Gathering of Eagles Foundation

Honored as an Eagle in:

1982 1985 1990 1997 2000 2002

Eagle Biography

Joseph J. Foss

The first American to tie Eddie Rickenbacker's World War I record of 26 aerial combat victories was Joe Foss, the "Flying Marine." Born in a farmhouse just east of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, he graduated from the University of South Dakota and then joined the Marine Corps. He was considered too old to fly fighters and was initially assigned to reconnaissance aircraft. He doggedly pursued being a fighter pilot and on 1 August 1942, he reported in with VMF-121 as the executive officer. Flying F4F-4 Wildcats, he deployed along with the squadron to Henderson Field as part of Guadalcanal's "Cactus Air Force" (named after the Navy code word for the besieged island).

In the heated contest for Guadalacanal between 9 October and 19 November 1942, he shot down 23 Japanese aircraft. Following a month-long break from combat, he closed out his scoring record with three additional kills. On 25 January 1943, he led his "Flying Circus" flight of eight F4Fs plus four Army P-38 Lightnings in a clever ruse against the enemy. Facing upwards of 100 fighters and bombers, the 12 Americans moved in and out of the clouds refusing to fight. The Japanese, believing the Wildcats to be merely the bait for a much larger American force, aborted their attack, jettisoned their bombs harmlessly into the sea, and headed home.

Altogether, Captain Foss led his flight's two divisions--the "Farm Boys" and the "City Slickers"--to a total of 73 combat victories. In May 1943, President Roosevelt awarded him the Congressional Medal of Honor for his extraordinary combat record during the Guadalcanal operation. Additionally, in 1943, Foss was selected as one of that year's "Ten Outstanding Young Men in America" and was featured in the cover story of a leading magazine. Major Foss left the Marine Corps after the war and returned to his native South Dakota.

He helped organize that state's Air National Guard. In 1953, he was promoted to brigadier general and named Chief of Staff, South Dakota Air National Guard. Elected Governor of South Dakota in 1954, he served two terms of office, and in 1960 he became the first Commissioner of the newly organized American Football League. A leader with unbridled enthusiasm, he has served as Director of Public Affairs for KLM Airlines, as President and Chairman of the Board of the Air Force Association, and is a member of the National Aviation Hall of Fame.

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On 15 January 1943, while escorting dive bombers on a mission against an enemy transport and destroyer, Foss' flight of F4Fs and Army P-39 Airacobras were attacked by a flight of new square-winged Zeros. He destroyed the first Zero with a single short burst and then quickly shot down a wingman. His final kill of the day was a Zero dueling nose-to-nose with him. As the Zero descended, Foss climbed "into him" and fired a burst into the side of the cockpit as the pilot tried to turn right and away from Foss' Wildcat. The Zero crashed in flames, and this victory made Foss the second ranking Marine ace of World War II.

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