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August 30, 2023

Profiles of Valor: Maj Joseph Jacob Foss (USMC)

“If you blink, you could miss the fight. If you blink during the fight, you could die.”

Joe Foss was a noted Sioux Falls, South Dakota, native. Raised by faithful parents on the family’s rural farm, Joe’s interest in aviation was sparked at age 12 when he and his father visited a nearby airfield to see Charles Lindbergh, who was touring the nation in his famous “Spirit of St. Louis.” At 16, Joe and his dad took their first ride on an airplane, paying $1.50 each for a short trip on a Ford Trimotor with famous South Dakota aviator Clyde Ice.

Joe was hooked!

After watching a Marine Corps aviation team perform aerobatics, he was determined to become a Marine pilot. But after his father died in an accident, his goals were delayed as he helped his mother and brother manage their family farm, which was hit hard by dust storms in the two years that followed.

Joe worked at an auto service station to earn the money both for his college tuition and books, as well as for flight lessons. In 1939, he graduated from the University of South Dakota with a degree in business — though he had also accumulated more than 100 hours of flight time. In 1940, with both his college degree and pilot’s certificate, Foss hitchhiked to Minneapolis, where he enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserves so he could join the Naval Aviation Cadet program.

Two years later, after graduating from the Navy’s flight program at Pensacola, he was passed over as a fighter pilot because, at age 27, he was considered too old. But he pursued his goal to join a fighter squadron, and in July 1942, having logged over 150 flight hours in Grumman F4F Wildcats, he was finally transferred to Marine Fighting Squadron 121 (VMF-121) as the executive officer.

Foss and VMF-121 would play a pivotal role in the strategically critical Guadalcanal Campaign through its conclusion in February 1943. On his first combat mission in October ‘42 just four days after arriving at Henderson Field on Guadalcanal, Joe engaged in his first dogfight, shooting down a Japanese A6M Zero fighter. He then barely survived after three other Zeros pursued him and riddled his Wildcat with machine gun and 20mm cannon fire. With his “hair standing on end and his mouth dry as cotton,” he made it back to Henderson, dead stick (no engine) and having lost most flight controls.

Of that first engagement, he said: “I learned two important lessons that day. I had to stay alert to stay alive, and no one ever caught me asleep at the switch again or so intent on an attack that I failed to keep looking around.” In a different engagement soon thereafter, he would survive having to ditch his Wildcat in the sea near the island of Malaita.

The F4F Wildcat, unlike its successor, the F6F Hellcat, was not evenly matched against the Japanese Zero, so pilot skills had to make up the difference. Notably, the F4F and F6F looked so similar that many Japanese pilots who thought they were coming up against a Wildcat ended up getting flamed by a Hellcat.

As lead pilot in his group of eight Wildcats, Foss rapidly gained a reputation for his very aggressive close-range tactics and his master-gunnery skills. His squadron became known as “Foss’s Flying Circus,” and Foss nicknamed his two flight sections the “Farm Boys” and the “City Slickers.”

On October 25, 1942, Foss became the Marine Corps’ first “ace in a day” after shooting down five Japanese planes in two missions. In his first 12 days in theater, he shot down 16 enemy aircraft. Legendary!

In VMF-121’s three months of sustained combat at Guadalcanal, they shot down 72 Japanese aircraft, including a total of 26 kills credited to Foss. For the record, during World War II, there were 1,283 American pilots who became fighter aces, meaning they had five or more confirmed enemy aircraft kills to their credit. With 26 kills, Foss is in the top 10 list of American aces. Having matched the 26 kill record held by America’s top World War I ace, Eddie Rickenbacker, Joe became America’s first “ace-of-aces” in World War II.

Of dogfighting, Foss observed: “If you blink, you could miss the fight. If you blink during the fight, you could die. That, in fact, is the trick to aerial combat. There is virtually no time to think about acting or reacting. The impulse and the act must be one.”

Joe Foss received the Medal of Honor for his actions on January 25, 1943, for his “repeated acts of heroism and intrepidity at the risk of his life far beyond the call of duty and without detriment to his mission.” According to his citation, he “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.”

Foss was one of 82 Marines who earned the Medal of Honor during WW II.

Returning home after WWII, among other accomplishments, he served two terms in Congress before becoming South Dakota’s youngest governor at age 39. He would later become the first commissioner of the newly created American Football League, then spent years hosting ABC television’s “The American Sportsman.” After that, he served as president of the NRA.

I highly recommend three books about Foss: Flying Marine (with Walter Simmons); Top Guns (with Matthew Brennan); and my favorite, A Proud American. In Tom Brokaw’s book, The Greatest Generation, he wrote of Foss: “He had a hero’s swagger but a winning smile to go with his plain talk and movie-star looks. 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.”

Joe Foss, your example of valor — an American Patriot defending Liberty for all and your fellow warriors at great risk to yourself — is eternal.

Semper Vigilans Fortis Paratus et Fidelis
Pro Deo et Libertate — 1776

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