Friday, February 1, 2008

What Would Joe Foss Do? - Commentary by Ned Barnett

What would Joe Foss do?
y by Ned Barnett

Joe Foss was a poor kid from South Dakota, growing up in the Depression, when his dad died.

He had a dream, though - he'd met Charles Lindbergh in 1928 and seen a Marine Fighter Squadron barnstorming through his neck of the prairie in 1930 - and that dream required college - a tough act for a poor orphaned kid, but he managed to do it, earning both a bachelor of business administration and a private pilot's license.

His dream was to be a Marine aviator - but in those pre-war days, the odds against even qualified applicants were two in 100 - he hitchhiked 300 miles to Minneapolis, took the test with 100 young men, and was one of the two.

After completing training and a 9-month tour as an instructor (something only the best trainee pilots were assigned - and few liked) he was assigned to an observation squadron (aka "target") in San Diego instead of a fighter squadron - but he noticed that a lot of trainee aviators were "buying the farm" - he went to the base commander (a Navy Commander who hated Marines) and offered to trade duty as "funeral officer" for stick-time in a fighter. In three months, he racked up more than 150 hours in a Wildcat - that was more than 3 hours per day for 47 consecutive days (all while fulfilling his assigned duties as an observation-unit pilot AND funeral officer).

As the only carrier-qualified Marine aviator in San Diego, he was named Exec of a squadron about to sail into combat, even thought many thought of him as "the old man" - too old for fighter combat (he was 27 - average age of new fighter pilots, 23).

His first combat mission over Guadalcanal he had his engine shot out and made a "hot" dead-stick landing - but only after he'd shot down the first of many deadly Japanese Zeroes to fall under his guns.

The fourth time he was shot down, he realized that "one more and I'll be a Japanese Ace" - but by that time he'd shot down something like 19 confirmed first-line Japanese planes (mostly Zeros, piloted by the cream of the best in the Imperial Japanese Air Force - the Tainan Wing).

One time, after downing three or four Japanese fighters, combat damage to his engine forced him to ditch his Wildcat two miles of the beach of Malaita Island (about 50 or so miles from Guadalcanal). The plane sank fast, his foot caught in his seat, and before he knew it, he was 30 feet under and "breathing" seawater. Convinced he was going to die, instead of panicking, he calmed himself, figured out how to free himself and used his Mae West life preserver to get him back to the surface (breathing more seawater along the way). To tired to swim, he decided to float on his back until his strength came back - until he saw a couple of shark-fins. Then he saw a couple of canoes - convinced they were Japs looking for him, he decided to "face down" the sharks - until he heard an Australian voice and surfaced again. The next day, Major Mad Jack Cramm - the personal pilot to the Marine Air Commander (General Geiger) - taxied his PBY Catalina right up onto the beach to retrieve Foss - and two days later, he was back in combat, shooting down a couple more Japanese fighters in the process.

He finished his tour of duty with 26 confirmed kills - tying Eddie Rickenbacker (WW-I American Ace of Aces) - but unlike some self-centered Aces, Foss led a unit that fought with him - together with Foss, his flight (Foss's Flying Circus) shot down 72 confirmed enemies - literally all of those young-buck grass-green fighter pilots he'd brought into combat (except the two who didn't survive) became aces in their own right under Foss's masterful training and leadership. Aces like von Richthofen often couldn't remember the names of their wingmen - Foss made medal-bedecked aces of them.

His technique was simple - he flew so close to the enemy that he couldn't miss (of course, they couldn't, either, which is why he was nearly a Japanese ace, too) - his flight-members used to joke that he'd leave "powder burns" on his targets by holding fire until he was in slow-pitch softball range of his enemy. The results - 26 confirmed kills leading a team of eight "novice" pilots that together scored 72 confirmed kills - speak for themselves.

Amazingly, Foss did all this while flying a plane considered obsolete even before the war began (the F4F Wildcat was slower in level flight, slower in the climb and much less maneuverable than the Zero - it also had much less range). He was the highest-scoring ace in Marine history, and won the Congressional Medal of Honor - the highest award available to American servicemen (most who earn it do so posthumously).

After the war, a bureaucratic bungle denied him a "Regular" commission in the Marines - so he founded the South Dakota Air National Guard. He served in the regular Air Force in Korea, and retired a Brigadier General.

Retiring from the Guard, he became the Governor of South Dakota, the Commissioner of the American Football League, the host of two TV programs (running, together, for about 10 years) and - late in life (as in, during his 70s) he became President of the National Rifle Association.

At age 87, airport "security" in Phoenix (this was after 9/11) tried to stop him from boarding a plane for a flight to New York (where he was scheduled to address the Cadets at West Point) for carrying a "dangerous weapon" - the five-pointed star of his Congressional Medal of Honor.

What would Joe Foss do? Apparently, he laughed it off (I understand he actually let the idiot security guard live).

Now, when I'm in a tough spot, I ask myself, "what would Joe Foss do?" (hint - move in close before opening fire - never give up - never slow down - and never take "no" for an answer).