Joseph Jacob Foss
Joseph Jacob “Joe” Foss was born in a farm house on April 17, 1915, outside Sioux Falls, South Dakota. At the age of twelve, he visited a local airfield to see Charles Lindbergh on tour with the Spirit of St. Louis. Four years later, he and his father paid to take their first airplane ride. Two years later, in 1933, his father died and young Joe took over running the family farm. Within another two years, dust storms of the Depression had destroyed the crops and the stock.
By 1940, Foss had earned a degree from the University of South Dakota and a pilot’s certificate. He enlisted in the Marine Reserves to join the Naval Aviation Cadet program. Upon completion, Foss was designated a naval aviator and commission as a second lieutenant.
By October 1942, he was executive officer of VMF-121 on Guadalcanal. In a short period of time, “engaging in almost daily combat with the enemy from 9 October to 19 November 1942, Capt. Foss personally shot down twenty-three Japanese planes and damaged others.” He would become the first Marine to become an “Ace in a Day.” A few days later, he would have twenty-six aerial victories equaling Eddie Rickenbacker’s World War I record. In May 1943, President Roosevelt personally presented Foss with the Congressional Medal of Honor for his outstanding heroism, courage, and leadership. The next month, Captain Foss’ image graced the cover of magazine, where he was identified as “America’s No. 1 Ace.”
After the war, Foss capitalized on his name recognition by starting a charter flying service and flight instruction school. He helped organize the South Dakota Air National Guard, commanded the Guard’s 175th Fighter Interceptor Squadron as a lieutenant colonel, and rose to the rank of brigadier general.
In 1948, he was elected to the South Dakota Legislature as a Republican. During the Korean War, Colonel Foss was called to active duty with the U.S. Air Force and served as a Director of Operations and Training for the Central Air Defense Command. In 1954, he was elected as the governor of South Dakota, the youngest governor in the history of the state, and two years later was elected to a second term. After serving two two-year terms, he ran for Congress against George McGovern, the future Democratic presidential nominee, and was defeated.
Foss followed his political career by becoming the first commissioner of the American Football League in 1960, a position he held for six years. During that time, he signed a multi-year, multi-million dollar television contract with ABC and advocated an association with the National Football League under a single commissioner while hoping to keep the leagues’ identities separate. He resigned as AFL commissioner on his fifty-first birthday. Less than two months later, the League announced plans to merge with the NFL in 1970.
Joseph Foss became the first host of “The American Sportsman” from 1964 to 1967, and his own syndicated television show, “Joe Foss: Outdoorsman,” from 1967 to 1974.
In the early 1980s, Foss retired to Arizona and soon accepted the position of president of the National Rifle Association (NRA) in 1988, which he held until 1990.
Today, his legacy lives on through the Joe Foss Institute founded by him and his wife, Didi Foss. The Joe Foss Institute is dedicated to promoting patriotism, public service, integrity, and an appreciation for America’s freedoms. Its goal is to instill these values by making presentations to one-million young people each year. Veteran volunteers present to K-12 schools and a variety of youth groups a no-cost, thirty- to fifty-minute presentation. In 2008, the “Veteran’s Inspiring Patriotism” program was presented in thirty-eight states. In addition, three students were awarded $5,000 scholarships for submitting winning essays describing what patriotism means to them.
Joseph Jacob Foss’ SAR National number is 51396. He was a member of the South Dakota Society, number 172. His SAR patriot ancestor is Rufus Cady, Sergeant, Massachusetts Troops. Foss signed his SAR application on April 19, 1943. Brigadier General Foss died on New Year’s Day, 2003, at the age of eighty-seven in Scottsdale, Arizona, and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery on January 21, 2003.