Giants Of The Corps: Joe Foss

By Tom Bartlett - Originally Published May 1977

The story of Joe Foss begins with his birth near Sioux Falls, S.D., 62 years ago.

As the years passed, Joe grew into a skinny kid who seemed destined to be a runner-up in nearly everything he tried. After graduating from high school, he attended Augustana College for a year, then moved to Sioux Falls College where he completed only three semesters.

Foss then enrolled at the University of South Dakota. He graduated in 1940 with a degree in business administration.

For three seasons, he polished the sideline hardwood alongside the college football field, waiting for the nod from his coach. He was a member of the boxing and track teams, but like football, he was always "second best" or "runner-up."

What Joe didn't know, while sitting on the bench waiting for his chance to shine, was that his opportunity would come eventually-in another, field of endeavor.

Joe Foss-tall, thin-a neat-looking, squared-away Marine. (He grew a beard while in the hospital, but that filled in the gaunt cheeks which resulted from six harrowing weeks of aerial combat over Guadalcanal.)

But look at the eyes. His mouth smiled and his teeth showed, but his eyes remained thoughtful...sad.

He was a very serious young man; determined to be more than a bench-warmer in the game of life and the contest of death.

Joe Foss became interested in flying when a squadron of Marine pilots staged an air show at Sioux Falls in 1932. His first plane ride three years later (with a barnstormer) cost him five dollars.

In 1937, he paid $65 on the installment plan for his first course in flying. Two years later, he took a Civil Aeronautics Authority flying course at the University of South Dakota, and upon graduation from college, he had 100 hours of flying time to his credit.

In June 1940, Foss enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve, and two months after that, he was honorably discharged and appointed and aviation cadet in the Marine Corps Reserve. He was called to active duty in August and sent to Pensacola, Fla., for training.

Foss won his Marine wings and was commissioned a second lieutenant in March 1941. A year later, he advanced to first leiutenant while serving as an instructor at Pensacola, and in another four months he was promoted to captain.

In September 1942, he arrived at Guadalcanal.

"Runner-up," quiet, serious Joe Foss made national headlines as the cigar-chewing leader of "Joe's Flying Circus"-an eight-plane flight from Marine Fighter Squadron-121 based at Henderson Field.

Old-timers still refer to ''Smokey Joe," the hottest combat pilot to ever two-block a throttle.

In four weeks of nerve-shattering, round-the-clock flying, Joe and his seven side men blasted 47 enemy planes out of the South Pacific skies. Flight leader Foss,. with .22 to his credit, personally accounted for almost half of his flight's total.

Four days after arriving at-Guadalcanal, he bagged his first Zero-and came home dead-stick with a shot-up engine.

"Somewhere in the scrape, I caught one in the oil pump and my engine burned out," he recalled. "It was a long dive back to Henderson Field with three Zeros on my tail. I didn't dare to slow up for an approach and came in like a rocket.

"They rolled out an ambulance to pick up the pieces, but I was lucky enough to stop before I hit the stumps at the end of the runway."

It took Joe another seven days to rack up the five victories that made him an ace. He got number two on his second day in action. Five days later, he splashed three more, a pretty good week's work for a guy "too damned old to be a fighter pilot."

He was 27 when Pearl Harbor was attacked, and he immediately requested transfer to a fighter squadron. He was sent to photography school and then to San Diego for assignment to a reconnaissance squadron.

"I wanted to fight," Foss said. "Recon planes didn't have any guns. I kept yelling my head off for a transfer. That's when the squadron exec told me, 'Foss, you're too damn old to be a fighter pilot. You're 27 years old!'"

"Joe was a natural-born flyer and a damn good shot," one of his wingmen said. "He knew what he was doing every minute he was in the air."

Foss himself explains it a little differently.

"Teamwork," he said. "The 'Circus' always fought as a team."

What about his record?

"Hell, I just got the most breaks."

Joe got several breaks, most of them due to his uncanny ability to crash-land in a shot-up Grumman and still walk away. But one of his luckiest breaks was the fact that he couldn't swim.

It was November 7, 1942.

"We were out looking for nine Japanese destroyers that were moving down on Guadalcanal. North of the island we ran into a heavy rain squall. When we broke out, there were six Zeros about 5,000 feet below us, flying cover for the destroyers.

"I passed the word and we peeled off like a cloud of bats. They never saw us. I nailed one on the way down and pulled up for a second shot. There wasn't a Zero left in the sky. The boys had taken care of all of them in one pass."

When the flight re-formed, their order was reversed and Joe wound up Tail End Charlie. The plan was to go in and strafe the destroyers.

"But I pulled a boner," Joe admitted. "As we started down, I spotted another Japanese plane off in the distance. It was a float plane and he looked like a sitting duck. Instead of sticking with my flight, I went after him. I made a high-side run on him, but he must have been throttled back. I overran him. As I went by, his tail gunner laced me good. One slug went through the canopy, right past my ear. The wind whistling through the hole scared the hell out of me.

"I looped to the right and came up under him. He went down with the first burst. On the way up, I saw another one above me, so I dove to pick up speed, then came up and got him too."

A quick look at the gas gauge and a plane full of holes told Joe to head for home.

"I had just started back when my engine cut out. I took her in low over the water near an island and set her down tail first. I didn't know whether that damn island was ours or theirs!

"My plane sank like a rock," he continued. "Before I knew it, I was down 20 or 30 feet. My 'chute straps caught on the seat and I couldn't get loose. Finally I tore free and the air trapped in my 'chute pack floated me to the surface, rear end up. I managed to inflate my Mae West and get rid of the 'chute.

"I broke a chlorine capsule to keep the sharks away and started paddling for the island. I never did know how to swim, so I didn't make much progress.

"After I had been in the water about three hours, I saw a canoe coming toward me. I thought it was the Japanese, so I kept quiet. Then I heard someone cussing with an English accent. It was an Australian coast-watcher who had seen me go down. He pulled me in and told me it was a good thing I hadn't swum to shore. The island was loaded with man-eating crocodiles. Thank God, I'm no swimmer!"

By the time they sent Joe home in 1943, he was "America's Leading Ace," equaling Eddie Rickenbacker's World War I record of 25 official victories.

In Washington, President Roosevelt shook his hand and hung the Medal of Honor around his neck.

"Smokey Joe" finally had made the varsity in the skies over the Solomons at a place called Guadalcanal.

But he would warm the bench again.

Following his release from active duty, Major Joe Foss went into politics and won an election to the South Dakota House of Representatives.

Two years later, he made an unsuccessful bid in the Republican guber-natorial primary.

Accustomed to warming the bench, Foss waited patiently....

He returned to the State Legislature, and in June 1954, won an overwhelming victory for the gubernatorial nomination.

He was elected Governor of South Dakota the following November and two years later, he was re-elected.

Joe Foss was selected as one of the "Ten Most Outstanding Young Men in the United States"; he was the First National Chairman of Fund Raising for the Crippled Children Society; he served seven years as Commissioner of the American Football League; he was host of the ABC television program, "American Sportsman"; and he retired as a brigadier general and chief of staff of the South Dakota Air National Guard.

Not bad for a bench warmer....