So long, Smokey Joe

Gen. Joe Foss
Artistic rendition of General Joe Foss fighting the Japanese invaders.

In memoriam, Gen. Joe Foss

It was one of those creepy moments of synchronicity that didn’t really mean anything but felt like it should. I had just finished flying Joe Foss’s mission of October 23, 1942 in Combat Flight Simulator 2. Having gotten my turn-and-burn fix, I closed the game and checked the news wire. General Joe Foss had died. Foss had been one of the primary consultants in the development of the game and he had designed that particular mission, and while computer games are just computer games, playing the mission gives you an idea of the difficulty and lop-sided odds these guys faced.

Gen. Foss was a true American hero. He was the first Marine aviator to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor with 26 kills over Guadalcanal in those dark early days of the war in the Pacific. He had a particular fondness for cigars, hence the nickname, “Smokey Joe.” Unlike many war heroes who have trouble adjusting to peacetime, Gen. Foss didn’t miss a beat. Stateside, he formed his own flying service, established a Packard dealership, organized the South Dakota Air National Guard, was elected to Congress and then governor of South Dakota, and became president of the fledgling American Football League and the NRA. The last time Gen. Foss was in the news was last year when he was prevented from getting on an airplane with his Congressional Medal of Honor because some dimwitted security person at an airport decided that the sharp edges of the medal might be used as a weapon by the 86-year-old man to hijack the airplane. That, to me, was one of the most bitter ironies of the post-911 hysteria.

Upon learning of Gen. Foss’s death, South Dakota Gov. Bill Janklow said that the aviator “spurred an entire nation into a resolve that we would win the Second World War and make the world a safer place.” He added, “All the things that he accomplished pale in comparison to the fact that back in the deep, dark days of the early 1940s, when America needed a hero, Joe Foss was there.”

The Battle for Guadalcanal was a legend maker like no other in the Pacific theater. It was as pivotal as Midway and far more desperate. By all rights, the American forces should have been crushed, but guys like Joe Foss just weren’t going to let that happen, and when we’re singing the praises of the celebrity warriors like Foss, Edson, Basilone and Boyington, we need to remember that there were many more who strapped themselves into Wildcats or shouldered a Garand and gave as much or more but didn’t get the recognition lavished upon the stars. They were the vertebrae in America’s backbone, and we owe them a tremendous debt whether or not our politically correct history books choose to remember them.

I think I’ll find an empty runway someplace and smoke a good cigar.

Gen. Joe Foss Wildcat

CMH Citation


Rank 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 1 915, Sioux Falls, S. Dak.


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, Capt. 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, Capt. 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.

Gen. Joe Foss Wildcat

Quotes and Anecdotes

“I say all guns are good guns. There are no bad guns. I say the whole nation should be armed. Period.” – Joe Foss

Gen. Joe Foss Wildcat

“A gun is a piece of art. That’s what Hitler did, take the guns away. Mao Tse Tung said, ‘He who has the guns has control.’ I don’t want to be directed by any group of clowns about what to do with my gun. They won’t get mine, that’s for sure.” – Joe Foss

Gen. Joe Foss Wildcat

“I never worry about the challenges,” he said. “When you come out of combat and you’ve dealt with life and death, and you’ve seen your fellow man deader than a doornail, then all the little things … seem like a scratch on the wall.” – Joe Foss

Gen. Joe Foss Wildcat

Foss was asked how, given that many more gun owners kill themselves or their relatives than ever shoot an intruder, he could in good conscience advise people to own guns. Here, in full, is what he said: “It’s very easy to do that in good conscience, because we’ve got a great training program. When you buy the gun, don’t just run home and hide it in the drawer loaded. Get the instruction on how to use it. And, of course, if you have children around, you never have the ammunition and the gun together unless you know that you’re going to use it. See, we don’t police our homes any more as a family unit. We run off like goofy geese and let the silly box be the baby sitter. That’s where the kids really go wild — when you look at that thing and see the blow ’em up and shoot ’em up, even for breakfast. Yesterday morning I was watching TV, and they had a show on there. It was pow! pow! pow! for breakfast! So no matter when the kid looks at it, he gets the general idea you oughta shoot somebody. It’s time in our great country that some of the parents take the responsibility of taking care of their kids.”

Gen. Joe Foss Wildcat

A questioner mentioned the “well regulated militia” clause of the Second Amendment, and asked if it did not imply that “the right of the people to keep and bear arms” comes with some responsibility to serve the country.

Foss replied, “No, sir, you’re dead wrong on that baby! There’s one thing about it, when it comes to the founding fathers of the country: if you read that about the militia, the way it was spelled out in the definition of it at the time it was put there, the Second Amendment was sold as everyone could have firearms or guns in their home, because they’d just gone through a deal with their good friends across the pond that wanted to disarm everyone. So they were never going to get caught in that situation again. And today people try to come along and say ‘If you belong to the National Guard, why then fine and dandy.’ But everyone cannot belong to the National Guard.”

Gen. Joe Foss Wildcat

“I talked to Joe Foss at some length at the last meeting of the NRA board, and, as always, I learned various fascinating things. For instance, I had not known that Joe was a “point shooter” who removed the sight from his airplane after a friend of his had his face mashed in by the sight on a forced landing. Joe thereafter simply pointed his airplane reflexively and thus became the all-time hero of unsighted fire – but I will not tell anybody in the pistol class about that!” – Jeff Cooper

Gen. Joe Foss Wildcat

Joe Foss, the authentic hero, tells a tale upon himself. When he was given his first rifle he was allowed to take it out and use it by himself, though not in company. Tempted beyond resistance, he let go and fractured a ceramic insulator on a power line. For this sin he was grounded for a year – a truly awesome penalty. At age 14 a year is forever, and Joe had the full time to ponder upon his precious rifle locked away in his father’s closet. It is not necessary to use tranquilizers to “train up the child in the way he should go.” – Jeff Cooper

General Joe Foss, MOH
Painting of General Jow Foss leading an attack on Japanese bombers.

In his first combat action he shot down one Japanese Zeke but in his excitement he was aggressively pursued by three more Zekes. He tried everything he could think of to elude these Zekes but finally was shot down. He managed to make a dead stick landing back at the base. He vowed that he would never let this happen again, and to keep a better look out while flying. This earned him another nickname “Swivel Neck Joe.” Foss was so deadly accurate that he usually only used four of his machine guns rather than the six to help save ammunition. On 25 November he shot down another five Zekes to bring his total to 16. By 7 October he scored two more to bring his total to 18. In just six weeks of combat Foss shot down 16 Japanese Zekes. His final total was 26, the second highest scoring Marine Fighter ace behind Major Pappy Boyington. Fosse’s flight became known as “Joe’s Flying Circus” They were credited with 72 victories while under Joe’s command. – from Flight-History.com

Gen. Joe Foss Wildcat

When Dave Beckwith was in fourth grade, he delivered newspapers to businesses and the government housing near the airport in Pierre, South Dakota. One afternoon he was pedaling toward the airport when he hit a pot hole, crashed his bike and spilled the newspapers all over the highway.

Embarrassed but not hurt, he got up and started gathering the newspapers when a black limousine slowed to a stop, and a man got out of the back seat to help.

“Are you OK?” He asked as he began assisting Dave. The kind man stayed long enough to help Dave pick up the papers and make certain that he was OK.

Dave couldn’t help but notice his license plate number when he drove away: “1.” South Dakota Governor Joe Foss was the man that stopped to help. “I knew nothing about his political views,” Dave said, “but he was a man of remarkable kindness, and a hero to a nine-year-old boy!” – (Fresh Illustrations)


Joe Foss, Pictures and Links

The Cactus Air Force

A Marine Diary: My Experiences on Guadalcanal
An Eyewitness Account of the Battle of Guadalcanal.

First Offensive: The Marine Campaign For Guadalcanal

Joe Foss: CO VMF-121

Naval Air War in the Pacific

The Guadalcanal Campaign
7 August 1942 – 8 February 1943


American Hero Harassed at Phoenix Airport

Joe Foss, war hero, going strong

“Hairy Dog” Missions With “Old” Joe Foss

Joe Foss, 87, Flying Ace Who Led NRA And American Football League

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