The obituary of Joe Foss that appeared Jan. 3 incorrectly reported the date of death. He died Jan. 1. (Published 1/4/03)
Joe Foss, 87, a South Dakota farm boy who became a Medal of Honor recipient as one of the greatest Marine Corps flying aces of World War II and later held high-profile jobs in politics, sports and lobbying, died Dec. 2 at a hospital near his home in Scottsdale, Ariz., after a stroke.
Mr. Foss was a Republican governor of South Dakota in the 1950s, the first commissioner of the American Football League in the 1960s and president of the National Rifle Association from 1988 to 1990.
He was credited with 26 personal downings of enemy aircraft in World War II, making him the second-ranking Marine Corps ace of the war.
Some hold that he was the top ace. The Marine Corps' Gregory "Pappy" Boyington shot down 28 planes, but he gunned down six of the Japanese planes while with the American volunteer force in China called the Flying Tigers.
Mr. Foss played down any rivalry. "All we were interested in was knocking down every plane that we could so the suckers wouldn't be back the next day," he told the Los Angeles Times in 1994.
Mr. Foss's war exploits earned him enormous media attention. Then-Capt. Foss was the subject of a book and appeared on the cover of Life magazine June 7, 1943, as "America's No. 1 Ace" (Boyington's record-breaking service came later).
The aviation unit Mr. Foss led, known as Joe's Flying Circus, was credited with shooting down 72 enemy aircraft during about two months of combat over Guadalcanal.
Mr. Foss engaged in almost daily encounters with the Japanese from Oct. 9 to Nov. 19, 1942. Besides the 23 planes he downed then, he led several escort missions involving reconnaissance and bombing raids.
The next January, he shot down three more enemy craft. He also led eight Marine F-4F "Wildcat" planes and four Army P-38 "Lightning" aircraft through hostile fire and overwhelming odds.
"Undaunted by tremendously superior numbers, [he] 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 Medal of Honor citation read. "His remarkable flying skill, inspiring leadership, and indomitable fighting spirit were distinctive factors in the defense of strategic American positions on Guadalcanal."
He was recalled to active duty during the Korean War.
In addition to the Medal of Honor, he received the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Silver Star, the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart.
In 1955, he signed a deal with producer Hall Bartlett for the story of his war experiences, to be called "Smokey Joe" because of Mr. Foss's cigar habit. In his autobiography, "A Proud American," he said the deal turned sour when he read the script, which involved a fictional romance.
In recent years, he and Japanese ace Saburo Sakai worked with Microsoft on a computer game about aerial combat. "Combat Flight Simulator 2: WWII Pacific Theater" featured scenes of the Pacific islands taken from satellite photographs and precise reproductions of the cockpits and gauges of World War II aircraft.
In his autobiography, he said he and Sakai became "the best of friends" and often shared the stage at college campuses when reminiscing about the war.
Joseph Jacob Foss was born near Sioux Falls, S.D. As a young man, he became entranced with flight shortly after meeting Charles Lindbergh, fresh from the aviator's historic trip across the Atlantic in 1927.
As a teenager, he took over farm duties after his father died in a car accident. He also did odd jobs and saved $64 to complete private flying lessons. In 1940, he graduated from the University of South Dakota.
He enlisted in the Marine Corps after college. He was a flight instructor in Florida when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, triggering the entry of the United States into World War II.
His first wartime duty was doing base security on bicycle. He protested but was reportedly told that he was too old -- at age 27 -- to be a fighter pilot. He was eventually accepted by the Navy's Advanced Carrier Training Group.
He flew 156 hours in just over a month in the F-4F "Wildcat" and achieved one of the best gunnery scores in the group. Within weeks, he was sent to Guadalcanal.
In combat, he said, he was sometimes surprised by the number of near-death encounters he had. During one gunfight, a bullet whistled through his cockpit glass. He survived only to have his engine cut off.
He flew low to the water and set the plane down tail first. The plane hit the water but bounced and sent the craft in headfirst. Two problems: He never learned to swim, and his parachute straps were caught on his seat.
It was several seconds before he could wrestle free, and he bobbed up in shark-infested waters five miles from land. He said he broke a chlorine capsule to keep them away until he was rescued hours later. "It's a good thing I didn't know, as would later be proven, that chlorine doesn't protect swimmers from shark attacks," he wrote in his autobiography.
After the war, he returned to South Dakota and operated a flying service and a Packard dealership. He helped organize the Air National Guard in South Dakota and retired from the guard as a brigadier general.
He was elected to the state House of Representatives in 1948 and 1951 and won the governorship in 1954 and again in 1956. He called himself a "natural-born salesman" who liked bringing businesses to the state.
He also said his style was abrasive in those years: "If someone did something I didn't like, I'd shout, 'Fire that sucker!' "
In 1958, he was defeated for a seat in the House of Representatives by future senator and 1972 Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern.
He became commissioner of the fledgling American Football League in 1959 because of his "connections in Washington," league founder Lamar Hunt once said.
During the next seven years, Mr. Foss helped expand the league and made lucrative television deals to broadcast AFL games. But there were some reports of the league not catching up fast enough with the National Football League. He resigned a year before his contract expired and months before the AFL-NFL merger agreement.
He hosted ABC-TV's "The American Sportsman" from 1964 to 1967 and then hosted and produced his own syndicated outdoors TV series from 1967 to 1974.
Mr. Foss did government affairs work in Washington for KLM Royal Dutch Airlines in the 1970s.
He also maintained a rigorous speaking schedule and spoke out for conservative causes and what he considered a weakening of gun owners' rights.
Starting in 1988, he was elected to two consecutive one-year terms as president of the NRA.
"The thing I haven't figured out yet is why so many of the First Amendment people try to destroy" the Second Amendment, he told one audience. "Because one day, they'll need our help to try and save the First Amendment, the way some of these people think."
He enjoyed safaris and hunting polar bears in the Arctic.
He was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 1984. He also was a former president and board chairman of the Air Force Association.
He was also featured in Tom Brokaw's book about World War II and its warriors, "The Greatest Generation."
Mr. Foss, who had a daughter with cerebral palsy, was a former president of the National Society of Crippled Children and Adults.
Upon learning of Mr. 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."
His marriage to June Shakstad Foss ended in divorce.
Survivors include his wife, Donna Wild "Didi" Foss, whom he married in 1967 and who lives in Scottsdale; two children from his first marriage; two stepchildren; a sister; and six grandchildren.