We Remember Joe Foss!
On Memorial Day, we are taking time to recognize Joe Foss, or officially Joseph Jacob Foss, one of Sioux Falls greatest heroes. Take a look at this resume: A war hero, the Ace of Aces of WWII, Medal of Honor Winner, Governor of South Dakota, Commissioner of the American Football League, Host of ABC Network hunting show “The American Sportsmen,” President of the National Rifle Association, President of the National Society of Crippled Children and Adults, Founder of the Joe Foss Institute, philanthropist, and public speaker having been featured on the cover of both Time and Life Magazines! That’s not to mention being the namesake of Joe Foss Air National Guard Station in Sioux Falls, Joe Foss Field at the Sioux Falls Regional Airport (where you can also view a huge bronze statue of the hero!), Joe Foss High School once a part of the Sioux Falls School District, the State Building in Pierre, SD (the state capital), Joe Foss Shooting Complex in Buckeye, Arizona, and a private road in Scottsdale, AZ named “Joe Foss Way.” Foss was inducted into the Naval Aviation Hall of Honor in 1994, and was the played by Anthony Eisley in a 1957 episode of the television series Navy Log entitled Jose Foss, Devilbird All from a young man born in a small farm house without electricity here in Sioux Falls, SD!
Before he was a hero he was just Joe Foss
Joseph Jacob Foss was born April 17, 1915, the eldest son of Mary Esther and Frank Ole Foss. He grew up in the Sioux Falls area and spent his days helping on the family farm. In 1927 Foss first fell in love with airplanes when he had the opportunity to see Charles Lindbergh on tour with the famed “Spirit of St. Louis” at an air strip in Renner. 4 years later Joe and his dad would go to Spearfish and pay $1.50 a piece to go on a flight with local rock star aviator Clyde Ice (Ice was the first to invent “crop dusting” and “landing ski’s” in this area!) in a Ford Trimotor plane. A visit 1 year later in 1932 by a Marine Aviation Squadron, putting on an exquisite aerial acrobatics exhibition led by Marine Captain Clayton Jerome, sealed the deal for Joe. He was going to become a pilot and fly with the Marines!
But one month before his 18th birthday Joe’s father, Frank was electrocuted when he stepped on a downed powerline during a storm. Joe would graduate from Washington High School in Sioux Falls and start pursuing a college degree in Sioux Falls, but had to drop out in order to help his mother and brother, Cliff, get through the worst years of the depression. Joe however would not give up on his dream of flying, and worked extra hours at a local service station to scrape together $65 for flying lessons. Roy Lanning began teaching Foss how to fly at Soo Skyway Airfield (the same airfield that would adopted Joe’s name years later!)
Joe Foss a young man of integrity
As tensions eased on the farm and crops began to rebound, Joe enrolled at the University of South Dakota as a Business Administration Major. Foss supported himself in college by waiting tables and doing odd jobs around campus and town. While working towards his degree Joe Foss convinced school officials to offer a Civilian Aviation Course through the CAA (Civil Aeronautics Authority). In addition to studying and logging over 100 flight hours, Joe also was a member of the boxing team, track team, and football team, as well as being a private in the 147th Field Artillery unit of the South Dakota National Guard from 1937-1940. Foss would earn a pilot’s license and graduate with a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration in 1939, at the age of 24.
Signing up with the Military
In 1940 Joe Foss hitchhiked from Sioux Falls to Minneapolis to enlist in the Marine Corps Reserves as a way to join the Naval Aviation Cadet program. Just 7 months later, in March of 1941, Joe graduated from Naval Air Station Pensacola and was awarded his “wings,” he was commissioned as a second lieutenant and served as a “plowback” instructor at the flight school. Joe was the officer of the day at Pensacola when news broke of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Deemed as being too old to be a fighter pilot he received orders to report to the Navy School of Photography to train to be aide in photographic reconnaissance in the war effort. He was transferred to Marine Photographic Squadron 1 and stationed at Naval Air Station North Island in San Diego.
Foss was not satisfied to be an “airplane photographer” and continued to lobby his superiors for the opportunity to be a combat pilot. Even after being told, “You’re too ancient, Joe. You’re 27 years old!” Foss continued to push for assignment to a fighter squadron. He saw his opportunity with the unveiling of the new F4F Wildcat. Joe learned everything he could about the new plane and logged over 150 flight hours in June and July 1942. After becoming an expert in all things “F4F Wildcat” related Foss was made the executive officer of Marine Fighting Squadron 121. Foss would marry his high school sweetheart June Shakstad before he was shipped out to Guadacanal with his new squadron.
On October 9th 1942, Foss arrived at Henderson Airfield in Guadalcanal. As the executive officer of VMF-121 Foss oversaw two four-plane divisions he called them “Farm Boys” and “City Slickers,” the entire squadron would affectionately be called “Foss’ Flying Circus.” The eight plane crew would produce 5 aces and over 60 victories, two pilots would die in fighting over Guadalcanal.
Joe Foss’ first downed aircraft
Joe claimed his first victory in his first air battle on October 13th. Of course, immediately after downing his first Japanese Zero fighter, three others sighted in on Foss’ plane. He made it back to the airfield with the enemy still hot on his trail and with a dead engine. He landed at full speed with little control over his battle worn plane, narrowly missing a grove of palm trees!
Foss would continue his aggressive flying and attacking style and would be recognized as an “Ace” Pilot within his first 9 days of flight combat after shooting down 3 more Japanese aircraft on October 18th, bringing his total to 5. By the end of October Foss had won 14 victories including 5 on the 25th making him the Marine Corps first “Ace-In-A-Day.” Although he had taken down 14 enemies Foss had also taken heavy damage while flying 4 different Wildcats.
On November 7th Foss managed to shoot down one enemy plane before his engine and cockpit were caught by enemy fire that narrowly missed the pilots head. Foss was able to escape, but his sputtering engine eventually gave out and he had to put down in the ocean. What should have been a routine ejection went array when Joe struggled with his parachute and ended up going under with his plane! Foss nearly drowned before he was able to free himself from his seat harness and inflate his Mae West flotation device. He spent 5 hours in shark invested waters in a rainstorm before being rescued by members of a Catholic Mission on the island of Malaita.
Medal of Honor Recipient: Joe Foss
The Marines picked Foss up the next day and he returned to Henderson Airfield. He learned that the air force had downed 15 enemy planes the previous day. On November 19th Foss and two other pilots were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross by Admiral Bull Halsey. Joe continued to see daily action and continued to add to his total of downed aircraft until he was sidelined in late December with Malaria. Joe had scored 23 total downed enemy aircraft since first arriving in Guadalcanal barely two months earlier.
Foss spent the remainder of 1942 in New Caledonia and Sydney Australia recuperating from his struggle against malaria. While in Sydney he met Australian Ace Clive “Killer” Caldwell and spoke to green Royal Airforce Pilots about operational flying.
Joe would return to Guadalcanal on January 1st 1943 and would resume flying missions on the 15th when he downed three more enemy aircraft and tied Eddy Rickenbaucks WWI record for downed aircraft.
On January 25th Foss flew his last mission out of Gaudalcanal, and although he didn’t down any enemy aircraft it was perhaps his most important missions of the war. The Japanese had sent a large force of over 60 fighter and bomber planes to destroy Henderson Airfield. Foss led 11 planes up to engage the enemy, but after analyzing the situation Foss realized enemy fighters were looking to engage Foss’ squadron while the bombers slipped away in the chaos to bomb the airstrip. Instead of engaging the enemy he took his squadron high overhead and circled above the enemy fleet, ready to attach should the start any offensive maneuvers. The Japanese began to run out of fuel while waiting for the American’s to attack and eventually returned to their base. This marked the last major Japanese offensive against Henderson Air Field before Foss was ordered back home.
In three months of sustained battle Foss’ Flying Circus had downed 72 enemy planes with Foss being credit with 26 personal victories. Foss was named the “Ace-of-Aces” in World War II and returned home in March, to begin touring American as an American War Hero. On May 18, 1943 Foss was presented the Congressional Medal of Honor by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Foss would go on to say, “President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was seated at his desk, wearing a rather rumpled seersucker suit, looking just the way he had in so many newsreels. It was the proudest moment of my life.” The entire event was covered by Time magazine and Foss was featured on the cover of the next issue!
In February 1944 Joe Foss would return to the Pacific Theatre as the leader of Marine Fighting Squadron 115. He would not see any further air combat, but had the opportunity to meet fellow Marine fighter ace Marion Carl and to fly with Charles Lindbergh the aviation idol he had gotten the chance to see almost 20 years earlier! After 8 months in the Pacific Theater Foss again contracted malaria and was sent back to the US. He spent time at a rehabilitation center in Klamath Falls, Oregon and was then assigned as the operations and training officer at the Marine Corps Air Station in Santa Barbara in February 1945.
Keep in mind, at this point, you know after having to – learn to fly while working to put himself through college and participating in sports, dropping out of school to help on the family farm, joining the Marines, working his way up from “Spy Plane” duty to active fighter pilot status, to becoming “The Ace of WWII!” – Foss is only 29 years old! Believe it or not, the story gets more colorful from this point forward!
Colonel Joe Foss
Upon returning to America Captain Foss did some time of “active duty.” touring the US and giving speeches before returning to Sioux Falls, SD in 1946 to command the newly formed South Dakota Air National Guard as a newly appointed Lieutenant Colonel. Of course Lt. Col. Foss not only oversaw administrative duties he was also a member of the P-51 Mustang Demonstration squadron, flying alongside his troops in air shows all across the state!
General Joe Foss
In 1950 with the outbreak of the Korean War, Foss returned to active duty as Director of Operations and Training for the Central Air Defense Command. He would reach the rank of Brigadier General before retiring from this post and from military service in 1954.
Governor Joe Foss
Not one to rest, Gen. Foss almost immediately after leaving the “Flying Circus” carved out a place for himself in the “Political Circus!” Campaigning from the cockpit of an aircraft Foss ran for Governor of South Dakota. As a war hero and Sioux Falls native son he handily won the election and became South Dakota’s youngest governor at the age of 39!
During his two terms in office Gov. Foss had a strong emphasis for helping out the and preparing the way for the younger generation. Even taking the Governor of South Dakota’s American Legion Boys State on a trip to New York to appear on the television game show “Two for the Money!” That young man was named Tom Brokaw!
Foss ran for a seat in the US House of Representatives in 1958 but was defeated by George McGovern, another WWII pilot and hero and eventual presidential candidate!
*** See where Governor Foss ranks on the – Sioux Falls Fun Page List: Top Ten Sioux Falls Politician’s of All-Time ***
Commissioner Joe Foss
By 1959 Foss was the Commissioner of the American Football League (AFL)! In seven years Comm. Foss was instrumental in transforming professional football into the modern juggernaut that it is today, expanding the league, organizing competition, striking lucrative TV deals, wheeling and dealing with the NFL to create the “Super Bowl” (perhaps you’ve heard of it???), and eventual stepped down from his position as commissioner just two months before the AFL merged with the NFL. Foss had strongly advocated for an association between the two leagues, with a single commissioner, but was against a complete merger. The NFL essentially became the National Football Conference and the AFL essentially became the American Football Conference all under the same league moniker.
ABC’s American Sportsman Host Joe Foss
While still acting as commissioner Foss moonlighted on national TV as host of ABC’s “The American Sportsman.” As host Foss essentially was flown all over the world to exotic hunting locations and was filmed while he hunted some of the most exotic animals on the planet. All while getting paid!
This gig would last for 3 years before Joe started in, hosted, and produced his own syndicated outdoor TV series, “The Outdoorsman: Joe Foss,” doing much of the same thing he did for ABC.
Director Joe Foss
In 1972 while also filming his TV shows Foss became the Director of Public Affairs for KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. He would remain in this post until 1978.
Foss would spend the next 10 years lending his name, support, and work ethic to help advance worthy causes around the country including serving as president of the National Society of Crippled Children and Adults, Easter Seals, Campus Crusade for Christ, and other smaller local programs.
Joe Foss President of the NRA
In 1988 Foss again found himself in the public spotlight, on the cover of “Time Magazine” as the newly elected president of the National Rifle Association. Foss was quoted in the article saying, “”I say all guns are good guns, there are no bad guns. I say the whole nation should be an armed nation. Period.” He would serve two consecutive 1 year terms as president of the NRA.
Foss would continue to have a heavy traveling and speaking schedule, touring the nation talking about gun owners’ rights and civic responsibility!
Founder Joe Foss
In 2001, Foss founded the Joe Foss Institute along with his second wife Didi. The main focus of the institute is to reinvigorate today’s youth with the same civic pride and responsibility that was stressed and engrained into children that Joe learned as a child here in Sioux Falls, SD! The program works with military veterans and educators to pick up the slack that public education has left with their emphasis on Science, Math, and technology while neglecting character building and civic responsibility.
Following an NRA board meeting in Arizona, Foss was scheduled to speak to a class of cadets at West Point Military Academy on January 11, 2002, but was detained by TSA officials at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport when he was discovered to be carrying a “sharp object” in his jacket pocket, that security feared could potentially be used as a weapon. Of course the “sharp object,” and potential weapon that this 86 year old man was carrying was his “Congressional Medal of Honor!” Given to him by none other than FDR with an inscription on the back with a complete telling of exactly what it was and why he had it! Foss explains that security personnel seemed to not even recognize the medal for what it was and actually threatened to destroy it, along with other confiscated contraband!
The whole incident, which would last nearly an hour, was enough to get ol’ Smokin’ Joe back in the national spotlight once again. Accounts of the incident were spread all across the country by news media and Joe even sat for an interview with Jack Cafferty of CNN. Of course the irony is that without the heroics of warriors and Medal of Honor winners like Joe Foss, there probably would not be a TSA to harass old men with “sharp objects!”
Foss would continue traveling, speaking, and overseeing his foundation until October 2002 when he suffered cerebral aneurysm. He would never fully recover and passed away on January 1st, 2003.
At the funeral service Foss received high praise from some of the most accomplished men and women in our nation. Tom Daschle, then the Senate Minority Leader, a Democratic Senator from South Dakota said, “Joe achieved more in one lifetime than many of us could hope to achieve in 100.” C. Gus Grant the former president and founder of SPRINT – also an instrumental part of the Joe Foss Institute vowed to continue Joe’s work at the instate stating that children need men like Joe to look up to and he wanted to, “give young people someone to look up to other than Dennis Rodman.” Perhaps the greatest quote however came from the evangelist and founder of Crusader s for Christ Bill Bright when he said, “Joe Foss was the original John Wayne. John Wayne was an actor, but Joe is real.” These great men and more paid respect to our fallen hero but… I wonder if any of them had reached the level and had such broad experiences as Sioux Falls favorite son General, Governor, Commissioner, Host, President, Founder, Father, Husband, and friend… Joe Foss!