Joseph Jacob “Joe” Foss was born on April 17, 1915 in a drafty Sioux Falls, S.D. farmhouse with no electricity. Younger siblings Cliff and Mary shared his Norwegian and Scots-Irish heritage.
At age 12, Foss saw Charles Lindbergh on tour with his “Spirit of St. Louis” airplane; Foss knew instantly that he wanted to be a fighter pilot. Four years later, Foss’ father paid $1.50 each for the two of them to fly with famed South Dakota aviator Clyde Ice. Foss loved the sensation of the wild, rolling acrobatics.
In 1933, Foss’ father was electrocuted in an automobile accident. Foss dropped out of school and took over the family farm, delaying his dream of becoming a pilot but never giving up. Later, his younger brother took over the farm so Foss could attend college.
While at the University of South Dakota, Foss joined the South Dakota National Guard and convinced the administration to offer a flying course. He amassed more than 100 flight hours by his graduation, then he hitchhiked to Minneapolis with a business degree and a pilot’s certificate to join the Marines.
Determination pays divdends
As a 26-year-old second lieutenant, Foss was considered too old to be a fighter pilot and sent to work in photographic reconnaissance. Foss performed the work admirably but repeatedly requested transfer into fighter pilot training. In 1942, he married his high school sweetheart, June Shakstad, and then got his wish: He trained as a fighter pilot and headed to the Pacific.
In October of 1942, Japanese planes and ships were shelling and bombing Guadalcanal daily, nearly crippling America’s resources at Henderson Field. Japanese ships off-shore were shelling American positions on Guadalcanal. Then Foss’ squadron, VMF-121, shipped to Guadalcanal and began singlehandedly to turn the tide.
Foss’ aggressive, close fighting tactics and incredible gunnery talents soon put Japanese forces on alert. Foss’ flight team of eight Wildcats was nicknamed “Foss’ Flying Circus” and split by Foss himself into two groups: “Farm Boys” and “City Slickers.” They shot down hundreds of enemy planes. Foss capped off 26 in just 44 days to become an “ace of aces” and the top Marine fighter pilot of the war.
In the spring of 1943, Foss returned to the U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt presented Foss with the Medal of Honor for his heroic actions, then kept the young man in the Oval Office for nearly an hour, pressing him for details on the Pacific theater. Only later did Foss realize FDR had two sons fighting there. Foss’ picture was snapped as he left the Oval Office wearing his Medal of Honor; the next week the photo was on the cover of Life magazine.
Foss returned to the Pacific and had a chance to fly with his boyhood hero Lindbergh. When he returned stateside, he started his own flying service and served with the South Dakota National Guard.
High profile during the 1950s
Foss was called up again during the Korean War by the Air Force; there he reached the rank of brigadier general.
Afterward, he served in the South Dakota Legislature. In 1955 he became the state’s youngest governor at age 39. During his term, he and a young Tom Brokaw competed together in a charitable game show.
In 1959, Foss was appointed the first commissioner of the new American Football League. He would go on to host his own outdoorsman television series, serve as president of the National Rifle Association, and campaign tirelessly for the disabled (one of his children had cerebral palsy).
In 2002, at age 86, Foss was detained at the Phoenix airport by security guards who thought his Medal of Honor was a weapon. When the story made national headlines, Foss said that he was most upset because no one at the airport knew what the Medal of Honor was.
Foss died in 2003 on New Year’s Day in Scottsdale, Ariz. Brokaw, Dick Cheney and Oliver North were among the funeral attendees.
Foss is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Many institutions and locations are named in his honor, particularly in his native South Dakota.
The Joe Foss Institute continues to inspire patriotism and reverence for freedom in young people nationwide.
SOURCES: An interview with Waco resident and Marine fighter pilot Bill Bauer; www.wikipedia.org; www.usfighter.tripod.com/bauer,htm; www.joefoss.com; Medal of Honor: Portraits of Valor by Peter Collier and photographer Nick del Calzo.
The Medal of Honor feature runs every other Sunday, alternating with “Voices of Valor,” which focuses on Central Texas veterans. To suggest a story about a Central Texas veteran, email email@example.com.
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