wearing, made him seem suspicious to security personnel.  Because he wears a pacemaker, he said he couldn’t go through a metal detector and so he had to be “frisked” by guards.

Also, General Foss said, “I had to take off my cowboy boots three times (before boarding), as well as my belt and necktie.  I compared the situation to bailing out to land in a foreign country.

He said security personnel went so far as to remove razor blades from his luggage, which also went beyond FAA requirements.  Jim Baker, chief lobbyist for the NRA, said he understands the need for “extra security.”  But he questions how an 86-year-old man bearing the Medal of Honor could be considered a security risk.

“There appears to be a need to incorporate common sense” with the additional security that’s being imposed, Mr. Baker said.


Follow-up to this story
Joe Foss Interview on CNN

Retired General Joe Foss, 86, one of the most highly decorated U.S. war veterans, recently was detained at a security checkpoint at the Phoenix, Arizona, airport because he was carrying an item with sharp edges.

The sharp object turned out to be the Congressional Medal of Honor, which he had received in 1943 from President Franklin D. Roosevelt. CNN’s Jack Cafferty spoke Tuesday with Foss about his airport experience and career.

CAFFERTY: General, Franklin Roosevelt, the president of the United States, awarded you the Congressional Medal of Honor, and your picture was on the cover of Life magazine on June 7, 1943. For what did you receive the medal and what can you tell us about the day you were given the medal by the president?

FOSS: Well, actually, I was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for action over Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific. … See, I was the top ace during that time.

CAFFERTY: You shot down 26 enemy aircraft, is that right, general?

FOSS: That is correct.

CAFFERTY: That is amazing.

FOSS: We were the decoys over the enemy fleet a number of times flying over them at 12,000 feet and having everyone shoot at you. They try to get you, and then you dive — take a vertical dive on the warship — in the middle of the thing — to draw fire so the torpedo planes could get in.

CAFFERTY: Unbelievable.  (about the dim witted TSA people)…

FOSS: I was on my way — after a National Rifle Association board of directors meeting — to go up to West Point and speak to the sophomore class there.

CAFFERTY: And you were going to take the medal and show the cadets up at West Point. You got to the airport, what happened?

FOSS: Well, you see, when I got to the airport, I planned on just going through as I normally have in the past. But they had this mass of checkers back there that seemed to hone in on me.

I had on a Western hat, which I normally wear, and this tie, which is known as a bolo tie, and a belt buckle that says, “Dakota Gun Collectors,” on it and Western boots.

CAFFERTY: They eventually wound up taking the Congressional Medal of Honor away from you, didn’t they, at the airport?

FOSS: Well, the whole deal was the medal and this little thing that was with it, which has a little fingernail file on it, and it has the Congressional Medal Society insignia on this thing — I’ve carried it for years — and that set off the thing when I threw my jacket in there.

They said, “Take everything out of your jacket,” and I thought I had. I’m just not used to carrying a medal in my pocket here. So I threw the whole thing in a basket, and when that set that off, they said, “We thought you emptied the jacket.”

And now it came back. And that started the fracas, and they said, “Off with your boots. Off with your belt. Off with your tie. Off with your hat.”

CAFFERTY: Were they nice to you at this time? I mean, were they polite?

FOSS: No, they were very nasty. It was a nasty group of individuals that I couldn’t seem to make understand. And I was trying to show them this medal, that it had all the inscription on the back there. About me receiving it from the president of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and so forth.

But no one seemed to know what was going on. And then I said, “What happens to the stuff you take from me?” And they said, “Oh, it’s destroyed.” And I said, “Well, you aren’t taking that medal, that’s for sure. Or this other thing.” And so then the next number on the program, I had some keys and stuff that I — and an imitation bullet thing — it never was a bullet — but it looked like a bullet that President Charlton Heston of the NRA gave me. And they took that.

I said, “What happens to all of that?”

“It’s destroyed.”

So then I said, “Can I keep any of it?”

And they said, “No, unless you go over there, write that desk right there and mail it back to yourself.”

“Well OK.” What happens, I step over there, and they say, “Off with your boots. Off with your belt. Off with your hat.”

I said, “You just checked me.”

And, of course, then in the meantime, my jacket gets lost in the back, and we horse around. And all of this operation took about 45 minutes or so.

Finally, I get out of here, and I get to the gate. And as the passengers pile on, I had a first-class pass to get on — not pass, we paid for the ticket — and they take me out of line, and the lady says, “Off with your boots. Off with your belt. Off with your tie.”

CAFFERTY: This is the third time?

FOSS: That’s the third time. And by that time, I was fairly warm.

CAFFERTY: I bet you were at that, general.

FOSS: And, of course, the questions that they asked and all — it was so nonsensical, the whole thing. There’s no way you could catch a terrorist. In fact, you’d be — while you were looking at some clown like me, the terrorist would go by.

CAFFERTY: Now you talked to the officials at America West, the airline that was involved in this.

FOSS: They’ve been very nice.

CAFFERTY: There’s been a visit arranged. Tell us about the visit that’s upcoming here.

FOSS: Well the airline, America West, has been very nice. The vice president called me, and I personally talked to him. And the public relations director talked to me. And I’m going to have them out to the house to meet my wife and the rest of the tribe and let them know that we are not terrorists. We’re just ordinary citizens trying to get on an airline to go someplace and back home.

CAFFERTY: General, let me thank you so much for a very entertaining and interesting, if unfortunate, story.

Let me also thank you for what you and your buddies did all those many years ago. Because I’ve got a hunch, without the likes of you back there during World War II, the likes of me wouldn’t be sitting here right now talking to the likes of you


January 10, 2003

Life of war hero remembered
Memorial service for Joe Foss brings hundreds

Joe Foss, a former famed World War II pilot and South Dakota governor, was remembered in Scottsdale, Arizona,  Thursday as a cowboy and a hero.

About 1,800 people crowded into Scottsdale Bible Church for a memorial service in honor of Foss, who died at age 87 on New Year’s Day. Foss had suffered an aneurysm in October.

Foss, born April 17, 1915, on a farm east of Sioux Falls, had lived in Arizona since 1967. He will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

”Joe Foss was a true, genuine national hero,” said Gen. William Nyland, assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, as he choked back tears. ”You’re flying with the angels now.”

Former President George Bush also described Foss as a hero in a letter sent to memorial organizers on Wednesday.

”As a young naval aviator in the Pacific, Joe Foss was not only my hero, but the hero of every Marine and Navy pilot who served in the war. He served his country with honor both in war and peace, and the whole Bush family thought the world of him,” Bush said.

A group of fighter jets flew the missing man formation over the church following the service.

In 1943, a Life magazine cover proclaimed Foss ”America’s No. 1 Ace.”

Foss led a Marine air unit known as Joe’s Flying Circus. It shot down 72 Japanese planes. Foss downed 26 planes himself, tying the U.S. aerial record set by Eddie Rickenbacker in World War I.

Among other distinctions, Foss was awarded the Medal of Honor and Purple Heart. In 1984, he was enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame in Dayton, Ohio.

After the war, Foss, a Republican, served in the South Dakota Legislature for five years before becoming governor from 1955 to 1959.

He went on to become commissioner of the American Football League, which began play in 1960 to challenge the established National Football League. Foss held the post until 1966, and the leagues merged in 1970.

From 1988 to 1990, Foss served as president of the National Rifle Association.

On Thursday, the current president of the NRA, Charlton Heston, called Foss’ death ”a great loss to our country.”

”There’s not a man with more honor than Joe Foss,” he said at the memorial service.

Bill Bright, the founder of the Christian ministry Campus Crusade for Christ, described Foss as a true cowboy.

”John Wayne was an actor,” he said. ”Joe was real.”

Foss was featured prominently in Tom Brokaw’s book ”The Greatest Generation.”

”He had a hero’s swagger but a winning smile to go with his plain talk and movie-star looks,” Brokaw wrote.

On Thursday, Brokaw again described Foss as a plain talking intellectual in a video he prepared for the memorial service.

His son, Dr. Joseph Frank Foss, said he most admired his father’s ability as a captivating storyteller.

”When he walked into a room, people just gravitated to him,” Dr. Foss said.

Foss is survived by his wife, two children and two stepchildren.

Joe Foss’ introduction into the art of aerial combat:

The Japanese Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero fighter swept in low over the sweltering jungle of Guadalcanal, as if to land on the nearly completed, crushed-coral runway at Lunga Point. Once the air base was completed, the Japanese planned to fly long-range bombers from it to cut off Australia from the east.

But as the Zero buzzed the field, the pilot was startled to see enemy troops on the runway–10,000 U.S. Marines had landed the day before, August 7, 1942, and now held the field. He hastily climbed away, leaving this little clearing in the jungle to become the objective of the pivotal campaign of the war in the Pacific.

Joe with Charles Lindbergh

Believing the amphibious assault to be a temporary, diversionary raid (and seeing that they were outnumbered 3-to-1), Japanese ground forces on Guadalcanal initially withdrew into the jungle, expecting air attacks to drive the Americans off. Over the next two days, land-based Japanese navy planes, including Mitsubishi G4M bombers (Allied code name ‘Betty’) and Zero (‘Zeke’) fighters, downed 20 percent of the U.S. Navy fighters sent against them but lost nearly half their own. The loss of four cruisers and a destroyer in the sea battle of Savo on the night of August 9, combined with the continuing threat of daylight air attack, caused the U.S. Navy to withdraw. The Marines were left on ‘the Canal’ with what they referred to as the only unsinkable aircraft carrier in the Solomon Islands–the Guadalcanal airfield. They used captured construction equipment to finish the 2,600-foot runway, adding an extra 1,200 feet for good measure.

Commander of the Cactus Air Force, Major General Roy Geiger with Joe

Although bereft of taxiways, revetments, drainage and radar, the airfield– christened Henderson Field after Marine Major Lofton Henderson, who died leading a dive-bomber attack in the June 4 Battle of Midway–boasted Japanese hangars, machine shops and radio installations, a pagodalike control tower complete with a warning siren for air raids, and even an ice plant. But not until August 20 did Guadalcanal–code-named ‘Cactus’–take delivery of 12 Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers and their escort of 19 Grumman F4F-4 Wildcat fighters, the advance squadrons of Marine Air Group (MAG) 23. ‘I was close to tears and I was not alone,’ said Maj. Gen. Archer Vandergrift, the Marine ground commander, ‘when the first SBD taxied up and this handsome and dashing aviator jumped to the ground. ‘Thank God you have come,’ I told him.’

Within 12 hours the fledgling ‘Cactus Air Force’ helped finish off a Japanese infantry assault. The next day, the American fliers gave an enemy bomber raid from Rabaul, New Britain, a rude welcome. In his first combat engagement, Captain John Lucien Smith, commanding Marine Fighter Squadron (VMF) 223, and four F4Fs met the fighter escort, 13 Zeros of the crack Tainan Kokutai (naval air group) led by Lieutenant Shiro Kawai, head-on. All four Wildcats survived, though two were badly damaged and one cracked up attempting a dead-stick landing. No Zeros were destroyed, but Smith thought the skirmish ‘did a great deal of good’ by giving the Marines a better idea of the Zero’s capabilities while giving them confidence in the performance and durability of their own Wildcats. Later that week, Captain Marion Carl, who had downed a Zero at Midway, got two Bettys and another Zero. Carl and Smith were to become friendly rivals.

The balance of power on Guadalcanal seesawed with the waxing and waning of fighter strength at Henderson. By the end of August the Cactus Air Force included 14 Bell P-400 Airacobra fighter-bombers (export versions of the company’s P-39) of the 67th Fighter Squadron, U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF), and 19 F4Fs of VMF-224, under Major Robert E. Galer.

(In less than two weeks Galer would knock down four enemy planes, go down in the water and swim ashore. His gallantry would eventually garner him 13 kills and the Medal of Honor.)

By the afternoon of September 10, however, only three P-400s remained, with 22 SBDs and 11 F4Fs. (Among the missing was Marion Carl.) Two dozen Navy Wildcats hurriedly flew in to reinforce them; the Airacobras proved barely enough to help repulse an attack on Bloody Ridge, just south of the airfield.

During the course of the Bloody Ridge battle, Henderson received 60 planes, including 18 more F4Fs,12 SBDs and six Grumman TBF Avenger torpedo bombers, but the Japanese reinforced Rabaul with 60 fighters and 72 medium bombers.

By mid-October, 224 Japanese planes had fallen to the Cactus Air Force, including 111 1/2 to VMF-223 and 19 to Smith, who, as the highest-scoring American airman to date, was awarded the Navy Cross and the Medal of Honor. His erstwhile opponent as top gun, Carl, had actually made it back to Henderson after spending five days with the natives, only to find that Smith had pulled ahead of him in victories. (‘Dammit, General,’ he urged Brig. Gen. Roy S. Geiger, the Marine air commander, ‘ground him for five days!’) Carl finished with 18 1/2 kills and a Navy Cross.

Seven of the pilots who had arrived with Smith and Carl in August went out as aces; six were killed and six wounded. Of the Dauntless squadron, only the commander, Lt. Col. Richard C. Mangrum, was able to walk away when he was evacuated on October 12; all his men had been killed, wounded, or hospitalized.

‘These guys had stopped [the Japanese] cold,’ said Captain Joseph J. Foss, who would become Cactus’ premier ace, ‘and now it was our turn.’ Foss–‘Smokey Joe’ for his cigar habit–was executive officer of Major Leonard K. ‘Duke’ Davis’ VMF-121, which moved up to relieve VMF-223 on October 9.

‘We were fired upon by Japanese troops as we landed,’ recalled Lieutenant Jefferson J. DeBlanc of VMF- 112, some of whose pilots arrived a month later in transport planes. ‘We were always under fire on takeoffs and landings.’

Pilots were quartered in mud-floored tents in the frequently flooded coconut grove called ‘Mosquito Grove,’ between the airstrip and the beach. The latrine was a trench, with a log for a seat; the bathtub was the Lunga River. There were only two meals a day–dehydrated potatoes, Spam, cold hash and captured Japanese rice–and cigarettes. Malaria, dysentery, dengue fever, beriberi and myriad lesser known tropical diseases stalked the garrison. No man could get out of duty with less than a 102-degree fever, but by October more than 2,000 had been hospitalized.

Working conditions were also daunting. Fuel had to be hand-pumped out of 55-gallon drums (and strained through chamois, since native porters sometimes cooled their feet in it) into 12-quart buckets before being poured into airplanes. There were plenty of bombs but no bomb hoists; the SBDs’ 500-pounders had to be hand- loaded. The Wildcats’ turbochargers, not to be engaged below 10,000 feet but wired open anyway, wore out the engines in 25 to 50 flying hours.

‘Almost daily,’ wrote the 67th Squadron historian, ‘and almost always at the same time–noon, ‘Tojo Time’–the bombers came.’ Advance notice arrived from coastwatchers up the archipelago or, once incoming Japanese bombers learned to detour out of their sight, via Henderson’s new long-range SCR (signal corps radio) 270 radar. The Wildcats, the Dauntlesses and the P-400s scrambled to take off two at a time–through a blinding pall of dust or, if it had rained, through wheel-sucking mud–on a treacherous runway pocked with half-filled bomb and shell craters and rutted by the solid rubber tail wheels of carrier aircraft. Almost invariably one or two planes failed to take off.

The ‘ground pounders,’ the SBDs and P-400s, scuttled off over the treetops to work over enemy ground positions–or at least to keep out of the way of the impending airstrike. The Wildcat pilots had their work cut out for them just raising their landing gear (which took 29 turns of a hand crank), struggling to form up, trimming their aircraft and testing their guns. (Early Wildcat guns had a tendency to jam during hard maneuvers; furthermore, if the oil necessary to prevent rust on the guns in the humid sea-level air was not removed before takeoff, it froze at altitude, jamming the actions.) Most important, the pilots had to reach the Japanese bombers’ altitude before the Zekes fell on them.

In his first combat mission, attempting to intercept bombers at 24,000 feet, Lieutenant James Percy of VMF-112 suffered a partial turbocharger failure 10,000 feet short of the enemy formation. ‘I continued to climb very slowly on low blower, but it was obvious I wasn’t going to reach [the enemy’s] altitude in time to intercept,’ Percy recalled. ‘As the bombers passed about 3,000 feet over me, I noticed their bomb bay doors were open. As I grasped what that meant, their bombs started falling toward me. All I could do was duck my head and pray. Bombs passed all around me, but I was not hit.’ (Percy’s luck held; in June 1943 he survived a 2,000-foot fall with a shot-up parachute into the waters off the Russell Islands.)

Down below, a black flag would go up at the ‘Pagoda’–air raid imminent–and the triple-A (anti-aircraft artillery) would open up. Around the runway, slit trenches and bomb shelters rapidly filled (a sign over one shelter entrance read, ‘Beneath these portals pass the fastest men in the world’) as the first bombs began to fall at one end of the field, and the explosions ‘walked’ across to the other side.

Diving, whether to attack or to escape, was the one maneuver at which the Wildcat bested the Zero. ‘The Zeros had superior maneuverability,’ said 2nd Lt. Roger A. ‘Jughead’ Haberman, a division leader in Foss’ flight who ultimately scored seven victories. ‘In two-and-a-half turns against a Wildcat they could have you boresighted. But our planes were heavier than theirs, so if you got into trouble, you could dive earthward away from them.’

Usually.

In Foss’ first combat on October 13, he was jumped by a Zeke flown by Petty Officer 1st Class Kozaburo Yasui of the Tainan Kokutai. Foss later recalled: ‘That bird came by like a freight train and gave me a good sprinkling, but I knew I had him. I pulled up and gave him a short burst, and down he went.’ But while Foss was credited with the kill, Yasui in fact survived (he would bring his own score up to 11 before he was killed over Guam on June 19, 1944)–and his two wingmen, Petty Officer 2nd Class Nobutaka Yanami and Seaman 1st Class Tadashi Yoneda, bounced Foss. Their bullets hit his oil cooler, and his engine seized. ‘The only thing I could do to get out–I was right over the field–was to just wheel over and dive straight down,’ Foss recalled. He plunged from 22,000 feet right down to the deck. ‘I’d read that a Zero couldn’t follow such a dive; its wings would come off trying to pull out. Well, whoever wrote that was a fiction writer because those boys just kept on my tail, pumping lead!’ Anti-aircraft gunners cleared the Zekes from his tail, and Foss coasted in to a dead-stick crash landing.

The Americans knew the Japanese had the edge in experience. Most Yanks were straight out of flying school, with less than 300 hours in training aircraft. ‘Some of the pilots,’ wrote Percy, ‘barely had enough time in the F4Fs to get safely airborne.’ Many Zero aces, veterans of the Sino-Japanese War, counted 800 hours of flying time even before the United States entered the war.

The Japanese bombers were the Americans’ real targets. Bettys, with their 20mm tail cannon, were typically attacked from above and to the side, leaving the Wildcat with enough energy to zoom-climb back up for another pass. Missing on one attempt, Foss dove right through a Betty formation. ‘A thousand feet below,’ Foss recalled, ‘I suddenly turned back up and headed toward the belly of the last plane on the left wing of the V echelon. Directly under the bomber, nose pointed straight up, I waited until my plane had lost almost all of its speed and I was on the verge of stalling before pulling the trigger.’ Not just for its streamlined hull did the Japanese call the Betty the ‘Flying Cigar’; its fuel tanks hit, this one exploded right on top of Foss–his fifth kill.

DeBlanc’s first victory was a G4M just 50 feet above the water, making a torpedo run against U.S. ships. ‘I flew through the [anti-aircraft] barrage from the fleet and locked onto the tail of a Betty and opened fire, killing the rear gunner and watching my tracers strike the engines,’ DeBlanc said. Target-fixated, he nearly collided with the flaming bomber, but he recovered to nail two more–three kills in one mission. (At the end of January, in a wild dogfight over Vella Gulf, DeBlanc shot down three Japanese floatplanes and two Zekes before being shot down himself. He bailed out, was rescued by a coastwatcher and eventually was flown back to the Canal. Credited with nine kills, he was awarded the Medal of Honor.)

The Navy fighters’ radio frequency, meant for communication over the uninterrupted expanses of the sea, was susceptible to interference from intervening land masses. Henderson’s Japanese tranceiver could only transmit to the fighters out to about 20 miles but could receive their radios from 100 miles. The controllers in the Pagoda often could only sit helplessly and listen as the battle played out, unable to help direct the action.

‘The ground crews would count [the survivors] as they landed,’ said the 67th’s historian. ‘The ambulance would stand, engine running, ready for those who crashed, landed dead stick, or hit the bomb craters in the runway. Then the work of patching and repairing the battered fighters would start again.’

Probably the Americans’ greatest advantage was simply their proximity to the base. Pilots had a very good chance of making it back to Henderson Field– if they could survive being shot down.

After downing three other Zeros during a dogfight on October 25,1st Lt. Jack E. Conger of VMF-212 went into the drink after he rammed a fourth Zero–since he had no ammunition left. The Japanese pilot also parachuted and insisted the Marine rescue boat pick up Conger first. Conger had to convince the Marines not to shoot the chivalrous enemy pilot and was the first to reach down to pull him aboard. Taking umbrage at the dishonorable prospect of capture, the Japanese pilot, 19-year-old Petty Officer 2nd Class Shiro Ishikawa of the 2nd Kokutai, thrust his 8mm Nambu pistol out of the water into Conger’s face and pulled the trigger. The wet ammo misfired and then misfired again when Ishikawa tried to shoot himself. Having had enough, Conger (who would finish with 10 1/2 kills) brained his recent aerial adversary with a five-gallon gas can and hauled him into the boat.

Nighttime brought a new set of annoyances: Tokyo Rose propaganda on the radio; nuisance bombers (‘Louie the Louse’ and ‘Washing Machine Charlie,’ named for the chugging sound of his unsynchronized propellers), mixing the occasional bomb with whistling bottles dropped just to rattle nerves; and troop convoys (the ‘Cactus Express,’ later redubbed ‘Tokyo Express’) coming down the Solomons’ central channel (‘the Slot’) to offload troops at Cape Esperance under cover of naval bombardment.

‘Throughout most of my first night on Guadalcanal,’ recalled Foss,’shells streamed above our tents in both directions as Japanese ships in the channel targeted our artillerymen on the island, who returned the fire. The veterans…assured us that the night’s shelling was ‘light.” By the end of his first week, Foss believed them. On October 13, Japanese 105mm and 150mm artillery pieces, dubbed ‘Pistol Pete’ and ‘Millimeter Mike’ by the Marines, began lobbing random shells from the surrounding hills, beyond the range of the Marines’ 105mm and 5-inch fieldpieces. A heavily escorted Japanese bomber raid arrived over Henderson at noon, cratering the airfield and setting 5,000 gallons of aviation fuel ablaze. That night, in what was to be known ever after as ‘the Bombardment,’ the Japanese battleships Haruna and Kongo dropped more than 900 14-inch shells onto Henderson.

Come dawn, Henderson was a scene of staggering destruction, the steel-matted main runway a twisted ruin and the Pagoda damaged. (Geiger ordered the Pagoda demolished to deny the Japanese a target in the future). More than three-quarters of the SBDs and all of the TBFs were destroyed. Forty-one Americans were dead.

But the Americans had a surprise up their sleeves–an auxiliary airstrip, Fighter One, carved out of the coconut grove southeast of the main field. From there, the Cactus Air Force launched strikes against incoming air raids and the Tokyo Express. On the night of October 14, however, heavy cruisers Chokai and Kinugasa paid a follow-up visit, pelting Henderson with 752 8-inch rounds.

The morning of October 15 found Japanese transports calmly offloading at Tassafaronga, just 10 miles from Lunga.

But the Japanese were to rediscover a truth that has blessed and bedeviled air forces since the dawn of military aviation–runways, though easily cratered, are easily repaired. Henderson put every available plane in the air to bomb and strafe the ships as well as the troops and supplies already ashore. Flying General Geiger’s personal Consolidated PBY-5A Catalina amphibian, Blue Goose, Major Jack R. Cram torpedoed one of the transports, Sasago Maru, for which he would receive the Navy Cross.

The accompanying destroyers riddled the PBY, and three Zeros of the Tainan Kokutai chased it back to Lunga. Haberman, attempting to put his smoking F4F down, pulled off from his approach to Fighter One and shot the last Zeke off Cram’s tail (killing Petty Officer 2nd Class Chuji Sakurai). During the action, three transport ships were set afire and beached; one was sunk by more Boeing B-17s sent up from Espritu Santo.

Again, before dawn on October 16, the cruisers Myoko and Maya came down the Slot to hammer Henderson, this time firing 1,500 8-inch shells. By dawn Geiger put his total losses at 23 Dauntlesses, six Wildcats, eight Avengers and four Airacobras. Even including those planes that the ground crews cobbled up from cannibalized parts, the Cactus Air Force had only 34 planes left, including just nine Wildcats.

Just as nine Aichi D4Y1 ‘Val’ dive bombers plunged down to finish off the Cactus Air Force, Lt. Col. Harold W. ‘Indian Joe’ Bauer arrived from New Hebrides with 19 Wildcats and seven Dauntlesses. His fuel tanks almost empty, Bauer nevertheless shot down four Vals.

Both sides needed time to recover from the shock. Because Fighter One was too frequently flooded, another strip, called Fighter Two, was smoothed out across the Lunga River. Geiger, 57, who at one point had personally taken an SBD up to drop a 1,000-pound bomb on Japanese troops, finally was transferred out with combat fatigue.

Meanwhile, Japanese cruisers and destroyers landed more troops on the island, and on November 13 the battleships Hiei and Kirishima came down the Slot to smash Henderson once and for all. Alerted to their approach, American cruisers and destroyers ambushed them. Dawn found Hiei, hit 85 times, almost dead in the water just 10 miles north of Savo Island and less than 40 miles from Henderson. It was payback time.

All day Hiei lay prostrate while SBDs and TBFs punched bombs and torpedoes into her. The Wildcat fighter escort, finding no Zeros, went down to strafe as well. That night the Japanese scuttled Hiei. An American report noted, ‘It should be recorded that the first battleship to be sunk by Americans in the Second World War was sunk because of a handful of Marine and Navy aircraft.’

On November 14, a cruiser force under Vice Adm. Gunichi Mikawa tried to achieve what the battleships had failed to do, shelling Henderson Field once more while an 11-ship troop convoy under Rear Adm. Raizo Tanaka headed for Guadalcanal. Both Japanese forces soon found themselves under attack by every available Cactus Air Force plane and the entire air group off the American carrier USS Enterprise, which had flown in to reinforce Henderson. In the ensuing fight, Indian Joe Bauer, by now an 11 victory ace, went into the water; he was seen swimming but disappeared before he could be rescued. (Bauer was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.) Mikawa lost the heavy cruiser Kinugasa to Enterprise’s dive bombers, which also succeeded in damaging the heavy cruiser Maya. Seven transports went down; the others, beached, were destroyed the next day. Only 40 percent of the 10,000 Japanese troops made it onto Guadalcanal, with just five tons of supplies.

It was a turning point. After mid-November the Japanese, although they continued trying to destroy Henderson, gave up trying to recapture it. Instead, they secretly built their own airfield, at Munda on New Georgia, stretching a wire net over the construction to conceal the runway and leaving the tops of palm trees on it as camouflage.

Foss, with a Distinguished Flying Cross and severe malaria to show for his stint on Guadalcanal, had been rotated rearward but returned to Henderson on New Year’s Day 1943. Placed in command of VMF-121, he soon shot down three of the new, square-winged A6M3 Type 32 Zekes to raise his score to 26–tied with American World War I ace Eddie Rickenbacker. The bet was that Foss would be first to break Rickenbacker’s record.

Foss’ chance came on January 25, when Japan sent a last-ditch aerial armada down the Slot–30 army bombers and fighters, recently moved to Rabaul from Malaya to assist the depleted naval units. Against them Foss had only his eight-plane Wildcat flight–the ‘Flying Circus’–and four Lockheed P-38F Lightning fighters of the 339th Fighter Squadron.

The bombers stayed out of range until their Nakajima Ki-43 fighter escorts could deal with the Americans. But the Ki-43 pilots feared a trap. ‘By refusing to run away when the odds were clearly and overwhelmingly against us, we instilled [in the Japanese] the deep suspicion that we had many more planes in the air,’ said Foss. The P-38s were more than capable of handling the few Ki-43s that ran the gantlet, two of which were shot down by Lieutenants Ray W. Bezner and Besby F. Holmes.

With the Wildcats still blocking the way–and accounting for two more Japanese fighters–the bombers soon gave up and went home. For turning back that air raid without firing a shot–and for giving Henderson’s safety higher priority than his personal score–Foss received the Medal of Honor; a few days later he transferred out for good. His 26 kills would make him the highest scoring Marine fighter pilot of the war except for Major Gregory ‘Pappy’ Boyington (who technically scored six of his 28 kills over China as one of the ‘Flying Tigers’). Foss retired a brigadier general, later serving as governor of his native South Dakota.

The Japanese military saved face by evacuating their remaining ground forces in early February, literally under the Americans’ noses. The campaign for Guadalcanal was over; Henderson’s role in history, however, was not. It was from Fighter Two that 16 P-38s of the 339th Squadron took off on April 18, 1943, to intercept and shoot down a Betty bomber carrying the mastermind of Pearl Harbor, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, as it approached Bougainville. But one of the returning Lightnings landed at a new forward airstrip in the Russell Islands. The war was leaving Henderson behind.

Through January 1943 the Cactus Air Force had lost 148 aircraft shot down and 94 airmen killed or missing. In addition, between August and November 1942, 43 planes were destroyed on Henderson Field, and 86 were lost operationally. During that same period, the U.S. Navy carriers supporting the Guadalcanal campaign lost a total of 49 planes in combat, 72 destroyed on their ships and 184 operational losses. Estimates of total Japanese losses ranged as high as 900 aircraft and more than 2,400 aircrew members. The latter statistic reflected the beginning of a talent drain that would ultimately prove fatal to the Japanese land and naval air forces.

‘None realized more the importance of the field that they had so obligingly begun, and so precipitantly abandoned, than the Japanese,’ wrote one historian. ‘For they never regained their strategic airfield, and for the lack of it they lost Guadalcanal, the Solomons, and ultimately New Guinea, the Bismarck Archipelago and their bases to the north. Probably never in history have a few acres of cleared ground cost so much in ships, men and treasure as…Henderson Field.’

Aviation History Magazine

…and all that, my friends, is about A PROUD AMERICAN and a HELLOVA FELLA!