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Joe Foss - World War II ace, Medal of Honor winner, Governor, commissioner, TV show host, business executive - is one of South Dakota's most famous sons. His story is the focus of AMERICAN ACE: THE JOE FOSS STORY, a 1999 production of South Dakota Public Television. 

Foss, born to a South Dakota farm family in 1915, fell in love with airplanes as a boy. After his father died, this young man, still in his teens, put his dreams away to keep the family farm running. When his younger brother took over, he went on to college and learned to fly. He joined the Marines and earned his wings at age 26 but was told he was too old to be a fighter pilot. But Foss persevered, getting his chance just months after Pearl Harbor.

Foss proved himself over Guadalcanal. In just six weeks, he shot down 23 Japanese planes and added three more a couple of months later. He earned international fame and the Medal of Honor.

After the war, he returned to South Dakota, started a business, ran for office, and became Governor in 1955. His claim to fame was the first Commissioner of the American Football League. He hosted two popular sports shows for television, excelled as a business executive, and supported many charities and organizations.

AMERICAN ACE: THE JOE FOSS STORY was supported in part by a grant from the South Dakota Humanities Council, an affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

A Son of South Dakota

Joseph Jacob Foss was born on April 17, 1915, in Sioux Falls, S.D., to a farm family. Farm life was hard in the '20s and 30s when young Foss learned the value of hard work and developed his skills as an outdoorsman. At age 16, Foss, already entranced with aviation pioneer Charles Lindbergh, fell in love with airplanes after he and his father took a ride with a famed South Dakota aviator, Clyde Ice.

Two years later, Foss's father died, and the young man was stretched thin, trying to farm, hold down odd jobs and go to college. Economics won out, and the following year he dropped out of school. He farmed and did odd jobs until his younger brother could take over the farm.

He went back to school - Sioux Falls College and the University of South Dakota - and took out enough extra cash to take flying lessons. He joined the National Guard to hone his aviation skills and joined the Marines his senior year. At age 26, he earned his wings but was deemed too old to be a fighter pilot. But he was determined, eventually working his way into a carrier group. His first combat assignment was Guadalcanal.

During that long and bloody combat for Henderson Field, his aerial marksmanship with the "Cactus Air Force" earned him international fame. After being presented the Medal of Honor, Foss returned to the Pacific in 1944 to work in search and destroy missions. Malaria forced him to leave the Pacific in late 1944. In 1945, he left the military.

Foss worked at odd jobs and started an aviation business, and bought a car dealership with a friend. He helped develop the South Dakota Air National Guard and ran for State Legislature and won. He was a member of the South Dakota House from 1949-1950 and 1953-1954. His next move was to run for Governor of South Dakota. In 1955, the GOP moderate began the first of two two-year terms. The highlight of his administration was the creation of a state agency to promote business growth and economic development. 

After serving as Governor, Foss spent a short time working for Raven Industries before becoming the first Commissioner of the upstart American Football League. He helped build the league to respectability, leaving in 1966, just a few months before the historic agreement that led to the merger of AFL and NFL and the creation of the Super Bowl.

His next adventure, as host for the ABC network television program "The American Sportsman," took him worldwide for hunting and fishing excursions. He started his own weekly syndicated series three years later: "The Outdoorsman: Joe Foss."

In 1972, he began a six-year stint as Director of Public Affairs for KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. From 1988 to 1990, Foss was in the spotlight again as president of the National Rifle Association (NRA).

1/1/2003 - Foss died in Scottsdale, Arizona, at 87.


The Guadalcanal Campaign was the United States' major offensive engagement in the Pacific War.

On Dec. 7, 1941, a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor left the U.S. Navy forces in the Pacific in disarray. Over the next few months, U.S. forces reacted to Japanese aggression in the Pacific. By June 1942, the Japanese troops established their third major base in the Solomon Islands - at Guadalcanal. The Allies feared the airfield at Guadalcanal would allow the Japanese to isolate Australia.

On Aug. 7, U.S. Marines captured the airbase on Guadalcanal, naming it Henderson Field and beginning a desperate battle to defend the base from the Japanese forces that fled into the jungle and the determined air attacks. Once the runway was completed, the "Cactus Air Force" took to the skies from Henderson Field to provide air cover for the island. Capt. Joe Foss, whose unit took over the fight on Oct. 9, became the second one to earn the Medal of Honor.

By February 1943, the Japanese had fully retreated from the area.

Foss flew into the annals of history in a Grumman F4F Wildcat fight. These single-engine workhorses of the early Pacific air war had a range of about 250 miles and a top speed of around 315 mph.

The Wildcats contributed heavily to the Allied victory at Guadalcanal. The Japanese lost approximately 650 aircraft and many airmen between August and November 1942 - most to F4Fs.

The pilots got the drop on the more-maneuverable Japanese Zeroes by flying the rugged Wildcat with more skill and at higher speeds. The F4F pilots used their .50-caliber wing guns to decimate the Japanese.

By 1943, the Wildcat was being replaced by more powerful fighters, notably the F6F Hellcat, but continued to play an important support role in escort duties and against U-boats in the Atlantic.

The Medal of Honor

The Medal of Honor is the highest award for valor in action against an enemy force that can be bestowed upon an individual serving in the Armed Services of the United States. Generally presented to its recipient by the President of the United States of America in the name of Congress, it is often called the Congressional Medal of Honor.


The origin of this decoration goes back to the Civil War. Before that time, medals and decorations were considered to be too similar to the titles and awards given in England, and fighting for one’s country was considered a duty. It soon became clear that there were those who were believed to have gone "above and beyond" this call, and on Dec. 21, 1861, the chairman of the Senate Naval Committee, Senator James W. Grimes, introduced a bill to promote the efficiency of the Navy. Navy Secretary Gideon Wells was looking for a way to inspire sailors to improve their work. This bill, approved by President Abraham Lincoln, provided for the preparation of 200 Medals of Honor "to be awarded upon such petty officers, seamen, landsmen, and Marines as shall most distinguish themselves by their gallantry in action and other seamen-like qualities during the present war." Thus, the Medal of Honor was created.


The Navy medal was the first to be struck, followed quickly by the Army version of this award. There are three different types of Medals of Honor today: the original simple star shape established in 1861 which the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard have retained; a wreath version designed in 1904 for the Army; and an altered wreath version for the Air Force, designed in 1963 and adopted in 1965.

(Courtesy Congressional Medal of Honor Society)

American Ace Activities

One woman, Dr. Mary Walker, has received the Medal of Honor. Dr. Walker received the Medal while assigned as an Assistant Surgeon during the Civil War. Her Medal was rescinded in 1916 when the Army purged its files to cut down on what it considered "unwarranted" issues. It was re-instated in 1976.

1. Do some research on Dr. Mary Walker. Then, write a news article as if you were a reporter during the Civil War.

2. Write a few paragraphs stating your opinions about why more women haven’t received the Medal of Honor. As much as possible, back up your opinions with facts.

3. Write a research paper on another winner of the Medal of Honor. 


Many small islands and far-off places in the South Pacific are part of our history. What was significant about:

  • Wake Island?
  • Midway?
  • The Coral Sea?
  • Iwo Jima?
  • Okinawa?

Why was the capture of Guadalcanal important to the U.S. war effort?


How are these words defined when used in relationship with war? Are there other meanings?

  • Aggression
  • Engagement
  • Offensive
  • Strategic
  • Theater

Make a Map

Make a map showing the Pacific Theater of War and the sites of famous battles.


Because of his many accomplishments - often in challenging situations - Joe Foss is considered a role model for young people.

1. Should Joe Foss be considered a role model for youth today? Why or why not?

2. What characteristics, traits, and personal strengths make Joe Foss a role model?

3. What other role models do young people emulate today? How is Joe Foss similar or different from these other role models?


1. Joe Foss was inspired by pioneer aviator Clyde Ice. What were this pilot’s accomplishments?

2. What were Joe Foss’ major accomplishments as Governor?

Local Heroes Home

Landscapes of South Dakota: Joe Foss

Foss Fast Facts

  • During World War II, 1,283 American pilots became aces, with five or more enemy aircraft destroyed. Foss, with 26 kills, is in the top 10 of this distinguished list.
  • Foss was one of 82 Marines who earned the Medal of Honor during WW II.
  • Foss was President of the National Rifle Association from 1988-to 1990.
  • Foss became South Dakota’s youngest-ever governor at age 39.
  • Foss was the host of two popular sportsmen’s shows: "The American Sportsman" and "The Outdoorsman: Joe Foss."
  • Foss, who had a daughter with cerebral palsy and a son who had polio, helped organize the Crippled Children’s School and Hospital in Sioux Falls (now The Children’s Care Society); was President of the South Dakota Society of Crippled Children and Adults; and President of the National Society of Crippled Children and Adults from 1956 to 1961.
  • Foss was the first Commissioner of the American Football League, leading the upstart organization to the respectability that led to the NFL/AFL merger and the creation of the Superbowl.
  • Foss is a retired Brigadier General and Chief of Staff for the South Dakota Air National Guard.
  • Foss earned a bachelor of science degree from the University of South Dakota in 1940. He has honorary degrees from five South Dakota schools - Augustana College, Black Hills State University, Northern State University, the University of Sioux Falls, and Yankton College.

Medal of Honor Citation

For outstanding heroism and courage above and beyond the call of duty as Executive Officer of a Marine Fighting Squadron, at Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands. Engaging in almost daily combat with the enemy from October 9 to November 19, 1942, Captain Foss personally shot down twenty-three Japanese planes and damaged others so severely that their destruction was extremely probable. In addition, during this period, he successfully led a large number of escort missions, skillfully covering reconnaissance, bombing, and photographic planes as well as surface craft. On January 15, 1943, he added three more enemy planes to his already brilliant successes for a record of aerial combat achievement unsurpassed in this war. Boldly searching out an approaching enemy force on January 25, Captain Foss led his eight F4F Marine Planes and four Army P-38s into action and, undaunted by tremendously superior numbers, intercepted and struck with such force that four Japanese fighters were shot down and the bombers were turned back without releasing a single bomb. His remarkable flying skill, inspiring leadership, and indomitable fighting spirit were distinctive factors in the defense of strategic American positions on Guadalcanal.

Franklin D. Roosevelt

President of the United States

Books and Links

Joe Foss: Flying Marine, the Story of His Flying Circus - As Told To Walter Simmons (1983)
Foss tells the story of his heroic combat over Guadalcanal.

A Proud American: The Autobiography of Joe Foss
- By Joe Foss and Donna Wild Foss (1992) Foss tells his own story.

Top Guns
- By Matthew Brennan and Joe Foss; edited by Paul McCarthy (1991)
Many of America’s top aces, from World War I to Vietnam, tell their personal stories.


Joseph Foss Biography on

Background on the F4F Wildcat.

The Congressional Medal of Honor Society with information on the medal, awardees, and more.