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Son of SD
Foss Fast Facts
Guadalcanal Campaign
Medal of Honor
Medal of Honor Citation



Joe Foss - World War II ace, Medal of Honor winner, governor, football commissioner, TV show host, business executive - is one of South Dakota’s most famous sons.

His story is the focus of AMERICAN ACE: THE JOE FOSS STORY, a production of South Dakota Public Television.

Foss, born to a South Dakota farm family in 1915, fell in love with airplanes as a boy. After his father died, this young man, still in his teens, put his dreams away to keep the family farm running. When his younger brother took over, he went on to college and learned to fly. He joined the Marines, and earned his wings at age 26, but was told he was too old to be a fighter pilot. But Foss persevered, getting his chance just months after Pearl Harbor.

Foss proved himself over Guadalcanal. In just six weeks, he shot down 23 Japanese planes. A couple of months later, he added three more. He earned international fame and the Medal of Honor.

After the war, he returned to South Dakota, starting a business, running for office and becoming Governor in 1955. His next claim to fame was as the first Commissioner of the American Football League. He went on to host two popular sports shows for television, excel as a business executive and support many charities and organizations.

AMERICAN ACE: THE JOE FOSS STORY is supported in part by a grant from the South Dakota Humanities Council, an affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Viewer’s Guides and Teacher’s Guides are available from SDPB’s Educational Services by calling 1-800-456-0766 or e-mailing


A Son 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. In 1945, he left the military.

Foss worked at odd jobs and started an aviation business and bought a car dealership with a friend. He helped develop the South Dakota Air

National Guard and ran for State Legislature and won. He was a member of the South Dakota House from 1949-1950 and 1953-1954. His next move was to run for governor of South Dakota. In 1955, the GOP moderate began the first of two two-year terms. The highlight of

his administration was the creation of a state agency to promote business growth and economic development.

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).

1/1/2003 - Foss died in Scottsdale Arizona at the age of 87.