The new year began sadly when Joe Foss died on Jan. 1. If you don’t know Foss, you should. He was the top Marine Corps fighter pilot of World War II with 26 kills, and he received the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest decoration for valor, the Distinguished Flying Cross and other battle ribbons. An interesting footnote to his illustrious career is that Foss was an old man, as fighter pilots go, when he became the scourge of South Pacific skies. ‘Too Ancient’ A Norwegian-Scot born in 1915, Foss grew up on a farm in South Dakota. His boyhood hero was Charles Lindbergh, so he learned to fly. After he finished college with a business degree, he joined the Marine Corps. Foss was a flight instructor at Pensacola, Fla., when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. He requested combat duty, one biography says, but they said he was too long in the tooth. “You’re too ancient, Joe,” they warned him. “You’re 27 years old.” Undaunted, Foss clocked more than one hundred hours of flight time in the F-4F Wildcat in less than a month, and landed an assignment: Guadalcanal. Within nine days, beginning Oct. 9, 1942, Foss was an ace. Before the end of November, he had downed 23 Japanese planes, and in mid-January, 1943, he flamed three more. His unit, known as “Joe’s Flying Circus,” shot down 72 planes in two months. President Roosevelt pinned a Medal of Honor on Foss in May 1943, with the following citation: “Engaging in almost daily combat with the enemy from 9 October to 19 November 1942, Capt. Foss personally shot down 23 Japanese planes and damaged others so severely that their destruction was extremely probable . . . . On 15 January 1943, he added 3 more enemy planes to his already brilliant successes for a record of aerial combat achievement unsurpassed in this war . . . . His remarkable flying skill, inspiring leadership, and indomitable fighting spirit were distinctive factors in the defense of strategic American positions on Guadalcanal.” Yet Foss was “too ancient to fly.” Man Of The Right After the war, Foss made an equally impressive civilian record. He was South Dakota’s governor and the head of the state’s Air National Guard. He was first commissioner of the old American Football League and a president of the National Rifle Association. He was an outspoken conservative. One obituary recorded these words: “The thing I haven’t figured out yet is why so any of the First Amendment people try to destroy” [the Second Amendment]. Because one day they’ll need our help to try and save the First Amendment, the way some of these people think.” Like many of us, Foss, a polar bear hunter, was bemused by the liberal mind. One Indignity Thanks to that mind, this national hero suffered an outrageous indignity a few months after Arab terrorists struck on Sept. 11, 2001. Because we search everyone boarding planes, including old ladies and men, instead of profiling for hijackers, an airport dragnet ensnared Foss. The “nasty” inept gumshoes tried to confiscate his Medal of Honor. “I couldn’t seem to make [them] understand,” he explained on CNN. Anyhow, men such as Foss aren’t just born. They are forged. They embody an ineffable something the rest of us don’t. They know that respect and admiration are earned, that they are privileges, not rights. Sixty years ago, Foss won it in spades at Guadalcanal.
Decorated Marine Veteran Joe Foss died January 1. Cort Kirkwood reflects on his legacy.
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