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Marine ace Joe Foss

Monday, July 18, 2011

Recently my wife, Jean and I were privileged to attend the induction of my cousin, Gordon Garnos, into the South Dakota Hall of Fame. The reception for the new inductees took place in the lovely new Hall Headquarters Building alongside Interstate 90, between Chamberlin and Oacoma, in central South Dakota.

Gordon is the longtime editor of the Watertown Public Opinion, and has been a tireless worker for worthy causes in South Dakota, so he fit in well with this year's class of inductees, a very high powered group of achievers, to be sure.

While people were mingling and getting acquainted with the new Hall of Famers I had a chance to wander through the Hall and read about some of the men and women who had become members of the Hall in past years. I was born in South Dakota, but grew up in Nebraska, so I was not familiar with many of the men and women enshrined. However, there were a number of honorees who have also been prominent on the national stage, people like newsman Tom Brokaw, presidential hopeful George McGovern, game show host Bob Barker, L.A. Rams quarterback Norm Van Brocklin, the great Chief Red Cloud, and both Myron Florin and Lawrence Welk, from the Lawrence Welk TV Show, to name just a few. It was fun to read the bios. But there was one fellow that I was especially looking for, and sure enough, there was a fine display honoring him -- Joe Foss, the Marine ace fighter pilot in World War II, one of my personal heroes.

Joe Foss was born on a South Dakota farm near Sioux Falls, in 1915. He loved the open spaces, with its hunting and fishing, but didn't especially care for farm work. When he was 12 his father took him to see the American aviation hero, Charles Lindbergh and his plane, "The Spirit of St. Louis." From that time on his ambition was to be an airman. That goal was cemented four years later, when he and his father attended an air show at the Sioux Falls Airport. The crowning moment on that trip was a ride in a barnstormer's plane (for $1.50 apiece).

In 1933 Joe Foss' father died, and Joe was forced to drop out of college to help his mother run the family farm. Those were tough times. South Dakota farms were hard hit by the drought. Joe took a job at a service station to help with the expenses. Over the next two years he managed to save enough money to cover his college expenses and take a few flying lessons. It took some extra time, but in 1940 Foss graduated from the University of South Dakota, at Vermillion, with a Business Degree -- and a Civilian Pilot's License.

Upon receiving his college degree Foss promptly enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve and was able to receive flight training at Pensacola Florida, and was commissioned a 2nd Lt. After Pearl Harbor he applied for fighter duty, but at 27, he was considered too old to be a fighter pilot and was assigned to a Reconnaissance Unit. But Foss was persistent in his quest to become a fighter pilot, and finally won his argument. He was sent to the South Pacific (just in time for the Battle of Guadalcanal) with an F4F Wildcat unit, that would come to be known as "Foss's Flying Circus," with more than 60 fighter missions to their credit.

It didn't take long for Joe Foss to get into action. In the first week he was at Guadalcanal he had shot down five Japanese Zeros and one bomber, making him an "Ace." In six weeks he had been credited with 19 kills, and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

During that first couple of months, when Foss was making his mark, the Omaha World Herald reported Foss' progress daily, in the same way that it reported the progress of Joe DiMaggio's Consecutive Hitting Streak a year earlier. We eagerly picked up the paper "to see how Joe did today."

In just three months, from the middle of October 1942 until the middle of January 1943, Joe Foss was credited with 26 aerial victories, equaling the World War I total of Captain Eddie Rickenbacker. Four times in this period he shot down three planes in one day, and once he was credited with five planes downed in a single day. He gained a reputation for getting in very close to his quarry before he opened fire. One Marine said, "Joe likes to get in so close that the Zero has powder burns on its fuselage."

In the three months that Foss was with his Marine Unit at Guadalcanal his "Flying Circus " unit had accounted for 72 "kills," including Foss' 26 (plus 16 "probables"). For part of that period Foss had been hospitalized with a wound and a bout of malaria.

Foss' last mission before returning to the States was probably his greatest triumph, though he did not shoot down a plane. His little group of eight planes scrambled to intercept a large Japanese formation of at least 100 planes. Instead of attacking, Foss' planes circled above the enemy planes in a tight formation. The Japanese believed that the Marine fighters were a decoy for a huge American Armada of war planes, and turned and ran. Foss's planes had won a decisive battle without firing a shot, a battle that many called a "turning point in the war."

The War Department was taking no chances on losing their Ace of Aces, and in the middle of January 1943 Foss was ordered back to Washington. In May he was honored at a White House ceremony by being awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, and that week his picture appeared on the cover of Life Magazine. In part, his citation for the Medal read: "His remarkable flying skill, inspiring leadership, and indomitable fighting spirit were distinctive factors in the defense of strategic American positions on Guadalcanal". Foss spent the remainder of the war speaking before various organizations and promoting the buying of War Bonds.

After the war Foss returned to South Dakota and helped organize the Air National Guard, and was elected to the South Dakota House of Representatives. During the Korean War he was recalled to Active Duty. He later became Commander of the South Dakota Air Guard, retiring with the rank of Brigadier General.

In 1954, Foss was elected to the first of two terms as the Republican Governor of South Dakota. When he ran for a seat in the House of Representatives in 1958 he was defeated by George McGovern, in a year that was particularly rough on Republican candidates nationwide.

His political career over, in 1958 Foss took a job as Commissioner of the American Football League and was instrumental in bringing about a merger of that league with the National Football League. Foss is generally credited with the idea of "The Super Bowl."

Through the years Foss relished hunting and fishing trips when he could arrange them. In 1964 he accepted an offer from ABC to host an outdoors program, the popular "The American Sportsman." Later he hosted another syndicated show, "The Outdoorsman: Joe Foss."

From 1967-74 Foss served as President of the National Rifle Association. During this period he created considerable controversy when his picture appeared on the cover of Time Magazine, wearing a Stetson hat and brandishing a revolver.

One more time an 87-year-old Joe Foss vaulted into the National spotlight. On his way to address the United States Military Academy at West Point, Foss was detained at the Phoenix Airport for carrying his Congressional of Honor (it had pointed edges). His ill-treatment, and lack of recognition of the award garnered headlines nationwide, and were used as examples of the widespread abuse of air passengers by airport security personnel.

In retirement Foss traveled the world speaking to groups about leadership, patriotism, and his own enduring faith in God. His Joe Foss Institute actively promotes "teaching of patriotism, public service, integrity, and appreciation for America's freedoms".

Joe Foss died in 2003, after suffering a stroke. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. He did a lot of living in his 87 years.

Source: Joe Foss Biography: A True American Patriot; Medal of Honor Recipients.

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Mr. Sehnert, this comment is not meant in any way to criticize your article, but there is one thing that many people do not realize about the Medal of Honor.

This statement is from the website, Medal of Honor Facts from "The Home of Heroes, Pueblo Colorado."

" The correct title of the "Congressional Medal of Honor" is simply "Medal of Honor", and the men who have received it prefer to be called "Recipients" (of the award) not winners. It is the only United States Military Award that is worn from a ribbon hung around the neck, and the award is presented "By the President, In the name of Congress."

Just the other evening a major network commentator reporting on the most recent recipient of the medal also called it the Congressional Medal of Honor, so Mr. Sehnert you are not the only one to do it. A very common practice.

Wikipedia also has many facts about recipients over the years, and another common misconception about the medal is that all officers, even ones that are known as flag officers "MUST" salute recipients even if they are privates. All members of the uniformed services are "encouraged" to render salutes as a matter of respect and courtesy regardless of rank or status.

How sad it was for the idiots at the Phoenix Airport to treat him like they did. He earned the respect he should have been shown and deserved better.

-- Posted by goarmy67 on Mon, Jul 18, 2011, at 8:27 PM

I guess the movie "Forrest Gump" got it wrong too.

-- Posted by speak-e-z on Tue, Jul 19, 2011, at 8:35 AM

Movies get many things wrong a lot of the time!

-- Posted by goarmy67 on Tue, Jul 19, 2011, at 4:46 PM

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Walt Sehnert
Days Gone By