Joe Foss was born 17 April 1915 on a farm near Sioux Falls, South Dakota. When he was 12, he saw Charles Lindbergh on tour. He took his first flight when he was 16 in a Ford Tri-Motor. Just before Joe’s 18th birthday, his father was killed by a downed power line leaving Joe to help care for his family: odd jobs, schooling & the occasional flying lesson followed. When he was 25 he graduated from the University of South Dakota with a bachelor’s degree in business administration.
With that in hand, he joined the Marines with a wish to fly. He was winged in Miami on 29 March 1941. He served as an instructor in Pensacola & was promoted to 1st Lieutenant on 10 April 1942. He joined VMF-121 & was promoted to Capt., 11 Aug 1942. VMF-121 sailed to Guadalcanal on board the USS Copahee, their Wildcats landing at Henderson Field, 9 October 1942.
For the next 3 months, “Joe’s Flying Circus” helped defend the island from extensive Japanese counter-attacks. On 7 November, he was shot down (in F4F-4 02147 or 03453 in USN/USMC AC loss list) by enemy fighters (bullets just missing his head) while strafing Japanese ships 240 kilometers north of Guadalcanal. He struggled in his life-jacket for five hours in a storm with sharks circling until members of a Catholic mission from the island of Malaita, who happened to be paddling by in canoes, rescued him. In his autobiography he said he broke a chlorine capsule to keep the sharks away. “It’s a good thing I didn’t know, as would later be proven, that chlorine doesn’t protect swimmers from shark attacks,” Sick with malaria, he was evacuated along with the rest of 121 on 19 November. He returned on 1 January 1943.
On 15 January 1943, he had matched Eddie Rickenbacker’s record of 26 planes destroyed.
He left the Island on 26 January. On 8 May 1943 he received the Medal of Honor from President Roosevelt during a special ceremony at the White House.
Promoted to Major, 1 June 1943, he became CO of VMF-115 on 17 July 1943. He held that post until 20 September 1944 when a recurrence of Malaria forced him to relinquish command. He returned to Sioux Falls, where he and a friend ran the Joe Foss Flying Service, building it into a venture with 35 airplanes.
In 1946, he left the Marine Corps to accept a Commission in the South Dakota National Guard as a Lt. Colonel. In 1948 he was elected to the South Dakota House of Representatives where he served a two-year term.
When the Korean War broke out, the Marines recalled him, and he directed training. He was promoted to Colonel in 1950 & then to Brigadier General in 1954. In 1954 he was elected Governor of South Dakota (The youngest Governor the the history of the state). He was re-elected in 1956.
We honor you, Joe Foss.