By Glenn Sapir
Joe Foss, 87, retired U.S. Marine major, was hospitalized recently with an apparent aneurism. Listed in critical condition, this American hero is not looking into the eyes of death for the first time.
Once asked by a friend whom the most impressive person I’d met in my outdoor writing career had been, with little hesitation I was able to answer, “Joe Foss.” His resume is impressive. He was an accomplished ace of World War II, a Congressional Medal of Honor winner, state legislator, then governor, first commissioner of the American Football League, host of “The American Sportsman” and “The Outdoorsman: Joe Foss” television series, president of the National Rifle Association and public affairs director for KLM Airlines.
Although the nation’s youngest generation may not even recognize Foss’ name, all Americans should take pride in his achievements. Sportsmen especially will appreciate his contributions.
Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese launched a sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, set the stage for Foss to achieve the many honors that ensued. With the recent observance of the 61st anniversary of the “Day of Infamy,” while Foss remains in a coma, his accomplishments are worthy of review.
Foss grew up on a farm in Sioux Falls, S.D., and like most rural boys of the 1920s and ’30s, he hunted and fished as often as he could, and he regularly tended his trap line. He would pheasant hunt after school for recreation and to help feed his family. It was the shooting skills learned in his youth that helped prepare him for his achievements when World War II broke out.
“Marksmanship is important in war, and good shooting isn’t learned overnight,” Foss wrote in his autobiography, Joe Foss, Flying Marine. “Nearly all of our successful pilots have been boys who loved hunting as far back as they can remember.”
Foss worked his way through college, and even earned $65 to pay for private flying lessons then. He completed a civilian pilot program in his senior year, then enlisted as an aviation cadet in the Marines after he graduated in 1940.
Though he had been assigned other duties, when the Japanese invasion occurred, Foss insisted on fighter-pilot duty. In the summer of 1942 he was sent to the South Pacific. On October 13 and 14, his first two days of combat, Foss downed two Japanese fighter planes. On October 18, he shot down three more Japanese fighter planes, and then coming upon American planes under attack, he flew among a convoy of enemy bombers and downed one of them.
By October 25 he was completing an amazing streak of successes by downing five more enemy planes, marking a total of 14 enemy planes destroyed in 13 days.
On November 7, Foss’s plane was shot down, and he was forced to make a crash landing in shark-infested waters. He survived to return to combat. In fact, on November 12, during the bloody battle for Guadalcanal, Foss, getting as close as 100 yards to one of his targets, shot down an enemy Zero and two bombers.
Malaria was his next serious enemy, but he overcame that to return to combat on January 15, when he shot down three more planes. That brought the number of enemy aircraft he destroyed in a memorable 63 days to 26, equaling famed World War I pilot Eddie Rickenbacker’s total.
Soon thereafter he returned to the U.S. to go on tour, boost morale at home, sell War Bonds and fully recover from malaria. In May 1943, President Roosevelt presented Foss with the Congressional Medal of Honor.
The character he showed in the war and the fame he earned in combat catapulted him into the political, media and public relations arenas. As president of the NRA, he fought for gun owners’ and hunters’ rights. As host of national sportsmen’s television shows, he presented and represented the best of the outdoor sports.
In 1973 an invitation to the publisher of Field & Stream magazine filtered its way down to a young editor at that publication. It was a ticket to the Joe Foss Pheasant Hunt, a weekend affair of hunting, dining and camaraderie in South Dakota. It put me in a hunting group with Foss and one of his wartime colleagues, General Jimmy Doolittle, whose accomplishments included leading the successful bombing of Tokyo.
Foss made sure that at least once a year he would return to his native farmlands to hunt pheasants and share times afield with friends old and new. The event reminded him of days long ago and the bounty with which hunting rewarded him. Hunting is part of the fabric of this hero’s composition, and his contributions have become an important part of America’s heritage.
Glenn Sapir, from Putnam Valley, N.Y., is an OWAA past president and life member.