|He had a hero's swagger but a winning smile to go with his plain talk and movie-star looks. Joe Foss was larger than life, and his heroics in the skies over the Pacific were just the beginning of a journey that would take him to places far from that farm with no electricity and not much hope north of Sioux Falls."|
– Tom Brokaw, The Greatest Generation
Joe Foss is one of the top-two deadliest Marines to ever sit in the cockpit of a fighter aircraft and blast the living shit out of the enemies of America and Democracy and Freedom, and all those other things that Marines generally tend to blow the shit out of people for opposing. He's a 26-kill World War II fighter ace, an amateur boxer, a former Director of the Air Force Academy, and a revolver-packing badass who once had his own TV show where he went around the world looking for wild game and capping them in the face with a six-shooter. Oh, and he was also the first commissioner of the football league that eventually became the AFC.
He did other stuff too, but those are the bullet points.
Foss was born in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, in a tiny, crappy little farmhouse that didn't have super important life-altering shit like electricity or cable or a microwave or a wireless Internet connection. Since this was back in the Dark Ages when you could not have stuff like that and still somehow manage to survive, Foss worked on his family farm, pumped gas for minimum wage, and went to school all day every day, generally doing that sort of walk a hundred miles uphill both ways Greatest Generation manual labor bullshit nobody appreciates anymore but that still makes Tom Brokaw and your grumpy old grandpa pop giant raging tandem work-boners every time they talk about it. When Joe was 17 his father was accidentally electrocuted to death (oh the irony), so Foss took over the family farm. When this human ball of congealed energy wasn't running the farm, helping his mother, taking care of his siblings, going to school, or working at the gas station he still somehow found a way to get his pilot's license and log over a hundred hours of flight time, and once his brother was old enough to take over the farm, Joe went out to the University of South Dakota, where he boxed, ran track, played football, bussed tables, logged more flight time, got his degree in Business Administration, and served as a Private in the South Dakota National Guard. So, the next time you ask yourself what the hell you would do if you didn't have the Internet, there's your answer.
After he got out of college, Joe Foss hitchhiked and/or sprinted from South Dakota to Minnesota and enlisted in the United States Marine Corps, telling them he wanted more than anything to fly fighter aircraft. The Corps decided that at 26 Foss was too fucking old and decrepit to be a fighter pilot (a detail that makes me really feel super totally awesome about myself), so instead of putting him in the cockpit of a slick attack craft they assigned Foss to a photo reconnaissance squadron instead. But Joe Foss was a man who went after what he wanted, regardless of what assholes told him he should do, so in addition to his normal duties Foss also spent his first deployment in Pensacola logging 150 hours in a USMC F4F Wildcat fighter (despite not technically being authorized to do so). So in June 1942, when he reapplied for fighter service, he was reassigned to fighter squadron VMF-121 and deployed via aircraft carrier to a tiny, obscure island in the middle of the Pacific known as Guadalcanal.
Hatefully described as "the only place in the world where you can be standing in mud to your knees and still get dust in your eyes", in October 1942 Guadalcanal was a torturous hellhole of morale-obliterating misery that devoured the souls of all who set foot on or around it in a horrific tidal wave of mud and machine guns and malaria-infected mosquitoes. While this jungle-covered death-rock off the coast of Papua New Guinea is technically situated very close to some pretty-amazingly-beautiful babe-overloaded tropical resort islands, in terms of happy fun-ness Guadalcanal in '42 was about as close to Fiji as a gauntleted fist to the dick is to a handjob. The first stopping point in the American attack on the Japanese-controlled islands of the Pacific, Guadalcanal was home to a 2,400-foot long strip of brown sludge known as Henderson Field – the closest thing to an airfield the island had, and the place Joe Foss and the men of the "Cactus Air Force" called home for almost five months. Foss and his crews had to work in miserable conditions – dust and mud got all up into the aircraft, rendering many of them inoperable, and the "runway" was so jacked up you couldn't get heavy equipment on there, meaning that ground crews had to refuel and rearm the aircraft by hand, loading bullets into the feeding mechanisms the old-fashioned way. With all this bullshit going on, the U.S. pilots never had all of their fighters and interceptors operational at the same time, which was pretty bad considering that they already badly outnumbered by the enemy and were being bombed almost constantly by vast flights of Japanese bombers and attack aircraft day and night. Combine that with the fact that the First Marine Division was holding a tenuous battle line against hundreds of thousands of rabid Japanese infantrymen just a few hundred yards from the airfield and the runway was constantly being shelled by Japanese naval artillery, and you've got a recipe for some relatively-sleepless nights.
Henderson Field today.
But Joe Foss didn't give a crap. He sucked it up, took it like a man, and got out there to start wasting enemy aircraft any place he could catch them. His balls-out fighting style was probably best summed up with his first combat mission: This guy was flying patrol above Henderson with one other craft when he and his wingmen came across a formation of 30 Japanese A6M Zeroes – badass, battle-hardened pilots in super-deadly fighters that outclassed Foss' Wildcat in terms of both speed and maneuverability. Foss cracked his knuckles, bit down on his cigar, and charged straight into the middle of them, machine guns blazing a hole in the universe in front of him. He waxed the first Zeke, sending it plummeting to the jungle in a gigantic awesome-looking ball of fire, took some potshots at a couple others, then got nailed from three directions and once and hauled ass back to base leaking oil from his wings and being chased hard by four enemy fighters.
You'd think almost being blown up would have discouraged Foss from being totally fucking insane, but this was not the case. This cigar-chomping hardass just kept getting out there, fighting the enemy with ultra-aggressive, high-risk high-reward death charges that were designed to get in so close to the enemy that it would "leave power burns on their fuselage". A dead-on marksman who seemingly couldn't miss his targets (it's hard to miss a guy when you're so close to him that his entire plane fills up your windshield), this psycho daredevil would open his throttle to 300 miles an hour, close to within 50 yards of the enemy, then smoke him and try to peel out of there before he crashed into the flaming wreckage that once used to be an enemy fighter plane. Fighting in daily combats against impossible numbers, Foss ran escort missions for recon aircraft that were looking for the Japanese navy, scrambled to fight off incoming bomber raids, and flew cover to make sure no jackasses swooped in and dropped torpedoes on the landing craft that were ferrying Marine reinforcements on the island. When that got boring, Foss and his men would perform balls-out high-speed strafing runs on Japanese ships, infantry bases, and anything else they could find that didn't know all the words to America the Beautiful.
It took Joe Foss nine days on Guadalcanal to become a fighter ace. In addition to two victories early on (including the one on his first mission), this plane-smashing badass scored kills three through five on a particularly-awesome mission where he dove straight into a vastly-superior enemy formation of bombers, then turned quickly and battled the fighter screen right as it dove down out of the sun on top of him. A couple days later he was hit by a machine gun and took a shrapnel wound to the head, but not even this slowed Joe Foss down – three days after taking a piece of metal to the dome he was back in the cockpit, becoming the Marine Corps' first Ace in a Day on October 25, 1942 when he shot down three Zeroes before 10am, landed, had some lunch, then went back out and killed three more.
"Smokey Joe" Foss was finally shot down on November 7th, during an attack on a Japanese destroyer formation off the coast of the island. He was hit by a sea-landing-equipped biplane of all things, taking a few rounds from the rear-facing machine gunner Last Crusade style while he was in the process of reducing it to a smoking heap of melted canvas and burning wood. Foss finished killing the seaplane that had hit him, then ditched his burning aircraft in the water, almost drowned when his parachute got stuck while he was trying to punch his way out through the cockpit, and proceeded to survive five hours in shark-infested waters before finally being fished out of the drink. He was back in action the next day.
Between October and November, 1942, Joe Foss shot down 23 enemy aircraft, mostly Zeroes (no small feat considering those were the deadliest aircraft Japan had to offer), with an additional 16 kills listed as "probable", whatever that means. He commanded a badass unit known simply as "Foss' Flying Circus", an 8-plane killteam that routinely dove propellers-first into formations five- and ten-times their own size, blasted everything that moved, and left behind nothing but charred airspace and burning enemy fuselages everywhere they went. When Foss wasn't leading these guys on hundreds of combat sorties in the air, he would give them rifles and send them into the jungle to fight Japanese infantry units that got a little too close to the airfield for comfort – a practice that he only stopped after his commanding officer gave him explicit orders never to go into the fucking jungle with a rifle like some kind of lunatic again. In just four months his Flying Circus ratcheted up 60 kills during the battle for Guadalcanal, and five of the 8-man crew would become aces while only two would be killed in action. Foss himself racked up 23 kills, took a month or two off when he got malaria, then came right back out in January and led a 12-man squadron straight-on to intercept a 100-craft Japanese bomber raid aimed at leveling Henderson Field into a giant festering crater. The initial attack badly damaged the Japanese formation (Foss killed three Zeroes by himself, bringing his total up to 26), and sending the surviving 90 enemy aircraft running the hell out of there without ever even opening their bomb bay doors. For being the first American since WWI ace Eddie Richenbacher to net 26 kills, Foss was awarded the Medal of Honor. Today those 26 kills are good enough to be second all-time among USMC aviators, and some people claim that when you go back and really look at everything he should probably be first.
After the war Foss' story gets somehow even more ridiculous. First he opened a flight instruction school, and then, while he was doing that, he not only commanded the South Dakota Air National Guard as a Brigadier-General but also served on their P-51 Mustang Demonstration Team and performed air shows across the state. He worked in Air Training Command during the Korea War, became the youngest governor in South Dakota history (serving two terms), once appeared on a TV game show, had drinks with John Wayne, Charles Lindbergh, and Tom Brokaw, and spent three years hosting his own television show where he traveled around to luxurious exotic locations and had people film him hunting and fishing and killing dangerous and/or awesome-looking things. In 1959, Foss became the first commissioner of the American Football League, helped them get a sweet TV deal, then resigned two months before the AFL merged into the NFL and basically became the AFC. He also wrote three books on dogfighting, was a consultant on a couple early air combat simulation video games, was the Director of the Air Force Academy, and was the president of both the National Rifle Association and the National Society of Crippled Children and Adults. Oh, and one time he was also detained by the TSA for trying to bring his Medal of Honor on an airplane with him – they thought about taking it away until he convinced them that thing wasn't a weapon, HE was the weapon. He died in 2003 at the age of 87, a true legend of the Marine Corps.
Ace Pilots Profile
Brokaw, Tom. The Greatest Generation. Random House, 2004.
Collier, Peter. Medal of Honor. Artisan, 2011.
Coonts, Steven. War in the Air. Simon and Schuster, 2003.
Tillman, Barrett. Wildcat Aces of World War 2. Osprey, 1995.
Yenne, Bill. Aces High. Penguin, 2010.
The Complete List
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