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Sixty Years Ago ...
Semper Fi - Joe Foss
Marine Ace
Medal of Honor Recipient
by Jennifer King and Timothy Rollins

 

January 6, 2003

First of Two Parts

Reflections on World War II

TAP Columnist Jennifer King TAP Columnist Timothy RollinsA Special Note to Our Readers: As more and more of our heroes from World War II are dying - at the rate of more than 1,000 per day, we have the special opportunity to pay tribute to one who stood head and shoulders above his peers. Marine Ace (then-Captain) Joe Foss died January 1, 2003 - New Year's Day at age 87. We take this opportunity to pay tribute to this and all other American heroes who gave so selflessly of themselves in America's darkest hour. - Jennifer and Tim

This New Year’s Day, America lost yet another one of her remarkable heroes from “The Greatest Generation”, Medal of Honor recipient and Marine Ace Joe Foss.

On 9 October 1942, Captain Joe Foss was catapulted off the escort carrier Copahee and straight into the hell that was Guadalcanal. The surviving Marines, Foss later remembered, greeted them ecstatically. They had been in a bitter battle with the Japanese since August over who would prevail on the island. Unbeknownst to Foss, the Japanese were just then embarking on a major offensive, geared at ousting the Americans once and for all. Early in October, coast watchers had noted an increase in Japanese shipping in the Shortlands. Also, two Japanese float planes had taken to the annoying habit of circling Henderson field every night, dropping bombs and flares. The irritating “chug chug” noise of the planes prompted the Marines to nickname them “Louie the Louse” and “Washing Machine Charlie”.

The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, March 3, 1863, has awarded in the name of The Congress the Medal of Honor to

CAPTAIN
JOSEPH JACOB FOSS
UNITED STATES MARINE CORPS RESERVE

Medal of Honor - NavyRank and organization: Captain, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, Marine Fighting Squadron 121, 1st Marine Aircraft Wing. Place and date: Over Guadalcanal, 9 October to 19 November 1942, 15 and 23 January 1943. Entered service at: South Dakota. Born: 17 April 1915, Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

CITATION:

For outstanding heroism and courage above and beyond the call of duty as Executive Officer of Marine Fighting Squadron 121, 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, at Guadalcanal. Engaging in almost daily combat with the enemy from 9 October to 19 November 1942, Captain Foss personally shot down 23 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 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. Boldly searching out an approaching enemy force on 25 January, Captain Foss led his 8 F-4F Marine planes and 4 Army P-38's into action and, undaunted by tremendously superior numbers, intercepted and struck with such force that 4 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.

Former Marine Captain and South Dakota Governor Joe FossCaptain Foss (right on LIFE Magazine 7 June 1943) arrived at Guadalcanal with a considerable amount of flying prowess. As a flight instructor at Pensacola, he had lobbied intensively with the Aircraft Carrier Training Group - trying to get a chance to fly the new F4F Wildcat. Despite being told that he - at age 27 - was “too damn old”, Foss prevailed and had logged 150 flight hours by the end of July. Foss was promoted, and made Executive Officer of VMF-121, which would normally involve leading flights of two four-plane divisions into battle. On the ‘Canal, it was a question whether the intrepid and inventive Cactus Air Force could manage to bubblegum enough planes together for this proper formation.

Foss quickly learned what life on the ‘Canal was like. Henderson Field was pockmarked with bomb craters, more, he later remembered, like “a cow pasture hacked out of the jungle” than a landing strip. The Japanese were newly determined to regain control of the island and its air space. The American presence was severely impeding Japanese ambitions towards Australia and her unchecked superiority in the southern sea lanes. For the Americans, Guadalcanal was a major linchpin in the attempt to finally halt the Japanese juggernaut. From Guadalcanal, someday, would come the push to Rabaul and eventual victory. Since the landings on 7 August, the Japanese - under Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa - had successfully resupplied their troops running nightly convoys (The Tokyo Express) down the “Slot”, the narrow channel of water separating the islands of the Solomons chain.

Admiral Mikawa’s plan called for replenishing his garrisons every night. Most nights, the Tokyo Express ran uninterrupted while the Marines at Henderson were pinned down by naval and aerial bombardment. Japanese destroyers had discharged, on average, 150 men plus material per night. On several occasions, up to 900 troops had been dropped behind the lines. However, on 8 October, the Marines had successfully snarled the Express, to the point where a frustrated Admiral Mikawa appealed to Vice Admiral Kusaka, 11th Air Fleet Commander at Rabaul, for help. Admiral Kusaka agreed to neutralize Henderson Field on 11 October, so the Express could run unmolested.

Major General Millard F. Harmon, an Army commander, was in charge of the Army contingent present on Guadalcanal. Harmon, alarmed at a recent naval plan for an invasion of the island of Ndeni, penned an urgent letter to Navy Admiral Robert L. Ghormley. Harmon stressed his deep personal conviction that Guadalcanal could well be retaken by the Japanese, and that if the island was lost “our effort in the Santa Cruz will be a total waste - and loss”. Ghormley agreed to send an infantry division immediately - the 164th Infantry Regiment of the Americal Division was chosen. The division was given naval protection by three covering forces. Rear Admiral Norman Scott’s cruiser group would provide protection for the soldiers arriving aboard transports Zeilen and McCauley.

The two forces - Japanese and American - would soon meet in what became known as the Battle of Cape Esperance. Captain Joe Foss would bag the first of his 26 downed Zeros there. ***

© 2003 Jennifer King and Timothy Rollins

EDITOR'S NOTE: After World War II, Joe returned to active dutry for the Korean War at the rank of Colonel, following whcih he became Chief of Staff for the South Dakota Air National Guard, retiring at the rank of Brigadier General. After serving two terms as the Republican Governor of his native South Dakota, he went on to accomplish much in private life. He was the first commissioner of the American Football League until 1966, the host of not one, but TWO National television shows and President of the National Rifle Association from 1988 until 1990. Foss was featured in Tom Brokaw's best-seller The Greatest Generation, and like Foss, Brokaw was a fellow South Dakotan.

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