In the early 1960’s, I was introduced to a fellow motorcycle rider by the name of Steve Foss. Before I could say anything, he quickly offered, “No relation to Joe Foss.” He had anticipated my question and that of nearly everyone he had met for years back. For most Americans back then, the name Foss immediately brought to mind one of the greatest heroes in American history, the Marine fighter pilot who terrified the Japanese at Guadalcanal and was awarded the Medal of Honor.
Forty years later, not only had Joe Foss’s name been forgotten, but the Medal of Honor had become something that Americans failed to recognize. In January 2002, the 86-year-old Foss was passing through security at Phoenix’s Sky Harbor Airport when screeners discovered three suspicious items on his person: a key holder made from a dummy bullet; a small nail file; and a five-pointed star with a ribbon attached. The medal star puzzled the screeners and they thought it dangerous. Seven or eight of them held it, inspected it, and were unable to identify it. “I kept explaining that it was the highest medal you can receive from the military in this country,” said Foss,
but nobody listened. . . . I was held up for 45 minutes, while they decided what to do about the medal. I almost missed my flight, as they went back and forth. . . . 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. You’re supposed to know what the Medal of Honor is.
Foss had the Medal of Honor with him only because he was on his way to give a speech at West Point and thought the academy cadets might want to take a look at the military’s most coveted decoration.
Of Norwegian and Scottish stock, Joe Foss was born in 1915 on a farm in South Dakota. School and chores consumed most of everyday for the growing boy, but there was occasionally time for hunting. At night he read by lamplight, electricity having not yet reached the Foss farm. When he was 12, his father took him to an airfield near Sioux Falls to see Charles Lindbergh, on tour with Spirit of St. Louis. Joe was hooked. Four years later, he and his father took their first plane ride, paying $1.50 each for the privilege.
When Foss was still in high school, his father died in an accident, forcing Joe to run the farm. He had not forgotten his desire to fly, though, and saved enough money to pay for flying lessons. After several years of working the farm and attending college part-time, he was able to enter the University of South Dakota. He supported himself waiting tables at restaurants near campus. Somehow, he found time to play football and complete a civilian pilot-training program before graduating in 1940.
With degree in hand, he joined the Marine Corps as an aviation cadet. After seven months of training at Pensacola Naval Air Station, he was awarded his wings and commissioned a lieutenant. He served for the next nine months as a flight instructor. When the Japanese perpetrated their sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, Foss immediately volunteered for duty as a fighter pilot. “You’re too ancient,” he was told. “You’re 27 sears old.” With his superior skills, though, he was soon flying the F4F Wildcat and off to the Southwest Pacific as the executive officer of VMF-121.
On October 9, 1942, Foss, now a captain, landed at Henderson Field—pockmarked with bomb craters and littered with wrecked aircraft—and became a member of what the Marines called the Cactus Air Force. A few days later, Foss found himself in aerial combat. Jumped by a Zero, Foss suddenly slowed his Wildcat, causing the Japanese fighter to speed by. With a single burst of his guns, Foss sent the Zero flaming downward. Three more Zeros were now on his tail and firing. His oil cooler was hit and shredded, and the Wildcat’s engine seized. The talented and steely nerved Foss got the F4F safely on the ground in a dead-stick landing.
A little more than a week later, in a day of furious fighting, Foss knocked four Zeros out of the sky and, now with five kills, was an ace. From then on, when he went up, a Japanese plane came down. The group of eight fighters from VMF-121 that he led became known as Foss’s Flying Circus. Collectively, they would shoot down more than 60 enemy planes. Five of Foss’s group became aces on Guadalcanal, and two died there. Foss himself had many a close call. On November 7, he shot down three Zeros in a wild dogfight over The Slot, but his Wildcat was badly damaged. As he limped home, two Zeros forced him to ditch in the ocean. The plane sank nose-first and was 30 feet underwater before Foss struggled from the cockpit and kicked for the surface. He spent 12 hours swimming and floating—and fending off sharks— before a missionary with a few Melanesians in a dugout canoe discovered him.
Although suffering terribly from malaria, by January 1943, Foss had shot down 26 Japanese planes, tying Eddie Rickenbacker’s American record from World War I. Joe Foss was now a household name back in the States. He was ordered home, decorated with the Medal of Honor by President Roosevelt, and featured on the cover of Life magazine.
After the war, Foss organized the South Dakota Air National Guard, served with the outfit in Korea, and rose to the rank of brigadier general. He then served two terms in South Dakota’s legislature and one term as governor. He later became the first commissioner of the American Football League, host of television’s The American Sportsman, and president of the NRA. Nonetheless, he and the Medal of Honor went unrecognized and were thought a threat by those sharp-eyed security personnel at the airport.