Decorated fighter pilot's memories again take wing

Medal: World War II Marine recalls the fear, the fighting and the friends he lost. The Pentagon salutes their efforts once more.

February 16, 1999|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Joe Foss can still summon the names of friends torn to pieces by shrapnel, feel the sweats of his malarial fever and see the face of that Japanese Zero pilot who was trying to kill him so long ago in the skies above Guadalcanal.

"I was scared all the time," recalled the World War II Marine fighter pilot matter of factly in his South Dakota twang. "When I shot that airplane, I thought, `Why did I ever leave the farm?' "

But Foss learned to set aside his fear and rely on his skills, much as he did in the boxing ring as a college welterweight in the 1930s. After the first punches flew, he told himself, "I'm positive I can hit this sucker."

The punches this time came from the 50-caliber machine guns of his F-4F "Wildcat," as he twirled and banked through the clouds in the South

Pacific in late '42 and early '43. Foss downed 26 Japanese planes and crippled 14 others, tying the record of World War I ace Eddie Rickenbacker and earning him the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military award.

Last night, at Constitution Hall, the Pentagon organized a musical salute to the armed forces and heroes of the past. Foss was there along with more than three dozen others who won the star-shaped medal suspended by a pale-blue ribbon. It was one of the largest gatherings ever of Medal of Honor winners.

The medal is awarded "for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life, above and beyond the call of duty." The Pentagon's Hall of Heroes lists the names of every recipient since the Civil War -- many of whom earned the medal only posthumously.

Foss, 83, who went on to be a Marine brigadier general and two-term governor of South Dakota, is the embodiment of the World War II hero, though he brushes aside that term. Burly and silver haired, he wears a bollo tie and cowboy boots and strides along with the rolling gait of an aircraft carrier.

He'll tell you he had a job to do. The avid sportsman compared shooting Japanese Zeros to shooting rabbits: You have to lead a moving target. He notes the "good men" in his VMF-121 squadron, dubbed "Joe's Flying Circus." Almost as an aside, he'll say: "I did shoot down a lot of airplanes."

Foss had been entranced by flying and the Marines ever since that summer day in 1933 at the Sioux Falls "Skyway." Four Marine aviators in F4-B4s, an early Navy bi-plane, curled through the air and dazzled the locals, including the 16-year-old son of a cattle and hog farmer.

"I said, `That's the way to go,' " he recalled. "I had Marine in the head."

By February 1941, Foss earned his commission and his wings as a Marine lieutenant, settling into life as an instructor. He was shooting doves on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941 with a couple of ensigns. But when he pressed to get into the fight, Foss was told he was too old. He was 26 and most of the pilots were in their late teens.

For the next year, Foss pestered and cajoled his way into fighter squadron, finally ending up in the Solomon chain, on the island of Espiritu Santo, in the fall of 1942.

With Foss and his unit on board, the carrier USS Long Island steamed north to Guadalcanal, where Marines were locked in a bitter fight with Japanese forces, who ruled the Pacific and were intent on moving south to cut the lifeline between the U.S. forces and Australia.

"They were dead set they were going to get that island," Foss recalled. "We weren't about to give it up to these clowns."

Landing at Henderson Field, Foss and the others dug hard into the coral to make foxholes. Several nights later, the sky opened up with 14-inch artillery shells from Japanese ships offshore. Other shells lit up the sky, Foss recalled, "like an acetylene torch."

"It didn't sound good for the home team, I'll tell ya," he said.

Foss and another officer dashed from their tent into a foxhole that was barely big enough to shield them. Shrapnel sliced through the night air. A dive bomber outfit, which included a friend from Pensacola, arrived too late to dig their foxholes.

"Most were killed that night," Foss said evenly. "I was just itching to get at somebody," Foss said.

On Oct. 13, 1942, he got his chance. His squad saw "Zeroes all over the sky."

Foss spotted four off to one side and banked his airplane, shooting at the lead Zero. "His plane blew up," Foss said, his hands animating the action. The other three Zeroes sped toward him, bullets cutting into his Wildcat as he dove toward the island.

"I was trying to shrink to the size of a mouse," he recalled. Suddenly, a bullet struck the engine, which froze and turned his plane into a virtual glider. It limped onto Henderson Field. "I didn't get nervous until I got on the ground," he said.

For the next three months, Foss continually took to the skies, saying his bout with malaria -- "I felt like I was hit by a truck" -- was the worst part of trying to fly and outwit the Japanese pilots.

Last night, Foss got dressed up and carefully placed the medal around his neck. He listened to the warm words of Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, the rousing marches of the Marine Corps band and the lilting voices of pop singers who weren't alive in 1942. And at some point his thoughts turned once again turn back to Guadalcanal when teen-aged fliers looked up to him, followed him into the savage skies and never came home.

"I think of those young bucks," Foss said, "that never got to live a life."

Pub Date: 2/16/99

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