C.O. VMF-121, Medal of Honor Recipient
By Stephen Sherman, July, 1999. Updated December 14, 2016.
Joe Foss was born on to a Norwegian-Scots family in South Dakota. He learned hunting and marksmanship at a young age. Like millions of others, 11-year old Joe Foss was inspired by Charles Lindbergh, especially after he saw Lindy at an airport near Sioux Falls. Five years later he watched a Marine squadron put on a dazzling exhibition, led by Capt. Clayton Jerome, future wartime Director of Marine Corps Aviation.
In 1934, Joe began his college education in Sioux Falls, but he had to drop out to help his mother run the family farm. However he scraped up $65 for private flying lessons. Five years later he entered the University of South Dakota again and supported himself by waiting on tables. In his senior year he also completed a civilian pilot training program before he graduated with a Business degree in 1940.
Upon graduation he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps reserves as an aviation cadet. Seven months later, he earned his Marine wings at Pensacola and was commissioned a second lieutenant. For the next nine months he was a 'plowback' flight instructor. He was at Pensacola when the news of Pearl Harbor broke, and since he was Officer of the Day, he was placed in charge of base security. Thus he prepared to defend Pensacola from Jap invaders, riding around the perimeter on a bicycle. To his distress, he was then ordered to the aerial photographers school and assigned to a VMO-1, a photo reconnaissance squadron. But he insisted he wanted fighter pilot duty, even after being told "You're too ancient, Joe. You're 27 years old!" After lengthy lobbying with Aircraft Carrier Training Group, he learned all about the new F4F Wildcat, logging over 150 flight hours in June and July. When he finished training, he became executive officer of VMF-121. Three weeks later, he was on his way to the South Pacific, where the United States was desperately trying to turn the tide of war. Arriving in the South Pacific, VMF-121 was loaded aboard the escort carrier Copahee.
On the morning of October 9, they were catapulted off the decks, in Joe's only combat carrier mission. Landing at Henderson Field, he was told that his fighters were now based at the 'cow pasture.' He was impressed with the 'make-do' character of the 'Cactus Air Force. The airfield was riddled with bomb craters and wrecked aircraft, but also featured three batteries of 90mm anti-aircraft guns and two radar stations. As 'exec' of -121, he would normally lead a flight of two four-plane divisions, whenever there were enough Wildcats to go around. He was the oldest pilot in the flight, four years older than the average age of 23. The flight would become known as 'Foss's Flying Circus' and rack up over 60 victories. Five of them would become aces; two would die in the in the fight for Guadalcanal.
On October 13, 1942, VMF-121 scored its first victories when Lts. Freeman and Narr each got a Japanese plane. Later that same day, Joe led a dozen Wildcats to intercept 32 enemy bombers and fighters. In his first combat, a Zero bounced Joe, but overshot, and Joe was able to fire a good burst and claim one destroyed aircraft. Instantly, three more Zeros set upon him, and he barely made it back to 'Fighter One', his Wildcat dripping oil. Chastened by the experience, he declared "You can call me 'Swivel-Neck Joe' from now on." From the first day, Joe followed the tactics of Joe Bauer: getting in close, so close that another pilot joked that the 'exec' left powder burns on his targets. The next day while intercepting a flight of enemy bombers, Joe's engine acted up and he took cover in the clouds. But suddenly a Wildcat whizzed past him, tailed by a Zero. Joe cut loose and shot the Zero's wing off. It was his second victory in two days.
While the Wildcats' primary responsibility was air defense, they also strafed Japanese infantry and ships when they had enough ammunition. Joe led on such mission on the 16th. Mid-October was the low point for the Americans in the struggle for Guadalcanal. Japanese warships shelled the U.S. positions nightly, with special attention to the airstrips. To avoid the shelling, some fliers slept in the front lines. Foss grew to appreciate the Navy's fighter doctrine and found that the "Thach Weave" effectively countered the Zero's superior performance, because "it allowed us to point eyes and guns in every direction."
Joe was leading an interception on morning of the 18th when the Zero top cover pounced on them and downed an F4F. But Foss was able to get above them and flamed the nearest, hit another, and briefly engaged a third. Gaining an angle, he finally shot up the third plane's engine. Next he found a group of Bettys already under attack by VF-71. He executed a firing pass from above, flashed through the enemy bombers, and pulled up sharply, blasting one from below. Nine days at Guadalcanal and he was an ace! Two days later Lt. Col. Harold Bauer and Foss led a flight of Wildcats on the morning intercept. In the dogfighting, Joe downed two Zeros, but took a hit in his engine. He landed safely at Henderson Field with a bad cut on his head, but otherwise unharmed.
'Cactus Fighter Command' struggled to keep enough Wildcats airworthy to meet the daily Japanese air strikes. On the 23rd, it put up two flights, led by Foss and Maj. Davis. There were plenty of targets and Joe soon exploded a Zero. He went after another which tried to twist away in a looping maneuver. Joe followed and opened up while inverted at the top of his loop. He caught the Zero and flamed it. He later described it as a lucky shot. Next he spotted a Japanese pilot doing a slow roll; he fired as the Zero's wings rolled through the vertical and saw the enemy pilot blown out of the cockpit, minus a parachute. Suddenly he was all alone and two Zeros hit him, but his rugged Grumman absorbed the damage, permitting Foss to flame one of his assailants. Once again, he nursed a damaged fighter back to Guadalalcanal. So far he had destroyed eleven enemy planes, but had brought back four Wildcats that were too damaged to fly again.
October 25 was the day that the Japanese planned to occupy Henderson Field; they sent their fighters over, with orders to circle until the airstrip was theirs. It didn't work out that way, as the U.S. ground forces held their lines and 'Cactus' did its part. Joe Foss led six Wildcats up before 10 AM, and claimed two of the Marine's three kills on that sortie. Afterwards, he berated himself for wasting ammunition on long-range shooting. He kept learning how important it was to get close. (The great German ace, Erich Hartmann, said "Get close enough until the airplane fills the whole windscreen; then you can't miss.") In an afternoon mission on the 25th, he downed three more, to become the Marine Corps' first 'ace in a day'. He had achieved 14 victories in only 13 days.
Despite rugged living conditions and the stress of daily combat flying, Foss retained his enthusiasm. He and some other fliers of VMF-121 occasionally went prowling with their rifles in the jungle, looking for Japanese soldiers, but Col. Bauer stopped this activity; trained fighter pilots were too valuable to risk this way. They slept in six-man tents and ate the wretched powdered eggs that are mentioned in almost every pilot's memoirs. On guy had a gramophone that they played scratchy records on. They bathed in the Lunga River; many grew beards rather than try to shave in cold water. They kept the beards neatly trimmed, not for appearances, but to ensure their beards didn't interfere with the close-fitting oxygen masks. 'Washing Machine Charlie' and 'Millimeter Mike' harassed the field nightly, so some pilots tried to sleep in the daytime.
On November 7th Foss led seven F4Fs up the Slot to attack some IJN destroyers and a cruiser, covered by six Rufe floatplane fighters. They dispatched five of the Rufes promptly and prepared to strafe the destroyers. Joe climbed up to protect the others and got involved in a dogfight with a Pete, a two-man float biplane. He shot down the slow-flying plane, but not before its rear gunner perforated the Wildcat's engine with 7.7mm machine gun fire. Once again, Foss' aircraft started sputtering on the way home. But his time, it didn't make it. As the engine died, he put it into the longest possible shallow dive, to get as close to home as he could.
As he plane went into the water off Malaita Island, Foss struggled with his parachute harness and his seat. He went under with his plane, gulped salt water, and almost drowned before he freed himself and inflated his Mae West. Exhausted and with the tide against him, he knew that he couldn't swim to shore. While trying to rest and re-gain his strength in his life raft, he spotted shark fins nearby. He sprinkled the chlorine powder supplied for that purpose in his emergency pack and that seemed to help. As darkness approached, he heard some searchers looking for him. They hauled him in and brought him to Malaita's Catholic mission. There were a number of Europeans and Australians, including two nuns who had been there for forty years and had never seen an automobile. They fed him steak and eggs and invited him stay for two weeks.
The next day a PBY Catalina, piloted by Maj. Jack Cram rescued him. On his return to Guadalcanal, he learned that 'Cactus' had downed 15 Japanese planes in the previous day's air battle. His own tally stood at 19. On the ninth, Admiral Bull Halsey pinned the Distinguished Flying Cross on him and two other pilots.
The Americans were bringing four transports full of infantry to Guadalcanal on November 12. The Japanese sent 16 Betty bombers and 30 covering Zeroes after them, while the American Wildcats and Airacobras defended. Foss and his Wildcats were flying top cover CAP and dived headlong into the attackers, right down onto the deck. As Barrett Tillman described it in Wildcat Aces of WWII:
Ignoring the peril, Foss hauled into within 100 yards of the nearest bomber and aimed at the starboard engine, which spouted flame. The G4M tried a water landing, caught a wingtip and tumbled into oblivion. Foss set his sight on another Betty when a Zero intervened. The F4F nosed up briefly and fired a beautifully aimed snapshot which sent the A6M spearing into the water. He then resumed the chase.Foss caught up with the next Betty in line and made a deflection shot into its wingroot; the bomber flamed up and then set down in the water. The massive dogfight continued, until Joe ran out of fuel and ammunition.
Between the fighters and the AA, the Americans destroyed almost all the bombers and many of the Zeros. No U.S. ships were seriously damaged. But that night another naval surface battle raged in Ironbottom Sound. Warships on both sides were sunk or damaged, including the IJN battleship Hiei which Marine bombers and torpedo planes finished off on the 13th. The major Japanese effort continued on the 14th, as they brought in a seven ship troop convoy. The American air forces cut this up as well.
Late that afternoon, Col. Bauer, tired of being stuck on the ground at Fighter Command, went up with Joe to take a look. It was his last flight, described by Joe Foss in a letter to Bauer's family. No trace of 'Indian Joe' was ever found. Back at Guadalcanal, Foss was diagnosed with malaria. Two great leaders of Cactus Fighter Command were gone, although Foss would return in six weeks.
He recuperated in New Caledonia and Australia. He met some of the high-scoring Australian aces, who viewed the Japanese as inferior opponents and were a little dismissive of Joe's 23 victories. After a brief relapse of malaria, Joe returned to Guadalcanal on New Year's Day. Improvements had been made in his absence, notably pierced steel planking (PSP) for the Fighter Strip. Foss returned to combat flying on the 15th when he shot down three more planes to bring his total to 26.
He flew his last mission ten days later when his flight and four P-38s intercepted a force of over 60 Zeros and Vals. Quickly analyzing the situation, he ordered his flight to stay high, circling in a Lufbery. This made his small flight look like a decoy to the Japanese. Soon Cactus scrambled more fighters and the Japanese planes fled. It was ironic that in one of Joe Foss' most satisfying missions, he didn't fire a shot.
A few months later, he went to Washington D.C., to be decorated and begin "the dancing bear act," for his 26 aerial victories that equaled Eddie Rickenbacker's World War One record. He gave pep talks, made factory tours, and went on the inevitable War Bond tours. In May, 1943, President Roosevelt presented him with the Congressional Medal of Honor for outstanding heroism above and beyond the call of duty.
Back to active duty, he served as a training advisor at the Santa Barbara Marine Corps air station. Then he became commander of VMF-115 in the South Pacific, where he met Charles Lindbergh.
After the war, Foss was commissioned in the South Dakota Air National Guard, which he helped organize. Joe then turned to politics and was elected to the South Dakota House of Representatives. In the Korean War, he returned to active duty as an Air Force Colonel. Then he became chief of staff of the South Dakota Air National Guard with the rank of Brigadier General. In 1954, Foss was overwhelmingly elected Governor of South Dakota and two years later was elected to a second term. After that, he was elected the first commissioner of the American Football League and served until 1966. He was president of the National Rifle Association (NRA) from 1988 - 1990. He passed away on .
Foss was featured in Tom Brokaw's best-seller The
- Thomas G. Miller, Cactus Air Force, Harper and Row, 1969
- Cactus Air Force web site
- Barrett Tillman, Wildcat Aces of World War 2, Osprey Publishing, 1995