On this day in 1943, a Marine pilot leads a mission over the skies of Guadalcanal. Joseph J. Foss was the first “Ace of Aces” in World War II. He would also go on to receive the Medal of Honor.
Foss has been called “one of the mentally toughest aviators in the South Pacific.” That steely determination served him well, long before he became a Marine. In fact, he might never have been a Marine at all, but for his willingness to persevere and work hard.
Foss was born to impoverished farmers in South Dakota. Unfortunately, his father was killed in a freak accident, and Foss’s college education had to be deferred so he could help his mother run the farm. When Foss was finally able to go to school, he paid for his tuition and books by working at a gasoline station.
He also satisfied a lifelong dream by scrimping and saving so he could get flying lessons. He’d wanted his pilot’s license for years, ever since his father had taken him to see Charles Lindbergh.
Foss was 11 years old at the time, but the memory had stuck.
By the time Foss had his pilot’s license, he was 26 years old. The military considered him too old for combat. He spent time as an instructor, but he kept lobbying for more. He finally got his wish when he was transferred to Marine Fighting Squadron 121. He was soon deployed to Guadalcanal, in the South Pacific.
The next few months were intense. Beginning in early October 1942, Foss led a squadron of planes in nearly daily raids against the Japanese. They were known as his “Flying Circus” because of their acrobatics in the air. Foss’s team played a major role in defending Guadalcanal during those months. Foss himself took down 23 Japanese planes by November 19—a huge number.
But Foss was on the receiving end of quite a few shots, too. He was once shot down and floated in the ocean for hours before he was rescued. Sharks circling, and he thought surely he was done for. On another occasion, Foss was forced to make a dead stick landing. His plane barely stopped before it plowed into a group of trees! Two hundred bullet holes were counted in his plane that day. On a third occasion, Foss dove straight toward a Japanese battleship, purposefully making himself a target. It was risky, but he’d created a distraction that enabled others to torpedo the vessel.
Foss’s final combat would come after he’d survived a bout of malaria. On January 23, he led a relatively small group of American planes against a much larger formation of Japanese bombers and fighter planes. The Americans came at the Japanese so forcefully that four Japanese Zeroes were knocked out of the sky and the bombers turned back. The Japanese hadn’t dropped even one of their bombs! Three of the kills that day were credited to Foss, bringing his total number of confirmed kills to 26.
Those were just the confirmed kills. There were other “probable” kills, too.
Foss returned home shortly thereafter, and he was soon awarded the Medal of Honor.
In the years that followed, Foss would achieve many other great things: He succeeded in business. He became a commissioner of the American Football League. He was head of the NRA. He was a two-term Governor of South Dakota.
And it all started with a little boy, born to poor farmers in the Heartland.
Such an AMERICAN story, isn’t it?
Primary Sources & Further Reading:
Ian W. Toll, The Conquering Tide: War in the Pacific Islands, 1942-1944 (2015)
James H. Willbanks, America’s Heroes: Medal of Honor Recipients from the Civil War to Afghanistan (2011)
Joe Foss & Donna Wild Foss, A Proud American: The Autobiography of Joe Foss (1992)
Medal of Honor citation (Joseph J. Foss)
Peter Collier et al., Medal of Honor: Portraits of Honor beyond the Call of Duty (3d ed. 2011)
Tom Brokaw, The Greatest Generation (2004)