Joe Foss NO. 1 Ace

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By Robert H Myers - Originally Published June 1943

His name might be just plain Joe Doaks. It happens to be Joe Foss -Captain Joseph Jacob Foss of the Marines.

As every Marine knows, he's the greatest pilot today in World War II. Twenty-six Japanese planes have plummeted to burning destruction before the deadly firing of this ace of aces.

But back of this unequaled, unapproached record is another story --the story of an average American boy to whom war and killing and violence in the skies a decade ago was something he had heard about in the tales echoing from the last world conflict.

Life to Joe Foss ten years ago was the simple, easy one of, say, the boy you went to high school with; the boy with whom you double-dated; the contented, modest lad who worked his way through college; the chap who wondered and worried a little about the future and what job he should tackle when the time came to grow up and settle down.

Ordinarily Joe Doaks and his friend Joe Foss didn't dream that in another ten years either would be blasting his way to fame in the wake of belching machine guns, strapped in the cockpit of a lightning-geared Grumman Wildcat roaring through space over a blood stained island named Guadalcanal. It's a safe bet that in those days Joe Foss, fresh from the quiet farming country of Smith Dakota, had never heard of Guadalcanal.

No, in those peaceful years Joe Foss, soon to grow into a strapping, 175-pound, six-footer with a twinkle in his blue eyes and a reserved modesty in his bearing, was more familiar with a tractor or a of horses than he was with an airplane.

He was one of three children -Joe, his younger brother Clifford and a sister Flora May- born to Mr. and Mrs. Frank Foss, who owned a farm on the rolling land just east of Sioux Falls. In high school Joe was popular and he played a baritone saxophone in the school band. He didn't play too well, though, chiefly because he always seemed to get a little stage fright when he had to appear in public.

Joe finished Sioux Falls high school and then went to the local college for two years. His progress and interests there were no different from any other college boy, but one very significant thing happened, he met a pretty girl. Her name was June Shakstad. Yes, they were married -but many things happened before that event was celebrated in 1942, some three weeks before Joe shoved off for the zone of battle. For one thing, Joe decided to continue his schooling at the University of South Dakota. He was just an average student. and well liked. He joined a fraternity. Sigma Alpha Epsilon, and lived the typical life of a college boy before graduating in June of 1940.

He probably didn't realize it, but graduation meant a bigger change to Joe and his classmates than anyone might have imagined a few years before. Joe was graduating into a world already well enveloped in the flames of war; flames which Joe and the members of the classes of '40 would see and feel all too soon.

Six years before Joe had taken his first taste of flying in an airplane. He had been up several times in a crate owned by a Smith Dakota farmer who had a unique system of assessing a fee for a ride. If a passenger made the pilot stop stunting, the passenger had to pay for the ride. If he didn't yell "Uncle," the ride was free. Joe took all the loops and spins the venerable craft could negotiate-it's a wonder it didn't fly apart in mid-air-and yelled for more thrills. Joe fell in love with flying. That was why upon graduating, he thumbed his way to Pensacola. Fla., signed up for Marine Corps aviation and began preliminary training for the second lieutenant's commission he was to win in March of 1941. Joe, or Lieutenant Foss. was a natural. Soon he was an instructor for other fledgling students. In May of 1942 he made first lieutenant, and then spent six weeks with a reconnaissance group at San Diego before going with the Aircraft Carrier Training Croup at North Island to become a fighter pilot.

Life's tempo gradually speeded up. In August Lieutenant Foss joined a fighter group and a few days later he and his college sweetheart were married. That was on August 9 and on September 1, the two bars of a captain on his shoulders, Joe went aboard a transport with his outfit.

Blood, sweat, mud, and tears awaited Captain Foss, and so did fame. Joe asked for everything except the fame.

Captain Foss and his outfit brought the wheels of their Wildcats down on Henderson Field early in October. It didn't take long to appreciate what they were in for. A runway that easily became a quagmire in the South Pacific rains; mosquitoes, oppressive beat. The men slept in tents when they weren't forced into foxholes. There were tropical insects in the air and Japanese pests sniping from the trees. And there were raids by air and nightly bombardments by Nip warships off the Guadalcanal coast.

Captain Foss got the first plane of his amazing string of 26 four days after reaching Henderson Field. "One made a pass at me and I blew him to hell," he reported laconically. His plane was disabled by two cannon shots and he was forced to dive from 22.000 feet for a dead stick landing. Joe Foss had been baptized. The next day he flew out and bagged his second victim.

The young captain had only begun, He started proving what his training superiors had told his bride. "He can outshoot and outfight his instructors," they said. On October 18 Foss outshot and outfought three more Jap pilots, two days later two more were blasted out of the sky and on October 23 Joe Foss sent four Nips crashing to destruction.

Came Sunday, October 25. Foss and his "boys" dragged wearily out of their foxholes and went into the air when the Zeros came into range. Foss and three others took on six. Foss got two, one of his men got another, and they came in to refuel. Back up they went, the same four, only now they tangled with nine Zeros. Foss got three. More Zeros came into the fight, with bombers trailing behind. One of Foss' planes had been so riddled he had to take it down and get another. One of his men ran out of ammunition but it didn't faze him. He rammed a Zero head-on and parachuted to the earth.

When the score was counted later that day the squadron had bagged 17 Zeros and five bombers.

There was a comparative lull in air fighting until November 7. Then, as the popular phrase goes, all hell broke loose again. Foss added three more Japs to his toll-and got his plane so full of lead he had to bring it down on the shark-infested ocean. He managed to clear himself of the ship and swim to an island inhabited, luckily, by friendly natives. He was sick from swallowing salt water, and he was dog tired, but soon he recuperated and a rescue plane later picked him up. He said later, "I prayed more that night than I ever had before."

But back again with his "boys." Captain Foss discovered he was to be decorated. Admiral William W. Halsey arrived and pinned the Distinguished Flying Cross on Joe. Joe was wearing dirty, sweat-stained dungarees.

On November 23 Foss got No. 23 Jap, but a mosquito brought him down the next day with malaria. He was sent to Australia for a rest. The Australians feted him as a conquering hero. But Joe Foss wanted to go back to his men. So back he went, and once more again the magic of his flying and direction began to tell. On January 1, when America rested, attended post-season football games and perhaps wondered about the boys on Guadalcanal. Captain Foss came back-to sleep again in the mud of a foxhole with his "boys."

On January 6 Foss' flight brought down six Zeros, raising its score to 63. and ten days later Captain Foss got his last three Japs in the Guadalcanal campaign. Twenty-six planes. It tied the count set by Eddie Rickenbarker in World War I.

But that isn't all to the flying feats of Captain Joe Foss. There was a greater day to come; one that brought him no additional Japs, but gave a striking picture of this honest, duty-pledged man from the South Dakota farmland.

The date was late in January. The situation was critical for the Americans in the Solomons. Brave Marines on the ground were writing a bloody page in the annals of the Corps -and the Japs launched an air attack designed to wipe out strategic, vital Henderson Field.

Forty Japanese fighter planes appeared in the distance. Behind, at a safe distance, waiting for the chance to move in and drop their earth-demolishing packages, were 30 or 40 bombers. To meet them went eight Marine Grumman Wildcats, led by Captain Joe Foss and four Army twin-tailed P-38's. Twelve American pilots against 70 or 80 Jap warplanes.

The spectacular drama in the skies was, for the most part, concealed in the clouds from the watchers below. A steady hum of angry motors, an occasional blast rumbling through the heavens, once in a while a peep of a Wildcat diving through space, that was about all. An hour and a half passed. Agonizing hours they were. Then the all-clear sounded, and back came the flight. One by one. The count continued. Watchers couldn't believe their eyes. Twelve planes -eight Wildcats - four P-38's- swooped in low and bumped to a halt on Henderson Field.

The Japanese aerial armada had been forced to turn tail and head for its base 400 miles away. Not a single bomb had been dropped. Not a single American plane had been touched. Four of the fighter ships of the enemy didn't go back. To Captain Joe Foss went all the credit. His generalship, his brilliance in aerial maneuver, had whipped the Jap threat.

It was Joe Foss' goodbye to Guadalcanal. It was a fitting farewell. But why didn't Joe Foss improve his score? Why didn't he get at least one Nip and go ahead of the Rickenbacker record? The Japs were there. They tried to lure him into a dogfight.

"My job," Joe Foss explained simply, "was to keep the bombers away, not to build up a personal score."

That was Joe Foss' way of doing things.