The Joe Foss Experience
If you had the opportunity to meet your favorite person, your icon, your hero in the flesh, someone alive today, who would that person be? For me it was Joe Foss. The WWII's highest decorated Marine ace - Medal of Honor winner*, ex-governor of South Dakota, Former director of the NRA. Joe is a true American hero, and as I was to find out - much more.
Circumstances and the benevolence of my dear friend and business partner Doug Champlin made my long time dream come true. On December 3rd, 2000 I met Joe Foss. Our first meeting was that the Phoenix airport. Todd Fruen, Joe's friend and shooting buddy, and my traveling/business partner in Russia, had made all the arrangements for us. A very special and select group of individuals met that day and flew to southwestern Mexico to shoot ducks and Doves at a game reserve called Solimar. We also met to share our views of life and to discuss the world's situations.
My first sight of Joe had me noting the chiseled jaw line and at 86 his towering stature proclaimed the fact that this is one tough Marine. Once a Marine always a Marine! If you looked hard at his face you could see the repository and culmination of a generation that forged our country and got us through WWII - Korea, Viet Nam and even into the current war on terrorism. I was so eager to ask thousands of questions but I chose to listen more to his comments, observations and real life experiences. Later I had the pleasure of asking what it was like to fly in combat, get shot up and face death numerous times. His answers were so genuine and natural and all his comments had that "MADE IN AMERICAN" stamp. Joe is a spell bounding orator as well as warrior. The hours melted into days of wonderful interactions with this American Hero. And we shot a lot of birds. His political views were as clear as the wrinkled brow he displayed when someone mentioned Osadam Bin Ladin's name.
I was surprised at his spiritualism. He said, " for me to survive the battles that were impossible to survive convinced me that the Lord had plans for me. It is the only reason I made it." Watching him shoot I think his natural eye for shooting may have also helped. He loved the F4F Wildcat. Now I am 50 and my experience and knowledge of the F4F is due to my profession of recovering submerged WWII era aircraft. I never had conversations with someone that really liked the F4F, much less a pilot credited with 26 kills in the aircraft. The zero out flew the F4F; it was more agile, always in larger numbers and has longer range. Joe, in defense of the Hellcat said," it (the F4F) was built tough." It could take hits and fight back. It had greater firepower and the Lord was on our side and we hated them SOB's, that combination made us a dangerous group of guys. He told the story of a battle that left his F4F with 238 bullet holes. One went inched from his head into the pilot's headrest. He was shot down 5 times he said. "The plane was one tough airplane and I loved it - it kept me alive." He still knows all the names of his squadron members, he knew the ones that survived and the ones that did not. At 87 his memory astounded me. He always had a cigar in his mouth, never smoked in the aircraft but always has one there and when he got finished with the battle and took off the oxygen mask the cigar went in his mouth. He stopped smoking one day when he challenged his daughter to stop smoking ciggies, as he calls them (cigarettes). He smoked 18 cigars that day and when he challenged his daughter to quit he stopped and has not had one since. His daughter however did not stop smoking.
A steady hand, (NRA) strong religious convictions and a genetic predisposition to longevity are the only some of the unique characteristic that flows and glows from Joe Foss. When you know Joe, personally, you see and feel his sincere care and concern for our troops, (the youth) the flag (our ideology and economics) and the future of this great nation. My experience, with Joe, was and sincerely continues to be, inspiring. I am a better Marine, US Citizen and Christian for knowing him. I also learned that one must, "lead them, shoot high and always keep them in your gun sites."
Joe Foss suffered an apparent aneurysm in the fall of 2002. He never regained consciousness and died in Scottsdale on January 1, 2003. It was a sad day, for a great American Hero passed away. I was so very fortunate to meet, eat, drink and shoot with, "My Hero."
- Robert T. Mester (USMC)
* Citation: 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.