Joseph Jacob “Smokey Joe” Foss MOH

b. 17/04/1915 Sioux Falls, South Dakota. d. 01/01/2003 Scottsdale, Arizona.

DATE OF MOH ACTION: 09/10/1942 to 19/11/1942 Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands.

Joseph J Foss MOH

Foss was born in an unelectrified farmhouse near Sioux Falls, South Dakota, the oldest son of Mary Esther (Lacey) and Frank Ole Foss. He was of Norwegian and Scottish descent. At age 12, he visited an airfield in Renner to see Charles Lindbergh on tour with his aircraft, the Spirit of St. Louis. Four years later, he and his father paid $1.50 apiece to take their first aircraft ride in a Ford Trimotor at Black Hills Airport with a famed South Dakota aviator, Clyde Ice.

In March 1933, while coming back from the fields during a storm, his father died when he drove over a downed electrical cable and was electrocuted as he stepped out of his automobile. Young Foss, not yet 18 years old, pitched in with his mother and brother Cliff to continue running the family farm.

He graduated from the University of South Dakota in 1939 with a degree in business administration. While at USD, Foss and other like-minded students convinced authorities to set up a CAA flying course at the university; he built up 100 flight hours by graduation. Foss paid his way through university by “bussing” tables. He joined the Sigma chapter of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity and excelled at sports in USD, fighting on the college boxing team, participating as a member of the track team and as a second-string guard on the football team. Foss served as a Private in the 147th Field Artillery, Sioux Falls, South Dakota National Guard from 1937 to 1940. By 1940, armed with a pilot certificate and a college degree, Foss hitchhiked to Minneapolis to enlist in the Marine Corps Reserves, in order to join the Naval Aviation Cadet program to become a Naval Aviator.

In October 1942, VMF-121 pilots and aircraft were sent to Guadalcanal as part of Operation Watchtower to relieve VMF-223, which had been fighting for control of the air over the island since mid-August. On October 9, Foss and his group were catapult launched off the USS Copahee escort carrier and flew 350 miles north to reach Guadalcanal.

From October 9 to November 19, 1942, Foss — whose skills eventually earned him the nickname the “Ace of Aces” — was credited with shooting down 23 Japanese airplanes and seriously damaging several others. He also led escort missions during that time that covered reconnaissance, bombing, photographic and surface aircraft. On January 15, 1943, Foss shot down three more enemy aircraft, bringing his total to 26 in 44 days — a record that was unsurpassed during World War II. On January 25, 1943, Foss led several Marine and Army aircrews into action against an enemy that vastly outnumbered them. Their attack was so successful that they were able to shoot down four Japanese aircraft, and the enemy’s bombers turned around without dropping a single bomb.

The Japanese gave up trying to retake the island by the end of February, and Foss’s flying skills, leadership and fighting spirit played a major factor in the island’s defense. They also earned him the Medal of Honor, which he received from President Franklin D. Roosevelt on May 18 1943. He was also one of only three Medal of Honor recipients featured on the cover of “Life” magazine.

After the war, Foss left active duty and joined the South Dakota Air National Guard. He retired as an Air Force brigadier general, but his accomplishments AFTER his days on the battlefield were just as impressive. Foss was elected as a South Dakota state representative in 1948 and served for five years in that position. He then became the state’s governor from 1955-1959. Foss also served as the commissioner of the early American Football League and was a key figure in the initiation of the Super Bowl. He was also once the National Rifle Association’s president.

Drawing on a lifelong love of hunting and the outdoors, Foss hosted ABC television’s The American Sportsman from 1964 to 1967, which took him around the world for hunting and fishing excursions. He then hosted and produced his own syndicated outdoors TV series, The Outdoorsman: Joe Foss, from 1967 to 1974. In 1972, he also began a six-year stint as Director of Public Affairs for KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. 

Foss, who had a daughter with cerebral palsy, served as President of the National Society of Crippled Children and Adults. Foss’s other charities included the Easter Seals campaign, Campus Crusade for Christ, and an Arizona program for disadvantaged youths.

In 2001, Foss and his second wife, “Didi,”founded the Joe Foss Institute, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. The institute works with veterans and educators around the United States to educate the nation’s youth on history and civics, and to inspire them to become informed and engaged citizens. Through classroom presentations, curriculum and scholarships, the Joe Foss Institute has served more than 1.35 million children, as of June 2014, nationwide. Currently, the institute offers three primary programs; Veterans Inspiring Patriotism (VIP), You are America Civics Series and scholarship contests which run year-round. Foss did many of these school visits himself, speaking to children of all ages about service, responsibility, patriotism, integrity and commitment.

Foss suffered a stroke in October 2002 when he bled from a cerebral aneurysm. He died three months later on New Year’s Day, 2003, never having regained consciousness, in Scottsdale, Arizona, where he and his wife had made their home in later years. Vice President Dick Cheney, retired Colonel Oliver North and South Dakota native and NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw were among those who attended with North delivering the eulogy.

Actor Charlton Heston gave a brief tribute to his old friend. Foss was buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Section 7A, Lot 162 on January 21, 2003.  Family, friends, military personnel and dignitaries remembered him fondly at a service in Arlington and at an earlier “Memorial Service for an American Patriot” in the old chapel at nearby Fort Myer.



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 23 Japanese aircraft 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 aircraft 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.