Joe Foss was born on April 17, 1915, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He enlisted in the South Dakota National Guard on October 2, 1939, and served with the 147th Field Artillery until March 7, 1940. During this time he received his Bachelor's degree from the University of South Dakota. Foss then entered the Aviation Cadet Program of the U.S. Marine Corps on June 14, 1940, was designated a Naval Aviator on March 29, 1941, and was commissioned a 2d Lt on March 31, 1941. He served as an instructor pilot at NAS Pensacola, Florida, until May 1942, and then served with a Marine Photographic Squadron with the Fleet Marine Force and with the Advanced Carrier Training Group at San Diego, California, until September 1942, when he joined Marine Fighter Squadron 121 (VMF-121) in the South Pacific. Between October 1942 and January 1943, Capt Foss was credited with the destruction of 26 enemy aircraft in aerial combat, the most victories any person has ever achieved while serving with the U.S. Marine Corps. Maj Foss returned to the U.S. in February 1943 and he took command of VMF-115 in July 1943, serving a 2nd tour in the South Pacific until returning to the U.S. in September 1944. Foss served as Operations and Training Officer at MCAS Santa Barbara, California, from February 1945 to December 4, 1945, when he left active duty. He remained in the Marine Corps reserve until September 19, 1946, and then received a commission as a Lt Col in the South Dakota Air National Guard on September 20, 1946. Col Foss served on active duty from March 14, 1951, to May 31, 1952, and then became the Air Chief of Staff of the South Dakota Air National Guard, where he served until his retirement as a Brig Gen on April 15, 1975. Joe Foss was a State Representative of South Dakota from 1948 to 1953, was Governor of South Dakota from 1954 to 1958, was Commissioner of the American Football League from 1959 to 1966, was National President of the Air Force Association from 1961 to 1962 and Chairman of the Board from 1962 to 1963, was Director of Public Affairs for Royal Dutch Airlines from 1972 to 1978, and was President of the National Rifle Association from 1988 to 1990. He was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 1984 and into the American Combat Airman Hall of Fame in 1997. Joe Foss died on January 1, 2003, and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
His Medal of Honor Citation reads:
For outstanding heroism and courage above and beyond the call of duty as Executive Officer of a Marine Fighting Squadron at Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands. Engaging in almost daily combat with the enemy from October 9 to November 19, 1942, Captain Foss personally shot down twenty-three Japanese planes and damaged others so severely that their destruction was extremely probably. In addition, during that period, he successfully led a large number of escort missions, skillfully covering reconnaissance, bombing and photographic planes as well as surface craft. On January 15, 1943, he added three 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 January 25, Captain Foss led his eight Marine planes and four Army planes into action and, undaunted by tremendously superior numbers, intercepted and struck with such force that four 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.