Brigadier General Joseph Foss

Captain, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, Marine Fighting Squadron 121, 1st Marine Aircraft Wing
Over Guadalcanal, 9 October to 19 November 1942, 15 and 23 January 1943

“During World War II, God saved me over and over and over again. I have no excuse for being here. I often say that God was saving me for later duty. Bible study and sharing my faith occupy much of my time. I frequently speak to different groups and am often asked the question, ‘Of all the honors and awards that you have received, what do you consider the most important, number one?’ I am able to look them in the eye and say, ‘The day that I in-vited Jesus Christ into my life as my Lord and Savior is number one.’”


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-38s into action and, undaunted by tremendously superior numbers, in-tercepted 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.

It was November of 1943 and I was about to experience one of the most frightening experiences of my life. While on a mission, we spotted a Japanese flotilla with air cover from six float Zeros, equipped with pontoons for water takeoffs. We were able to shoot down the six Zeros but not without the loss of one of our planes and pilot.

As we prepared to attack the Japanese ships, I spotted another Japanese plane. I flew upward to get above the bogey. When he emerged from the cloud, I made a diving run toward the plane. I quickly realized that I had overestimated my adversary. The plane was not the faster and nimbler Zero but was a slower scout plane with a rear gunner. I dove too fast and had to roll on my side to avoid crashing into the rear of the plane. The pilot rolled as well, giving his tail gunner a perfect shot at me, at point blank range. The shells pierced the left side of my engine cowling and shattered the canopy of the side of my plane just a few inches from my face. Initially it appeared that there was no serious damage, but because of the damage to my plane, I was unable to dive and I watched the planes of VMF-121 attack the Japanese ships. With a second pass, I was able to shoot down the scout plane and then came upon a second scout plane that I was also able to bring down—my eigh-teenth and nineteenth victory in air combat.

As I looked for the rest of my flight, I saw them off in the dis-tance over a mile away flying to get out of range of the ship’s gun to regroup and head back to the base. I tried to call the departing planes but couldn’t raise anyone. Apparently the radio was dead, probably one of the Japanese shells had damaged the aerial. As the engine of the plane started to miss and backfire puffing out white smoke, I headed for the rendezvous point. I had to throttle back re-peatedly to prevent the engine from conking out. At this point I was getting nervous. The others had long since regrouped and headed back. I was beginning to lose altitude when I ran into rain-squalls and heavy clouds.

Breaking out of the clouds, I could make out two islands and I headed toward them. I mistook them for the gateway to Guadalcanal. After awhile the engine stops got closer than the starts, and I realized that I wasn’t going to make it back to Henderson Field. Another squall appeared dead ahead and I flew to circumvent it. When I came abreast of the storm, the engine stopped cold. I knew that if I landed in the water, my chances of being spotted were minimal, if not nonexistent. I lamented the fact that I had never learned to swim. I spotted an island and I set my glide path for it. I figured that I had plenty of altitude to make the distance. I planned to ditch the plane directly offshore and paddle to land with the aid of my Mae West. Believing that I might find a sandy beach to land on, I circled over the deserted shoreline. I realized that I miscalcu-lated: The maneuver cost me the needed altitude.

When I circled back out to sea I realized that I was going down in the water about five miles from land. As the plane descended and the water rose to meet me, I pulled the nose of the plane up, hoping to skip the plane along the surface of the water. The tail hit the water and bounced up above the front of the plane. When I hit the water a second time, I nosed into the Pacific like a torpedo from a dive-bomber. The heavily armored plane sank almost immediately. I found myself in utter darkness with water gushing into the cockpit. Trapped in the plane, I forced myself to act. As water filled the cockpit, I felt for the latches that held the canopy, unfastened them, and pushed it open with all my strength. I fought to maintain consciousness, but momentarily blacked out and sucked in the brackish sea water. Just as the story goes, my whole life passed be-fore my eyes. Forcing myself to action was agony, and I restrained my gagging through sheer force of will. Reaching down I unhooked my leg straps, swallowing more sea water in the process.

No longer locked in the plane, I was pulled upward toward the surface by the force of the current streaming past the rapidly sinking Wildcat. At the same time my left foot caught and wedged under the cockpit seat, trapping me and holding me fast as the Wildcat continued its descent into the deep. I pulled my way, hand over hand, toward my captured foot. I used the last of my strength to free myself and I felt the crushing pressure of the cold water as I shot upward. My need for air was pure pain. When I hit the surface I adjusted the straps of my Mae West and all of a sudden I was

I realized the odds of making it to the island were slim, between the storm, the rapidly approaching darkness, and the current that seemed to be carrying me out to sea. To make matters worse, a short distance away something caught my eye, “Shark fins!” I be-lieve I even yelled it out loud! I thought, “What a way to go. After all I’ve been through, I’m going to check out as a hunk of shark bait.” Trying to swim became doubly fearful. Every time I reached an arm out to paddle I was afraid I’d draw back a stub. I started praying harder than I’d ever prayed in my life. I confessed every sin I could remember and kept praying, “God help me.” I never felt more alone or helpless. I drifted for four or five hours. I was growing weaker as I struggled against the sea. Through the black of the night I heard something. Voices! I turned my head in the direc-tion of the sounds. Canoe paddles? “Japs,” I thought! “They saw me go down.” I stopped swimming and floated silently. The splashing of the oars grew louder. Two boats were traveling toward me, I heard men speaking but could not make out the mumbled conversations. The searchers combed the waters, back and forth. Finally someone yelled, “Lets look over ’ere.” It was an Australian accent, and the most welcome sound I’d ever heard. “Hey!” I yelled. “Over here!” A hand reached out of the darkness and pulled me into the outrigger. It was the hand of Father Dan Stuyvenberg, a Catholic priest. As the men talked they told me that the piece of land that I’d been swimming toward was populated with man-eating crocodiles.

Today I realize that God saved me over and over and over. I have no excuse for being in the world today except that the Lord was saving me for another battle. I could have been killed by the gunfire that brought my plane down. I could have died in the crash landing, could have drowned, could have been killed by sharks or man-eating crocodiles or captured and killed by the Japanese, but God saved me.

Adapted from A PROUD AMERICAN, The Autobiography of Joe Foss, Pocket Books.