Joseph Jacob “Joe” Foss [April 17, 1915-January 1, 2003] was born and raised on a farm near Sioux Falls, South Dakota without electricity. His father was a strapping Norwegian and his mother was a petite Irish-Scottish woman who loved working outdoors on the farm. His mother inherited 40 acres and after his father married her, he bought an additional 80 acres.
At age 12, Foss visited a local airfield to see Charles Lindbergh on tour with his aircraft, the Spirit of St. Louis. Four years later, he and his father took their first aircraft ride in a Ford Trimotor for $1.50 each with the famous Clyde Ice aviator, for which a local airfield would be named.
After watching a Marine Corps aerial show in open-cockpit biplanes, Joe decided he was to become a Marine aviator. He worked at a service station to pay for books and college tuition and begin his flight lessons from Roy Lanning at the Sioux Skyway Airfield in 1938. younger brother took over managing the farm, which allowed Joe to continue his education and graduate from Sioux Falls College. While at the University of South Dakota, Foss convinced the authorities to set up a Civil Aeronautics flying course at the university, where he flew 100 flight hours before graduation.
Foss bussed tables to work his way through the university. He served as a Private in the 147th Field Artillery in the South Dakota National Guard from 1937 to 1940. By 1940, he had a pilot certificate and a degree in Business Administration. He then hitchhiked to Minneapolis to enlist in the Marine Corps Reserves in order to join the Naval Aviation Cadet program. After being designated a Naval Aviator, Foss graduated at Pensacola, Florida and commissioned as a second lieutenant, serving as an instructor at Naval Air Station Pensacola.
At the age of 26, he was considered too old to be a fighter pilot, so was sent to the Navy School of Photography. Later he was transferred to the Marine Photographic Squadron 1 (VMO-1) in San Diego, California.
Foss made repeated requests to be transferred as a fighter pilot and logged 150 flight hours in the Grumman F4F Wildcat, eventually transferred to Marine Fighting Squadron 121 (VMF-121) as the executive officer. Before leaving for Guadalcanal in June of 1942, he married his high school sweetheart, June Shakstad.
VMF-121 and Joe Foss served as part of Operation Watchtower, relieving VMF-233 in a fight for control over the island. The air group code name was Cactus and they played an important role in the Battle of Guadalcanal. Foss shot down a Japanese Zero on his first combat mission, but his Wildcat was shot up as well and with a dead engine and three Zeros on his tail, he landed full speed with no flaps, barely missing a grove of palm trees.
Foss was the lead pilot of eight Wildcats that became known as Foss's Flying Circus. In December of 1942, Foss was stricken with malaria and sent to Sydney, Australia for rehabilitation, where he met the Australian ace Clive “Killer” Caldwell. In three months of sustained combat, Foss and his group shot down 72 Japanese aircraft, of which 26 were credited to him. That matched the record helped by the American World War I ace, Eddie Rickenbacker, so Foss became the first “ace-of-aces” of World War II.
Foss returned to the United States in March of 1943 to receive the Medal of Honor from President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the White House where Life magazine featured the story and Captain Foss appeared on the magazine's cover. He then began a war bond tour that continued until 1944.
In February of 1944, Foss returned to the Pacific Theater as the commanding officer of VMF-115, flying the F4U Corsair, which was the time he met Marine fighter ace Marion Carl. He also had the opportunity to meet and fly with his boyhood idol, Charles Lindbergh, while assigned in the South Pacific as an aviation consultant. After eight months of operational flying with no opportunity to increase his wartime score, Foss completed his combat service as one of the top aces. Foss again contracted malaria and was sent home to Klamath Falls Rehabilitation Center in Oregon. In February 1945, he became operations and training officer at the Marine Corps Station in Santa Barbara, California.
Released from active duty in 1945, Foss opened the Joe Foss Flying Service, a charter service and flight instruction school in Sioux Falls that grew to 35 aircraft. He went into partnership with Duane “Duke” Corning in a Packard car dealership in Sioux Falls.
In 1946, Foss was appointed a lieutenant colonel in the South Dakota Air National Guard and became the commanding officer for the Guard's 175th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron. While Foss was involved in administration and forming the squadron, he also flew, becoming a member of their P-51 Mustang air demonstration team. During the Korean War, Foss, by then a colonel, was called to active duty with the US Air Force and served as Director of Operations and Training for Central Air Defense Command, eventually reaching the rank of Brigadier General.
Beginning in 1955 and campaigning to run as a Republican representative in the South Dakota legislature from the cockpit of an airplane, he eventually became the Governor of South Dakota – the youngest. In 1958, Foss campaigned unsuccessfully for a seat in the US House of Representatives, defeated by Democrat George McGovern.
After serving as governor, Foss became the first commissioner of the American Football League in 1959. From 1964 to 1967, Foss hosted the ABC television program, The American Sportsman, taking him all over the world in hunting and fishing excursions. He was a natural because of his lifelong love of the outdoors. Foss hosted his own syndicated TV series, The Outdoorsman: Joe Foss from 1967 to 1974, when he was also a Director of Public Affairs for KLM Royal Dutch Airlines.
Starting in 1988, Foss was elected to two consecutive terms as president of the National Rifle Association. In his later years he had a busy speaking schedule and spoke out for conservative causes like the assault against gun owner's rights and the Second Amendment.
Foss had a daughter with cerebral palsy, so her served as president of the National Society of Crippled Children and Adults.
In 2001, Joe and his second wife, Didi, founded the Joe Foss Institute.
Joe Foss was once a musician with Tommy Dorsey & His Orchestra.
In 2002, on his way to an NRA meeting to address West Point cadets, he traveled with his Medal of Honor. Joe was stopped by the TSA screeners who stated that the 5-pointed star on his medal could be used as a weapon. It demonstrates how stupid the TSA system and its employees are - believing that a Medal of Honor could be used as a shuriken (throwing star) and a Medal of Honor recipient is a potential terrorist hijacker. It is reported that TSA employees hired are not required to be high school graduates. It also attests how inept and useless the TSA system is. Too bad the border between Mexico and the United States is not guarded so meticulously.
In 2003, Foss was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. He was inducted into the Naval Aviation Hall of Honor at the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida in 1994.
His Medal of Honor Citation reads:
For outstanding heroism and courage above and beyond the call of duty as Executive Officer of a Marine Fighting Squadron, at Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands. Engaging in almost daily combat with the enemy from October 9 to November 19, 1942, Captain Foss personally shot down 23 Japanese aircraft and damaged others so severely that their destruction was extremely probable. In addition, during this period, he successfully led a large number of escort missions, skillfully covering reconnaissance, bombing and photographic planes as well as surface craft. On January 15, 1943, he added three more enemy aircraft to his already brilliant successes for a record of aerial combat achievement unsurpassed in this war. Boldly searching out an approaching enemy force on January 25, Captain Foss led his eight F4F Marine planes and four Army P-38s into action and, undaunted by tremendously superior numbers, intercepted and struck with such force that four Japanese fighters were shot down and the bombers were turned back without releasing a single bomb. His remarkable flying skill, inspiring leadership and indomitable fighting spirit were distinctive factors in the defense of strategic American positions on Guadalcanal.