Marine Corps pilot Joe Foss had 26 aerial kills in World War II equaling the record Eddie Rickenbacker set in World War I. Like Rickenbacker, Foss was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor and earned the nickname “ace of aces.”

As legend has it, 12 year old Joe, who was raised on a farm in South Dakota was lucky enough to see Charles Lindbergh touring the country with his famous aircraft, the Spirit of St. Louis. As the story goes, it was at that moment Joe decided he wanted to be a pilot.

Watch a Brief Biography of Aviation Legend Joe Foss

After hitchhiking to Minnesota to enlist in the Marine Corps he was sent to Pensacola, Florida (The Birthplace of Naval Aviation) and soon earned his wings graduating Navy flight school. He was immediately selected as a flight instructor.

In October 1942 he was sent to Guadalcanal where his legendary career took off quickly as he shot down a Japanese Zero on his very first mission but also sustaining major damage to his own aircraft in the fight. Foss and his unit were credited with being pivotal players in the famous Battle of Guadalcanal. During a three month period of heavy combat flying, Foss’s unit called ‘Foss’s Flying Circus’ shot down 72 Japanese aircraft. Joe was credited with 26 of those confirmed kills and put on the cover of Life magazine who called him “America’s No. 1 Ace”.

“A pair of aces” Photo of Major Joe Foss (L) and Charles Lindbergh (R) in the South Pacific by US Marine Corps

More than just a fighter pilot, after the war Joe went on to operate many businesses, become the Governor of South Dakota, the first commissioner of the American Football League and the President of the National Rifle Association (NRA).

An incident of note occurred in 2002 when Joe, then 86 years old was detained by airport security in Phoenix. A search by airport personnel led to the discovery of a nail file, a small star shaped medal of honor, and a dummy bullet keychain. Due to his fame, the incident created attention in the media.

“I wasn’t upset for me … I was upset for the Medal of Honor, that they just didn’t know what it even was. It represents all of the guys who lost their lives – the guys who never came back. Everyone who put their lives on the line for their country. You’re supposed to know what the Medal of Honor is”, he said.

“The way the [security] guy had it in his hand, it was like you could scratch somebody with it,” said retired Marine Corps Gen. Joe Foss. “I’m not some punk sitting on a hill looking for trouble. They are swatting at gnats and letting the big bees in.” – Los Angeles Times

One of his proudest achievements was forming the Joe Foss Institute.

“The core purpose of public education is not only to prepare young people for college and career, but also for citizenship. At the Joe Foss Institute, a non-profit organization with offices in Arizona, Texas and Florida, we work to close the civics education gap and prepare young Americans for civic engagement as voters and informed members of their community.”

Joe is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. His funeral was attended by Vice President Dick Cheney and former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw. Retired Marine Corps Colonel Oliver North delivered the eulogy.

Photo by Arlington Cemetery

Featured Image of Joe Foss by official Marine Corps biography via Wikimedia Commons