Joe Foss Institute

Joe Foss – The Man

Joe Foss Biography – A True American Patriot

“The story of Joe Foss’s life is a story of human endeavor so great and so accomplished that it defies exaggeration. His has been a life of courage, independence, honesty, determination, and patriotism.” — Senator John McCain, decorated hero and former POW

Formative Years
In 1926, at the age of 11, Joe Foss attended an air show in Sioux Falls, South Dakota that featured aviator Charles Lindbergh. After watching the show, he was hooked—and some would say destined to become a pilot.

In 1934, he dropped out of college to help his mother run the family farm, but managed to scrape together enough money for flying lessons. He eventually graduated from the University of South Dakota in 1940, with both a business degree and a civilian pilot’s license.

Military Career
Upon graduation, Foss enlisted in the Marine Corps reserves. He earned his wings at Pensacola and was commissioned a second lieutenant. After Pearl Harbor he was ordered to report to an aerial reconnaissance squadron, but held out for fighter duty, despite being told he was “too old” at age 27. He won the argument, and after training in an F4F Wildcat, he was sent to the South Pacific.

On October 9, 1942 Foss and his fighter wing found themselves at Henderson Field on Guadalcanal. His two four-plane group would eventually come to be called “Foss’s Flying Circus” and would fly more than 60 missions. On October 16, he shot down two Japanese Zeros and a bomber, to bring his total of kills to five, and making him an “Ace” in just a week. By mid-November Foss’ personal total of downed Japanese planes stood at 19, and he had been shot down once himself. During these first six weeks at Guadalcanal, he received the Distinguished Flying Cross.

After being hospitalized with a wound and a bout of malaria, he returned to Guadalcanal and picked up where he left off. He eventually racked up 26 confirmed enemy aircraft shot down, and 16 probable kills, equaling famed ace Eddie Rickenbacker’s World War I record.

On what would be his last Guadalcanal mission, his group scrambled to intercept nearly 100 Japanese warplanes. Spotting the enemy, Foss signaled his outnumbered men not to attack, but to circle above the Japanese planes in tight formation. The Japanese believed his group was a decoy for a huge American air armada and they turned and ran. Foss had accomplished one of the greatest bluffs in the history of aerial combat. Many historians call that a turning point in the war.

Congressional Medal of Honor
Foss was called back to Washington, in May, 1943, to help lead the campaign for U.S. War Bonds. He found himself on the cover of Life Magazine when President Franklin Roosevelt presented him with the nation’s highest award, the Congressional Medal of Honor for outstanding heroism above and beyond the call of duty during his entire time on Guadalcanal. In part his citation read: “His remarkable flying skill, inspiring leadership, and indomitable fighting spirit were distinctive factors in the defense of strategic American positions on Guadalcanal.”

After the war, Foss returned to South Dakota, where he helped organize the state’s Air National Guard unit. He was elected to the South Dakota House of Representatives.

He was recalled to active duty in the Air Force during the Korean War, and after the war ended, he became the Commander of the South Dakota Air National Guard—retiring with the rank of Brigadier General.

Political & Business Career
In 1954, he was overwhelmingly elected Governor of South Dakota, and then re-elected to a second term. He went on to become the first Commissioner of the American Football League, and helped conceive the Superbowl.

He left the AFL in 1966, and entered the television world. He was named host of ABC’s “The American Sportsman,” and then he and Didi started their own weekly syndicated series: “The Outdoorsman: Joe Foss.”

Joe later became Director of Public Affairs for KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, served as Chairman of the U.S. Air Force Association, and then as a Director of the U.S. Air Force Academy.

“Retired” to Arizona, Foss traveled the world, talking about leadership, patriotism and his own enduring faith in God. He began meeting with groups of young people, leading to his desire to organize other veterans to expand this work.

See a comprehensive list of his accomplishments and affiliations.



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