Legendary Marine: Joe Foss

Oct. 9, 2013
By LCpl Norman Eckles 

BARSTOW, Calif. - People join the Marine Corps for different reasons; some may join to better their lives or the lives of their family, or perhaps to challenge themselves and be pushed beyond their limits.

Some, like Joseph J. ‘Joe’ Foss, join the Corps as an opportunity to fulfill a childhood dream. For Foss that dream was to become a Marine pilot.

Foss was born on a farm near Sioux Falls, S.D., on April 17, 1915. His first experience with aviation was at age 12, when he went to see Charles Lindbergh on tour with his aircraft, the Spirit of St. Louis.

Four years later, he took his first plane ride with his father on a site seeing tour.

It was the sight of a Marine Corps aerial team performing acrobatics in open cockpit biplanes that cemented his desire to become a Marine Corps aviator.

Unfortunately, his dreams had to be put on hold. During a lightning storm, Foss’ father was electrocuted by a downed power line; leaving him to run the family farm during the Depression.

However, as his younger brother became old enough to start managing the farm, it freed Foss up to work odd jobs to pay for school and pilot’s training. By age 25, Foss managed to put himself through the University of South Dakota, earning a bachelors of science degree in business administration, and a pilot’s license.

Meeting all the prerequisites, Foss enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserves and enrolled in the Naval Aviator Cadet program.

Foss earned his wings in March 1941, graduating out of Pensacola, Fla., as a second-lieutenant. Nine months later, the U.S. entered World War II.

After the onset of WWII, Foss was made executive officer of Marine Fighting Squadron 121 (VMF-121) and first saw combat over the skies of Guadalcanal.

As the lead pilot of a flight of eight F-4F Wildcats, the group became known as ‘Foss’ flying circus.’ Over three months of sustained combat operations, Foss’ flying circus shot down 72 Japanese aircraft. Of those 72, 26 of those aerial victories were credited to Foss.

For his heroism and courage during the Battle of Guadalcanal, Foss was presented the Medal of Honor, by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Foss returned to combat operations in the Pacific Theater in February 1944. He became the commanding officer of VMF-115, flying the F-4U Corsair. During this time he would get the chance to fly with his childhood hero Charles Lindbergh. Lindbergh was acting as an aviation consultant at the time.

Foss’ military career didn’t end with WWII. When released from active duty, Foss was promoted to lieutenant colonel in the South Dakota Air National Guard.

During the Korean War, Foss was recalled to active duty. Now a colonel, Foss became director of operations and training for the Central Air Defense Command.

Foss retired as a brigadier general.

However, a life as a decorated war hero wasn’t enough for Foss, as his accomplishments stretched well throughout his civilian life.

Foss was a two-term governor of South Dakota, the first commissioner of the American Football League, a two-term president of the National Rifle Association, president of the National Society of Crippled Children and Adults, and hosted two successful TV shows in the ‘60s and ‘70s. In 1994, Foss was inducted into the Naval Aviation Hall of Honor at the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Fla.

Foss’ story came to an end, January 1, 2003. He passed away from a stroke.

Foss may be gone, but is certainly not forgotten. Several national institutions and locations have been named in honor of this American hero, such as the Joe Foss Field Air National Guard Station in Sioux Falls, S.D., Joe Foss Field at Sioux Falls Regional Airport, and Joe Foss High School, also in Sioux Falls.