Joe Foss was born in 1915 to a Norwegian-Scots family in South Dakota.
He learned hunting and marksmanship at a young age. Like millions of
others, 11-year old Joe Foss was inspired by Charles Lindbergh, especially
after he saw Lindy at an airport near Sioux Falls. Five years later he
watched a Marine squadron put on a dazzling exhibition, led by Capt.
Clayton Jerome, future wartime Director of Marine Corps Aviation.
In 1934, Joe began his college education in Sioux Falls, but he had to
drop out to help his mother run the family farm. However he scraped up $65
for private flying lessons. Five years later he entered the University of
South Dakota again and supported himself by waiting on tables. In his
senior year he also completed a civilian pilot training program before he
graduated with a Business degree in 1940.
Upon graduation he enlisted in the Marine Corps reserves as an aviation
cadet. Seven months later, he earned his Marine wings at Pensacola and was
commissioned a second lieutenant. For the next nine months he was a
'plowback' flight instructor. He was at Pensacola when the news of Pearl
Harbor broke, and since he was Officer of the Day, he was placed in charge
of base security. Thus he prepared to defend Pensacola from Jap invaders,
riding around the perimeter on a bicycle. To his distress, he was then
ordered to the aerial photographers school and assigned to a VMO-1, a
photo reconnaissance squadron. But he insisted he wanted fighter pilot
duty, even after being told "You're too ancient, Joe. You're 27 years
old!" After lengthy lobbying with Aircraft Carrier Training Group, he
learned all about the new F4F Wildcat, logging over 150 flight hours in
June and July. When he finished training, he became executive officer of
VMF-121. Three weeks later, he was on his way to the South Pacific,
where Americans were desperately trying to turn the tide of war. Arriving
in the South Pacific, VMF-121 was loaded aboard the escort carrier
On the morning of October 9, they were catapulted off the decks,
in Joe's only combat carrier mission. Landing at Henderson Field, he was
told that his fighters were now based at the 'cow pasture.' He was
impressed with the 'make-do' character of the 'Cactus Air Force. The
airfield was riddled with bomb craters and wrecked aircraft, but also
featured three batteries of 90mm anti-aircraft guns and two radar
stations. As 'exec' of -121, he would normally lead a flight of two
four-plane divisions, whenever there were enough Wildcats to go around. He
was the oldest pilot in the flight, four years older than the average age
of 23. The flight would become known as 'Foss's Flying Circus' and rack up
over 60 victories. Five of them would become aces; two would die in the in
the fight for Guadalcanal.
On October 13, 1942, VMF-121 scored its first victories when Lts.
Freeman and Narr each got a Japanese plane. Later that same day, Joe led a
dozen Wildcats to intercept 32 enemy bombers and fighters. In his first
combat, a Zero bounced Joe, but overshot, and Joe was able to fire a good
burst and claim one destroyed aircraft. Instantly, three more Zeros set
upon him, and he barely made it back to 'Fighter One', his Wildcat
dripping oil. Chastened by the experience, he declared "You can call me
'Swivel-Neck Joe' from now on." From the first day, Joe followed the
tactics of Joe Bauer: getting in close, so close that another pilot joked
that the 'exec' left powder burns on his targets. The next day while
intercepting a flight of enemy bombers, Joe's engine acted up and he took
cover in the clouds. But suddenly a Wildcat whizzed past him, tailed by a
Zero. Joe cut loose and shot the Zero's wing off. It was his second
victory in two days.
While the Wildcats' primary responsibility was air defence, they also
strafed Japanese infantry and ships when they had enough ammunition. Joe
led on such mission on the 16th. Mid-October was the low point for the
Americans in the struggle for Guadalcanal. Japanese warships shelled the
U.S. positions nightly, with special attention to the airstrips. To avoid
the shelling, some fliers slept in the front lines. Foss grew to
appreciate the Navy's fighter doctrine and found that the "Thach Weave"
effectively countered the Zero's superior performance, because "it allowed
us to point eyes and guns in every direction."
Joe was leading an interception on morning of the 18th when the Zero
top cover pounced on them and downed an F4F. But Foss was able to get
above them and flamed the nearest, hit another, and briefly engaged a
third. Gaining an angle, he finally shot up the third plane's engine. Next
he found a group of Bettys already under attack by VF-71. He executed a
firing pass from above, flashed through the enemy bombers, and pulled up
sharply, blasting one from below. Nine days at Guadalcanal and he was an
ace! Two days later Lt. Col. Bauer and Foss led a flight of Wildcats on
the morning intercept. In the dog fighting, Joe downed two Zeros, but took
a hit in his engine. He landed safely at Henderson Field with a bad cut on
his head, but otherwise unharmed.
'Cactus Fighter Command' struggled to keep enough Wildcats airworthy to
meet the daily Japanese air strikes. On the 23rd, it put up two flights,
led by Foss and Maj. Davis. There were plenty of targets and Joe soon
exploded a Zero. He went after another which tried to twist away in a
looping maneuver. Joe followed and opened up while inverted at the top of
his loop. He caught the Zero and flamed it. He later described it as a
lucky shot. Next he spotted a Japanese pilot doing a slow roll; he fired
as the Zero's wings rolled through the vertical and saw the enemy pilot
blown out of the cockpit, minus a parachute. Suddenly he was all alone and
two Zeros hit him, but his rugged Grumman absorbed the damage, permitting
Foss to flame one of his assailants. Once again, he nursed a damaged
fighter back to Guadalalcanal. So far he had destroyed eleven enemy
planes, but had brought back four Wildcats that were too damaged to fly
October 25 was the day that the Japanese planned to occupy Henderson
Field; they sent their fighters over, with orders to circle until the
airstrip was theirs. It didn't work out that way, as the U.S. ground
forces held their lines and 'Cactus' did its part. Joe Foss led six
Wildcats up before 10 AM, and claimed two of the Marine's three kills on
that sortie. Afterwards, he berated himself for wasting ammunition on
long-range shooting. He kept learning how important it was to get close. (The
great German ace, Erich Hartmann, said "Get close enough until the
airplane fills the whole windscreen; then you can't miss.") In an
afternoon mission on the 25th, he downed three more, to become the Marine
Corps' first 'ace in a day'. He had achieved 14 victories in only 13 days.
Despite rugged living conditions and the stress of daily combat flying,
Foss retained his enthusiasm. He and some other fliers of VMF-121
occasionally went prowling with their rifles in the jungle, looking for
Japanese soldiers, but Col. Bauer stopped this activity; trained fighter
pilots were too valuable to risk this way. They slept in six-man tents and
ate the wretched powdered eggs that are mentioned in almost every pilot's
memoirs. On guy had a gramophone that they played scratchy records on.
They bathed in the Lunga River; many grew beards rather than try to shave
in cold water. They kept the beards neatly trimmed, not for appearances,
but to ensure their beards didn't interfere with the close-fitting oxygen
masks. 'Washing Machine Charlie' and 'Millimetre Mike' harassed the field
nightly, so some pilots tried to sleep in the daytime.
On November 7th Foss led seven F4Fs up the Slot to attack some IJN destroyers and a cruiser, covered by six Rufe floatplane fighters.
They dispatched five of the Rufes promptly and prepared to strafe the
destroyers. Joe climbed up to protect the others and got involved in a
dogfight with a Pete, a two-man float biplane. He shot down the
slow-flying plane, but not before its rear gunner perforated the Wildcat's
engine with 7.7mm machine gun fire. Once again, Foss' aircraft started
sputtering on the way home. But his time, it didn't make it. As the engine
died, he put it into the longest possible shallow dive, to get as close to
home as he could.
As he plane went into the water off Malaita Island, Foss struggled with
his parachute harness and his seat. He went under with his plane, gulped
salt water, and almost drowned before he freed himself and inflated his
Mae West. Exhausted and with the tide against him, he knew that he
couldn't swim to shore. While trying to rest and re-gain his strength in
his life raft, he spotted shark fins nearby. He sprinkled the chlorine
powder supplied for that purpose in his emergency pack and that seemed to
help. As darkness approached, he heard some searchers looking for him.
They hauled him in and brought him to Malaita's Catholic mission. There
were a number of Europeans and Australians, including two nuns who had
been there for forty years and had never seen an automobile. They fed him
steak and eggs and invited him stay for two weeks.
The next day a PBY Catalina, piloted by Maj. Jack Cram rescued him. On
his return to Guadalcanal, he learned that 'Cactus' had downed 15 Japanese
planes in the previous day's air battle. His own tally stood at 19. On the
ninth, Admiral Bull Halsey pinned the Distinguished Flying Cross on him
and two other pilots.
The Americans were bringing four transports full of infantry to
Guadalcanal on November 12. The Japanese sent 16 Betty bombers and 30
covering Zeroes after them, while the American Wildcats and Airacobras
defended. Foss and his Wildcats were flying top cover CAP and dived
headlong into the attackers, right down onto the deck. As Barrett Tillman
described it in Wildcat Aces of WWII:
Ignoring the peril, Foss hauled into within 100 yards of the nearest
bomber and aimed at the starboard engine, which spouted flame. The G4M
tried a water landing, caught a wingtip and tumbled into oblivion. Foss
set his sight on another Betty when a Zero intervened. The F4F nosed up
briefly and fired a beautifully aimed snapshot which sent the A6M
spearing into the water. He then resumed the chase.
Foss caught up with the next Betty in line and made a deflection shot
into its wing root; the bomber flamed up and then set down in the water.
The massive dogfight continued, until Joe ran out of fuel and ammunition.
Between the fighters and the AA, the Americans destroyed almost all the
bombers and many of the Zeros. No U.S. ships were seriously damaged. But
that night another naval surface battle raged in Ironbottom Sound.
Warships on both sides were sunk or damaged, including the IJN battleship
Hiei which Marine bombers and torpedo planes finished off on the
13th. The major Japanese effort continued on the 14th, as they brought in
a seven ship troop convoy. The American air forces cut this up as well.
Late that afternoon, Col. Bauer, tired of being stuck on the ground at
Fighter Command, went up with Joe to take a look. It was his last flight,
described by Joe Foss in a letter to Bauer's family. No trace of 'Indian
Joe' was ever found. Back at Guadalcanal, Foss was diagnosed with malaria.
Two great leaders of Cactus Fighter Command were gone, although Foss would
return in six weeks.
He recuperated in New Caledonia and Australia. He met some of the
high-scoring Australian aces, who viewed the Japanese as inferior
opponents and were a little dismissive of Foss' 23 victories. After a
brief relapse of malaria, Joe returned to Guadalcanal on New Year's Day.
Improvements had been made in his absence, notably pierced steel planking
(PSP) for the Fighter Strip. Foss returned to combat flying on the 15th
when he shot down three more planes to bring his total to 26.
He flew his last mission ten days later when his flight and four P-38s
intercepted a force of over 60 Zeros and Vals. Quickly analyzing the
situation, he ordered his flight to stay high, circling in a Lufbery. This
made his small flight look like a decoy to the Japanese. Soon Cactus
scrambled more fighters and the Japanese planes fled. It was ironic that
in one of Joe Foss' most satisfying missions, he didn't fire a shot.
A few months later, he went to Washington D.C., to be decorated and
begin "the dancing bear act," for his 26 aerial victories that
equalled Eddie Rickenbacker's World War One record. He gave pep talks, made
factory tours, and went on the inevitable War Bond tours. In May, 1943,
President Roosevelt presented him with the Congressional Medal of Honour
for outstanding heroism above and beyond the call of duty.
Medal of Honour Citation:
Rank and organization: Captain, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, Marine
Fighting Squadron 121, 1st Marine Aircraft Wing. Place and date: Over
Guadalcanal, 9 October to 19 November 1942, 15 and 23 January 1943.
Entered service at: South Dakota. Born: 17 April 1 915, Sioux Falls, S.
For outstanding heroism and courage above and beyond the call of duty
as executive officer of Marine Fighting Squadron 121, 1st Marine
Aircraft Wing, at Guadalcanal. Engaging in almost daily combat with the
enemy from 9 October to 19 November 1942, Capt. Foss personally
shot down 23 Japanese planes 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, skilfully covering
reconnaissance, bombing, and photographic planes as well as surface
craft. On 15 January 1943, he added 3 more enemy planes to his already
brilliant successes for a record of aerial combat achievement
unsurpassed in this war. Boldly searching out an approaching enemy force
on 25 January, Capt. Foss led his 8 F-4F Marine planes and 4 Army P-38s
into action and, undaunted by tremendously superior numbers, intercepted
and struck with such force that 4 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 defence of strategic American
positions on Guadalcanal.
Back to active duty, he served as a training advisor at the Santa
Barbara Marine Corps air station. Then he became commander of VMF-115 in
the South Pacific, where he met Charles Lindbergh.
After the war, Foss was commissioned in the South Dakota Air National
Guard, which he helped organize. Joe then turned to politics and was
elected to the South Dakota House of Representatives. In the Korean War,
he returned to active duty as an Air Force Colonel. Then he became chief
of staff of the South Dakota Air National Guard with the rank of Brigadier
General. In 1954, Foss was overwhelmingly elected Governor of South Dakota
and two years later was elected to a second term. After that, he was
elected the first commissioner of the American Football League and served
until 1966. He was president of the National Rifle Association (NRA) from
1988 - 1990.