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Medal of Honor Monday: Marine Corps Capt. Joseph Foss

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Medal of Honor Monday graphic
Medal of Honor Monday
Medal of Honor Monday graphic
Photo By: DOD Graphic by Regina Ali
VIRIN: 171212-O-JZ422-826

Shooting down any enemy aircraft during World War II was a win. But shooting down a record 26? That’s the stuff of legend, and Marine Corps Capt. Joseph Jacob Foss was certainly that.

Foss was born in 1915 and grew up in Sioux City, South Dakota, where he became fascinated with aviation after watching Charles Lindbergh at a local airshow. He eventually went on to college, where he earned a degree and a pilot’s certificate. In 1940, he enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve so he could join the Naval Aviation Cadet program. When he finished, he was officially a commissioned Marine pilot.

Portrait of Marine Corps Capt. Joseph Foss
Marine Corps Capt. Joseph Foss
Marine Corps Capt. Joseph Foss during World War II.
Photo By: Marine Corps Photo
VIRIN: 451004-O-ZZ999-002

When the U.S. joined World War II, Foss took to the air. He was the executive officer of Marine Fighting Squadron 121 of the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, which became a force to be reckoned with during the Battle of Guadalcanal in the Pacific. Guadalcanal was the first major offensive by Allied forces against the Japanese, who had occupied the island up until August 1942, when Allied troops overwhelmed and ousted them.

The Japanese tried several times to retake the island via land, air and sea. Here’s how Foss and his squadron hit back:

  • From Oct. 9 to Nov 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 Jan. 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 Jan. 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.

World War II aircrew stands in front of an airplane.
Marine Fighting Squadron 121
Marine Corps Capt. Joseph Foss, fourth from left, stands with members of Marine Fighting Squadron 121 on an airfield.
Photo By: Courtesy
VIRIN: 421004-O-ZZ999-001

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 in May 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.

“Life” magazine cover featuring Joseph Foss in uniform.
Life Cover
Marine Corps Capt. Joseph Foss graces the June 7, 1943, cover of “Life” magazine. He was one of three Medal of Honor recipients who received that honor.
Photo By: Courtesy
VIRIN: 430111-O-ZZ999-004

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.

That’s a pretty impressive life!

Foss died in 2003 at the age of 87. He was buried with honors in Arlington National Cemetery.

This article is part of a weekly series called "Medal of Honor Monday," in which we highlight one of the more than 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military's highest medal for valor.

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