Joe Foss


Portrait of Joe FossJoseph Jacob "Joe" Foss (19152003) was an American politician, a fighter pilot, and a winner of the Medal of Honour. Born of Norwegian ancestry on a farm near Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Foss grew up in a farmhouse without electricity. When he was 12, he visited a local airfield to see Charles Lindbergh on tour with his airplane, the Spirit of St. Louis. Four years later, he and his father paid $ 1,50 apiece to take their first airplane ride.


In 1933, upon the death of his father, young Foss took over the running of the family farm, but the crops and stock were destroyed by dust storms over the next two years. He worked at a service station to pay for books and college tuition, and flight lessons. By 1940, armed with a pilot's license and a degree in Business Administration from the University of South Dakota, he enlisted in the United States Marine Corps' aviation program.


Foss served as a flight instructor at Pensacola, Florida, then shipped out for Guadalcanal as executive officer of an F4F Wildcat fighter plane unit which became known as the Flying Circus. He shot down a Japanese Zero on 13 October 1942, but his own plane was hit and, with a dead engine and three more Zeros on his tail, he landed at full speed with a dead engine, no flaps and minimal control on the American runway at Guadalcanal, barely missing a grove of palm trees.


By the time Foss left Guadalcanal in January 1943, his Flying Circus had shot down 72 Japanese airplanes, including the 26 credited to him. He became the first American pilot to match the record of World War I pilot Eddie Rickenbacker. He received the Medal of Honour during a White House ceremony in 1943, and appeared on the cover of Life magazine.


Cover of 'Life' magazine with Joe FossAfter the war, Foss capitalized on his name recognition by opening a charter flying service and flight instruction school. He later became a car salesman. He also organized the South Dakota Air National Guard and commanded the Guard's 175th Flight Squadron during the Korean War, reaching the rank of Brigadier General.


After the Korean War, he served two years in the South Dakota legislature and, beginning in 1955, as Governor of South Dakota. During his tenure as governor, he accompanied Tom Brokaw, then a South Dakota High School student and Governor of South Dakota Boys State, to New York City for a joint appearance on a TV game show. Later, Brokaw would feature Foss prominently in his book about WW II vets, The Greatest Generation. In 1959, after losing election to the House of Representatives to George McGovern, he became commissioner of the new American Football League. He oversaw the emergence of the league as the genesis of modern professional football, then stepped aside as commissioner in 1966, two months before the NFL agreed to merge with the AFL.


Foss hosted ABC television's The American Sportsman from 1964 to 1967, and hosted a syndicated program, from 1967 to 1974. He also served as President of the National Rifle Association from 1988 to 1990, and appeared on the cover of Time Magazine wearing a Stetson hat and holding a pistol.


An attempt to make a story of Foss's life, starring John Wayne, fell through when Foss refused to allow the producers to add a fictitious love story.



Stamp catalogue


Solomon Islands 7 August 2002









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last revised: 1 March 2010