America’s Second “Ace of the Aces” – Greatest Generation Member Joe Foss (1915-2003)

Joe Foss on the cover of Life Magazine

Joe Foss on the cover of Life Magazine

Sports fans of a certain age, especially those of us who grew up with the New York Giants of the National Football League, remember fondly the arrival in 1960 of the American Football League, the Boston Patriots, Dallas Texans, Los Angeles Chargers, New York Titans and others. The man whom the upstart AFL owners picked as their commissioner, to lead them in their challenge to the NFL and its commissioner Pete “Pope Alvin” Rozelle, was the governor of South Dakota, Joseph Jacob “Joe” Foss. And what a choice it was.

Joe Foss grew up in a South Dakota farmhouse that had no electricity. At age 12, he visited a local airfield to see Charles Lindbergh on tour with his plane, the Spirit of St. Louis. At 16, he and his father paid $1.50 apiece to take their first aircraft ride, in a Ford Trimotor.

In 1933, while coming back from the fields during a storm, his father died when he drove over a downed electrical cable and was electrocuted as he stepped out of his automobile. Joe dropped out of school at 17 to run family farm. But after watching a Marine Corps aerial team perform aerobatics in open-cockpit biplanes, he was determined to become a Marine aviator. Joe worked at a service station to pay for books and college tuition and began to take flight lessons. His younger brother took over the farm, and Joe attended Sioux Falls College and then the University of South Dakota.

Joe paid his way through university by “bussing” tables and took part in football, track, and boxing. In 1940, he hitchhiked to Minneapolis to enlist in the Marine Corps Reserves.

World War II, the Second “Ace of Aces”

Men of the Cactus Air Force on Guadalcanal

Men of the Cactus Air Force on Guadalcanal

Foss became a Naval Aviator and was commissioned a second lieutenant. At age 26, he was considered too old to be a fighter pilot and was initially assigned to flying reconnaissance. He kept requesting combat, however, and eventually the Marines let him transfer to a fighting squadron. He became the squadron’s executive officer and was shipped with his mates to the Pacific island of Guadalcanal in 1942.

Foss and his group were catapult-launched off an escort carrier and flew 350 miles to reach the island, code-named “Cactus.” It was the brutal first extended encounter in the island-hopping campaign for the Marines. The air group became known as the Cactus Air Force. They were pivotal in the battle and in bringing ultimate victory.

Japan’s fighter plane, the Mitsubuishi “Zero”, was the best combat flying machine in the war’s early years. Foss shot down a Zero on his first mission. He barely escaped in his own shot-up Grumman Wildcat, but he landed it safely at full speed with three more Zeroes on his tail.

In three months of the battle for Guadalcanal, he and his boys of the Cactus Air Force shot down 72 Japanese Zeroes. Foss downed 26 of them. That matched the record held by America’s top World War I “Ace of Aces” Eddie Rickenbacker. America eventually surpassed Japan in aerial warfare capabilities and resources, and by 1945 the Japanese had no planes or pilots remaining to fight the air war.

Receiving the Medal of Honor from FDR

Receiving the Medal of Honor from FDR

Foss returned to the United States and received the Medal of Honor from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The White House ceremony was featured in Life magazine, which portrayed the reluctant Captain Foss on the cover.

Foss returned to the Pacific in 1944 but did not register any more kills. He left active duty in 1945, but was recalled for the Korean War, was Director of Operations and Training for the Central Air Defense Command, and rose to the rank of Brigadier General.

Politics, Business, and Charitable Endeavors in Civilian Life

Foss served two terms in as Republican state legislator before becoming South Dakota’s youngest governor ever, at age 39. In 1958, he tried for the U.S. House of Representatives and lost to George McGovern, another World War II flyer.

Joe accepted the offer to become the first Commissioner of the newly created American Football League in 1959. He served there for seven years. In 1960, secured the league’s continued existence with a five-year, $10.6 million contract with ABC to broadcast AFL games. That deal arguably secured the future of ABC Sports as well. Joe stepped aside as league commissioner in 1966, two months before the historic merger of AFL and NFL and the creation of the Super Bowl.

Joe Foss as NRA spokesman

Joe Foss as NRA spokesman

Joe hosted ABC ‘s The American Sportsman from 1964 to 1967, and he hosted and produced his own syndicated outdoors TV series, The Outdoorsman: Joe Foss, from 1967 to 1974. He spent six years as Director of Public Affairs for KLM Royal Dutch Airlines and two years as president of the National Rifle Association. He continued to speak out for Second Amendment rights and other conservative causes, once appearing on the cover of Time magazine wearing his trademark Stetson hat and holding a revolver.

Foss had a daughter with cerebral palsy, which undoubtedly played a part in his tenure as president of the National Society of Crippled Children and Adults. He also worked for Easter Seals, Campus Crusade for Christ, and an Arizona program for disadvantaged youths.

In 2001, he and his wife founded The Joe Foss Institute, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that is still active today in promoting patriotism, public service, integrity and an appreciation for America’s freedoms. The Institute recruits military veterans to go into classrooms across the country to interact with students.

Handling Indignities with Dignity

In January 2002, the 86-year-old Foss was in the news when he was detained by security at the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. He was scheduled to deliver an address at the NRA and speak to a class at the United States Military Academy. Because he had a pacemaker, he could not go through the metal detector. He was searched by the airport security people, who discovered his star-shaped Medal of Honor, a clearly marked dummy-bullet keychain, a second replica bullet, and a small nail file with Medal of Honor insignia. The airport functionaries did not recognize the Medal of Honor, demanded that it and the memorabilia be confiscated and destroyed, and required him to remove his boots, hat and belt.

Despite this ignorant and insulting treatment, Foss didn’t stoop to anything resembling “Do you know who I am?”

He said later, “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.”

Yes indeed. This was not a case of “Those who do not learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.” Rather, it was a pathetic example of what can happen when people don’t bother to learn history or to respect those who made that history.

A Final Personal Comment

Joe Foss suffered a stroke in late 2002 and died on New Year’s Day 2003. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. I would like to thank him for many things. The first, of course, is for his military service. Boomers like me should never stop thanking our elders of the Greatest Generation for the hardships they endured and for the prosperous country they bequeathed to us.

Thanks also, Joe, for being the American Football League’s Number One Man. Those Boston Patriots’ games, especially at BC and Harvard, were unforgettable. It took a man of your stature to give the league the credibility it sorely needed. Later on, in your charitable endeavors, you were “a man for others” in the fashion that my own Jesuit educators preach to their students.

Finally, thank you for demonstrating such dignity and class after that unfortunate airport incident. You showed that you’d been living and fighting for a higher cause than yourself. It was never about you.

Yet, even as I acknowledge and recount all that Joe Foss did for his country, I can’t help but think that it would have been better if he’d taken a different path in 1960 and not run the American Football League. Like George McGovern, the man who kept him out of Washington DC – Joe Foss would have made a superb president of the United States.

One Response to “America’s Second “Ace of the Aces” – Greatest Generation Member Joe Foss (1915-2003)”

  1. Fernando Arocha Says:

    I was with 121 for 8 years, 1978-1986 and Gen. Foss would visit his old squadron at El Toro and it was the highest honor and privelege to have him back with the Green Knights.
    121 set the standard for Marine AIr in WW 2 and that standard has been upheld by every Green Knight that served in 121 since..Gen Foss is Semper Fidelis at its core.

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