Shot Down 26 Japanese Aircraft, Governor & NRA President Joe Foss

World War II Ace, Joe Foss, was more than just a war hero. His remarkable life made him a man for all seasons covering war, sports, gun rights, and politics.

Born to a low-income family in a farmhouse without electricity, Foss was inspired by flying as a young man. He worked his way through school, convinced his college to start an aviation program, and hitchhiked his way to Minneapolis to join the Naval Aviation Cadet program.

He graduated from the aviation program but, at 26, was considered too old to be a fighter pilot. Unofficially he trained on the F4 Wildcats, logging over 150 flight hours until he obtained an official transfer to the Marine Corps.

Captain Joe Foss, U.S. Marine Corps
Captain Joe Foss, U.S. Marine Corps

In October 1942, his unit was sent to Guadalcanal where Foss soon gained a reputation for aggressive close-in fighter tactics and uncanny gunnery skills. He shot down a Zero on his first mission but had to make a crash landing at full speed with no flaps.

He quickly became the lead pilot of what was called Foss’s Flying Circus.

Grumman F4F Wildcat at Henderson Field, Guadalcanal, October 1942
Grumman F4F Wildcat at Henderson Field, Guadalcanal, October 1942

By February, the Flying Circus had shot down 72 aircraft with Foss being credited with 26 of those. This number matched the record set by the World War I Ace, Eddie Rickenbacker.

Undaunted by tremendously superior numbers, Foss successfully led a large number of escort missions as well as skillfully covering reconnaissance, bombing, and photographic planes in addition to surface craft.

Watercolor of U.S. Marine Captain Joe Foss shooting down a Zero over Guadalcanal in October 1942
Watercolor of U.S. Marine Captain Joe Foss shooting down a Zero over Guadalcanal in October 1942

Foss’s remarkable flying skill, inspiring leadership, and indomitable fighting spirit were distinctive factors in the defense of American strategic positions on Guadalcanal for which he was awarded the Medal of Honor.

Watercolor of Capt Joe Foss as he shoots down a Japanese Zero over Henderson Field on Guadalcanal in October 1942
Watercolor of Capt Joe Foss as he shoots down a Japanese Zero over Henderson Field on Guadalcanal in October 1942

Foss flew in the Pacific until the end of the war but didn’t see combat as fierce as the fight over Guadalcanal. After the war, Foss continued flying with a private company he founded.

He also served in the state legislature and, in 1955, became South Dakota’s youngest governor at the age of 39. He unsuccessfully ran for a House and Senate seat as well.

After his time in politics, he became Commissioner of the American Football League in 1959. He negotiated multi-million dollar contract deals with national broadcast companies.

He helped the AFL merge into the National Football League and ushered in the era of modern professional football. He resigned as Commissioner to pursue a career as a hunting and fishing TV personality until the early 70s.

Joe Foss as Commissioner of the American Football League
Joe Foss as Commissioner of the American Football League

Becoming a man for all seasons, Foss served two terms as the President of the NRA. He kept a rigorous speaking schedule in support of conservative issues, particularly those relating to gun rights which he felt were being infringed.

Unfortunately, in 2002, he made the news not for his own actions, but because of what was done to him.

Foss stands with Cactus Air Force commander, Maj Gen Roy Geiger
Foss stands with Cactus Air Force commander, Maj Gen Roy Geiger

He was detained by airport security in Phoenix because his Medal of Honor set off metal detectors and airport security found a souvenir dummy round. When he should have been speaking to the NRA and a class at West Point, he was instead working to keep his Medal of Honor from being destroyed by airport security that didn’t recognize it.

L–R (foreground) Maj. Joe Foss, Maj. Marion Carl and advisor Charles Lindbergh in South Pacific, May 1944
L–R (foreground) Maj. Joe Foss, Maj. Marion Carl and advisor Charles Lindbergh in South Pacific, May 1944

“I wasn’t upset for me… I was upset for the Medal of Honor, that they just didn’t know what it even was. It represents all of the guys who lost their lives – the guys who never came back. Everyone who put their lives on the line for their country. You’re supposed to know what the Medal of Honor is.”

(Smith, Larry. Beyond Glory: Medal of Honor Heroes in Their Own Words. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004, First edition 2003, xviii.)

Joe Foss, c. 1990
Joe Foss, c. 1990

Justifiably, he joined the cause célèbre against intrusive airport security after 9/11.  He suffered a stroke and died later that same year.

Foss during World War II
Foss during World War II

Foss’s story is a truly heroic one. He overcame extreme poverty and a relative lack of opportunity to learn how to fly. His younger brother valiantly took over the remaining farm operations so Joe Foss could attend college where he fought through military bureaucracy to become a combat pilot.

 

Foss as Governor, 1955
Foss as Governor, 1955

Read another story from us: This Crazy Pilot Chased an Insane Bf-109 Pilot Right Under the Eiffel Tower & Shot Him Down

He made remarkable sacrifices early in life in pursuit of his goals, then went on to a leadership role in the NRA which was followed by his inspirational debates on airport security in the war on terror. He stood up for his principles in public and private office, and became an amazing man worth studying and remembering.