One Of America's Greatest Fighter Pilots is Also One of Our Best Role Models
Joe Foss was a poor kid from South Dakota, growing up in the Depression, when his dad died.
had a dream, though - he'd met Charles Lindbergh in 1928 and seen a
Marine Fighter Squadron barnstorming through his neck of the prairie in
1930 - and that dream required college - a tough act for a poor orphaned
kid, but he managed to do it, earning both a bachelor of business
administration and a private pilot's license.
His dream was to be
a Marine aviator - but in those pre-war days, the odds against even
qualified applicants were two in 100 - he hitchhiked 300 miles to
Minneapolis, took the test with 100 young men, and was one of the two.
completing training and a 9-month tour as an instructor (something only
the best trainee pilots were assigned - and few liked) he was assigned
to an observation squadron (aka "target") in San Diego instead of a
fighter squadron - but he noticed that a lot of trainee aviators were
"buying the farm" - he went to the base commander (a Navy Commander who
hated Marines) and offered to trade duty as "funeral officer" for
stick-time in a fighter. In three months, he racked up more than 150
hours in a Wildcat - that was more than 3 hours per day for 47
consecutive days (all while fulfilling his assigned duties as an
observation-unit pilot AND funeral officer).
As the only
carrier-qualified Marine aviator in San Diego, he was named Exec of a
squadron about to sail into combat, even thought many thought of him as
"the old man" - too old for fighter combat (he was 27 - average age of
new fighter pilots, 23).
His first combat mission over
Guadalcanal he had his engine shot out and made a "hot" dead-stick
landing - but only after he'd shot down the first of many deadly
Japanese Zeroes to fall under his guns.
The fourth time he was
shot down, he realized that "one more and I'll be a Japanese Ace" - but
by that time he'd shot down something like 19 confirmed first-line
Japanese planes (mostly Zeros, piloted by the cream of the best in the
Imperial Japanese Air Force - the Tainan Wing).
One time, after
downing three or four Japanese fighters, combat damage to his engine
forced him to ditch his Wildcat two miles of the beach of Malaita Island
(about 50 or so miles from Guadalcanal). The plane sank fast, his foot
caught in his seat, and before he knew it, he was 30 feet under and
"breathing" seawater. Convinced he was going to die, instead of
panicking, he calmed himself, figured out how to free himself and used
his Mae West life preserver to get him back to the surface (breathing
more seawater along the way). To tired to swim, he decided to float on
his back until his strength came back - until he saw a couple of
shark-fins. Then he saw a couple of canoes - convinced they were Japs
looking for him, he decided to "face down" the sharks - until he heard
an Australian voice and surfaced again. The next day, Major Mad Jack
Cramm - the personal pilot to the Marine Air Commander (General Geiger) -
taxied his PBY Catalina right up onto the beach to retrieve Foss - and
two days later, he was back in combat, shooting down a couple more
Japanese fighters in the process.
He finished his tour of duty
with 26 confirmed kills - tying Eddie Rickenbacker (WW-I American Ace of
Aces) - but unlike some self-centered Aces, Foss led a unit that fought
with him - together with Foss, his flight (Foss's Flying Circus) shot
down 72 confirmed enemies - literally all of those young-buck
grass-green fighter pilots he'd brought into combat (except the two who
didn't survive) became aces in their own right under Foss's masterful
training and leadership. Aces like von Richthofen often couldn't
remember the names of their wingmen - Foss made medal-bedecked aces of
His technique was simple - he flew so close to the enemy
that he couldn't miss (of course, they couldn't, either, which is why he
was nearly a Japanese ace, too) - his flight-members used to joke that
he'd leave "powder burns" on his targets by holding fire until he was in
slow-pitch softball range of his enemy. The results - 26 confirmed
kills leading a team of eight "novice" pilots that together scored 72
confirmed kills - speak for themselves.
Amazingly, Foss did all
this while flying a plane considered obsolete even before the war began
(the F4F Wildcat was slower in level flight, slower in the climb and
much less maneuverable than the Zero - it also had much less range). He
was the highest-scoring ace in Marine history, and won the
Congressional Medal of Honor - the highest award available to American
servicemen (most who earn it do so posthumously).
After the war, a
bureaucratic bungle denied him a "Regular" commission in the Marines -
so he founded the South Dakota Air National Guard. He served in the
regular Air Force in Korea, and retired a Brigadier General.
from the Guard, he became the Governor of South Dakota, the
Commissioner of the American Football League, the host of two TV
programs (running, together, for about 10 years) and - late in life (as
in, during his 70s) he became President of the National Rifle
At age 87, airport "security" in Phoenix (this was
after 9/11) tried to stop him from boarding a plane for a flight to New
York (where he was scheduled to address the Cadets at West Point) for
carrying a "dangerous weapon" - the five-pointed star of his
Congressional Medal of Honor.
What would Joe Foss do? Apparently, he laughed it off (I understand he actually let the idiot security guard live).
when I'm in a tough spot, I ask myself, "what would Joe Foss do?"
(hint - move in close before opening fire - never give up - never slow
down - and never take "no" for an answer).