Leading "Ace" Fighter Pilot, Medal
of Honor, Former Governor of South Dakota
Joseph Jacob Foss was born on April 17, 1915,
in Sioux Falls, S.D., to a farm family near South Dakota’s
largest city. Farm life was hard in the ’20s and ’30s
and it was there young Foss learned the value of hard work
and developed his skills as an outdoorsman. At age 16, Foss,
already entranced with aviation pioneer Charles Lindbergh,
fell in love with airplanes after he and his father took a
ride with a famed South Dakota aviator, Clyde Ice.
Two years later, Foss’s father died and the young man was stretched thin,
trying to farm, hold down odd jobs and go to college. Economics won out, and
the next year he dropped out of school. He farmed and did odd jobs until his
younger brother was able to take over the farm. He went back to school – Sioux
Falls College and the University of South Dakota – and managed to eke out
enough extra cash to take flying lessons. He joined the National Guard to hone
his aviation skills and joined the Marines his senior year.
At age 26, he earned his wings, but was deemed too old to be a fighter pilot.
But he was determined, eventually working his way into a carrier group. His first
combat assignment was Guadalcanal. His aerial marksmanship with the "Cactus
Air Force" during that long and bloody combat for Henderson Field earned
him international fame.
Foss’s war was over for a while after he shot down his 26th enemy plane.
He returned to the home front to promote the war effort. After being presented
the Medal of Honor, Foss returned to the Pacific in 1944 to work in search and
destroy missions. Malaria forced him to leave the Pacific in late 1944 and in
1945, he left the military.
Foss worked at odd jobs, started an aviation business, and bought a car dealership
with a friend. He helped develop the South Dakota Air National Guard and also
ran for State Legislature and won. He was a member of the South Dakota House
from 1949-1950 and again in 1953-1954. His next move was to run for governor
of South Dakota. In 1955, he became Governor, the highlight of his administration
being the creation of a state agency to promote business growth and economic
After serving as governor, Foss spent a short time working for Raven Industries
before becoming the first Commissioner of the upstart American Football League.
He helped build the league to respectability, leaving in 1966, just a few months
before the historic agreement that led to the merger of AFL and NFL and the creation
of the Super Bowl.
His next adventure, as host for the ABC network television program "The
American Sportsman," took him all over the world for hunting and fishing
excursions. Three years later, he started his own weekly syndicated series: "The
Outdoorsman: Joe Foss."
In 1972, he began a six-year stint as Director of Public Affairs for KLM Royal
Dutch Airlines. From 1988 to 1990, Foss was in the spotlight again as president
of the National Rifle Association (NRA).
Today, Foss travels around the country and the world, talking about leadership,
patriotism and his enduring faith in God. He supports many charities and organizations.
He and his wife, Donna, live in Arizona.