Foss, Joseph Jacob (“Joe”)

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Foss, Joseph Jacob (“Joe”)

(b. 17 April 1915 near Sioux Falls, South Dakota; d. 1 January 2003 in Scottsdale, Arizona), World War II hero, governor of South Dakota, commissioner of the American Football League (AFL), president of the National Rifle Association (NRA), and host of two outdoors television shows.

Foss was the eldest of three children born on a farm east of Sioux Falls to Mary (Lacey) Foss, a Scots-Irish home-maker, and Olouse (“Frank” or “Foxy”) Foss, a Norwegian farmer who also was a railroad engineer and auto dealer. From an early age Foss showed the adventuresome spirit that would mark his entire life. For solitude he would climb his family’s windmill. Then he started charging more timid neighbors fifty cents to climb their windmills to clean and grease them.

In first grade Foss led his friends in a game of follow the leader in which they jumped from a bridge to a sandbar below. Foss encouraged them by saying, “It’ll be just like flying.” Foss related, “It was my first lesson in aerodynamics and gravity. I banged my head on my knee and broke my collarbone. But I was hooked on flight.” As a child Foss would stop whatever he was doing to watch the planes of the newly instituted Air Mail Service fly over the farm toward Minneapolis. When Colonel Charles A. Lindbergh barnstormed Sioux Falls as America’s hero after his solo transatlantic flight, any doubts that Foss may have had about his future were erased.

Like many youngsters growing up on farms during the Depression, Foss was acquainted with firearms at an early age. He had a Daisy BB gun at the age of six and a Remington .22 rifle at seven. The groundwork was laid for his later experience as an outdoorsman. The Foss family fortunes took a sharp turn for the worse in 1933. Frank Foss was killed when his car came in contact with a downed high-voltage electrical wire. Foss assumed extra household duties but still found time for other activities. He boxed as a middleweight (160 pounds) in a Golden Gloves tournament, played saxophone in dance bands, and worked odd jobs. Times were hard, but by 1937 Foss had saved $64 to take flying lessons in a Taylorcraft trainer at the local airport. From that time on Joe Foss flew at every opportunity.

After graduation from Sioux Falls High School in 1936, Foss enrolled at Augustana College in Sioux Falls. He did not distinguish himself academically and found himself at Sioux Falls College the next year. Improving in the classroom, Foss in 1938 matriculated at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, where a government flying course was offered. As an adjunct Foss enlisted in the South Dakota Army National Guard in 1939. He received his BS in business administration in the spring of 1940.

Foss resigned from the National Guard and enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps several months before the 7 December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. Because of his aviation experience, Foss quickly became a flight instructor at Pensacola, Florida, and then in San Diego, but he was impatient to take part in actual combat. Being an aerial photographer was not for the hell-for-leather Foss. Before he shipped out for the South Pacific, Foss and his college sweetheart, June Shakstad, a registered nurse also in the military, were married on 9 August 1942.

Foss arrived on Guadalcanal late in the summer of 1942 and immediately became part of the Cactus Air Force, the aviators who defended Henderson Field, the airstrip that enabled Foss and his Marine Corps mates to battle the Japanese planes called Zeros. On 16 October 1942 Foss downed his first Zero. Using skill, cunning, guile, and guts, Foss brought down an incredible twenty-six planes. No American fighter pilot had ever shot down more enemy planes. Foss’s plane was shot down, and after swimming twelve hours in the Pacific and being rescued by natives, Foss was back in the air two days later. Foss became a living legend. President George H. W. Bush, who also had flown in the South Pacific, later said, “We all knew of Joe Foss. He was a hero to every Pacific World War II Navy and Marine Corps pilot.” Already presented with the Distinguished Flying Cross, Foss was sent home to receive his country’s highest military honor, the Congressional Medal of Honor. He was also featured on the cover of Life and was the main attraction at war bond rallies. Foss was promoted to major and returned to the war, but to Australia, where he trained British Spitfire pilots. After the war Foss resigned his Marine Corps commission and became a lieutenant colonel in the South Dakota Air National Guard. He attained the rank of brigadier general and was activated in 1951 during the Korean War.

Foss entered politics after military service. He was a state legislator and then was elected and reelected governor of South Dakota, serving from 1955 to 1959. (Governors of South Dakota served two-year terms until 1974.) Foss often thought of what his father had told him about politics, “Don’t ever get involved, son. You’ll just end up with an old car and a shiny blue serge suit.”

Foss’s marriage suffered as a result of his attention to his work. Adding to the challenges at home was the fact that one of the couple’s three children had cerebral palsy and another polio. Foss was active in establishing a children’s hospital in Sioux Falls and from 1956 to 1961 served as the president of the National Society of Crippled Children and Adults. The Fosses separated in 1959 and divorced in the 1960s.

In 1959, as the fledgling AFL, the rival of the established National Football League, was being organized, Foss was named commissioner. Although others take credit, Foss first thought in terms of a Super Bowl. He said, “From the very first day, I envisioned a two-league system based on the model of major league baseball, where we would stick strictly to ourselves during the regular season and then meet head on for the world championship.” With the AFL on firm ground, Foss, by mutual agreement, retired as commissioner. His next venture was outdoors television programs. He was the host for the first two years of The American Sportsman (1965–1984) and then of The Outdoorsman: Joe Foss (1966–1974). Foss was president of the NRA from 1988 to 1990.

In 1967 Foss married Donna (“Didi”) Wild Hall, whom he had met while separated from his first wife. From 1972 to 1978 Foss was a public affairs officer for KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. He also served as a member of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and the White House Conference on Handicapped Individuals. He chaired Here’s Life, World after becoming a devout Christian.

Foss rose from a hardscrabble Great Depression youth to become a symbol of rugged outdoors individualism. He was known by several trademarks. He was seldom without a cigar, lighted or unlighted, in his mouth. He always wore a white Stetson cowboy hat, Justin cowboy boots, and except on the most formal occasions, a bolo or string tie. For all of the honors, awards, and accolades that Foss received, perhaps G. Gordon Liddy summed him up best, “What John Wayne was to film, Joe Foss was in real life.”

Foss experienced an apparent ruptured aneurysm on a trip to Beaverton, Michigan, in October 2002. He was moved to Scottsdale, his residence since 1967, where he died on 1 January 2003. After a memorial service at the Scottsdale Bible Church on 3 January 2003, Foss was buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery on 21 January 2003.

Foss’s life is detailed in Joe Foss with Donna Wild Foss, A Proud American: The Autobiography of Joe Foss (1992). Foss’s military career is discussed in Eric M. Bergerud, Fire in the Sky (2000); and Jerome Klinkowitz, Pacific Skies: American Flyers in World War II (2004). Foss’s role in the AFL is discussed in Jack Horrigan and Mike Rathet, The Other League: The Fabulous Story of the American Football League (1970). Obituaries are in the New York Times and Sioux Falls Argus Leader (both 2 Jan. 2003).

Jim Campbell