'What I Say, I Mean'

An Interview with Joe Foss

Foss : Actually, I just liked what I'd read about the Marines. My roommate in college, Fred Rollins Smith, was a year ahead of me, and he came back and told me all about the Marines. What I primarily was interested in was flying. But when I listened to Rolly, I really got interested in the Marines and was dead-set that that was the way I was going to go.

Marines go through the same school as any naval aviator. We're known as naval aviators, number one, and then the Marine designation comes after that.

Naval History : I heard one World War II Marine say he didn't know until after the war was over that he had been fighting the Japanese; he always thought he had been fighting the Navy. [Laughter] I'm sure you've heard that one before.

Foss : Yes, I have. Of course, the Marines were upset because the Navy hadn't shown up when the enemy pulled in to Guadalcanal on 12 October 1942. They arrived at 2130, or thereabouts, fired until 0430 the next morning, and just stayed out there. We were right in the impact area, and it's a wonder we weren't all killed. So the people were asking, "Where in the blazes was the Navy last night? Why didn't our Navy come and catch the whole Jap Navy right here in the slot, between us and Florida Island?" Well, they didn't want to lose ships. There we were, losing lives, and they were worried about a lousy ship. So we all grumbled about that among ourselves.

But I usually got along with the Navy. I'll always remember Admiral [William] Halsey, when he replaced Admiral [Robert] Ghormley. I had been told I was going to get the Navy Cross. I told them I didn't want any medal, that I didn't know one cross from another. And I'd have to dress up, which I didn't want to do. All I was interested in was fighting the enemy. But my boss ordered me to dress up, which meant putting on clean clothes. I did look like a tramp, all sweaty and dirty. You didn't really have a time to put on clean clothes, even if you had them.

So I got dressed up. As I arrived, somebody said, "We find we have only two Navy Crosses here." It was a bunch of the colonels, see. So they said, "Would you be happy with a DFC [Distinguished Flying Cross]?" I told them I'd be happy with anything, as long as we could get it over with. Then it came time for Admiral Halsey to hang the medal on me; I still have the original medal. A half-dozen of us were getting decorated, but when he came to me, he stepped back and said, "I know that you Marines don't like the United States Navy, but I can tell you that from now on, there's going to be some fighting." Boy, oh boy, was he right.

I actually got to know the admiral. When he decorated me, he said, "If there's ever anything I can do to help you, just let me know." As it turned out, he did do something for me. When I came out of combat, I had my flight of seven guys behind me, headed for Australia. On the way, we stopped in New Caledonia. I was having lunch with two city government officials and Ben Finney, a nonflying officer in my outfit. Up came an AP [air policeman] who said, "Are you Captain Foss?"

I said, "Right."

He said, "Would you, as soon as you finish lunch, come down to the shore patrol station? We have your boys in lockup. They say they're your boys."

And I said, "You mean you've got seven pilots?"

"Yes, sir. We have seven of them down there."

So I hurried and finished lunch, and we drove to the station. Then I looked up and asked the driver, "Is that Admiral Halsey's flag?"

He said, "Yes, sir."

"That means he's in today?"

"Yes, sir, he's there."

So I said, "Stop the show." I got out and walked in. Everybody recognized me. I had a fire-red beard at the time, and I had black hair.

I said, "I want to see the admiral." I just walked right in.

And the admiral greeted me with open arms. "Well, how the hell are you?"

I said, "Right now, I need some help, sir. You've got my boys over here in lockup, for some reason or other."

He got on the line to the station himself and said, "I want the commander and those men over here right now." Next came the funniest sight I saw in the whole war. Here came my boys, all in Aussie uniforms, with U.S. Marine emblems on them, and shorts. I hate shorts. I'd rather see ladies' legs than men's, any day of the week. And here were these guys all in shorts. Halsey couldn't stop laughing. The Navy captain—or commander, whatever he was—tried to tell the admiral the story behind all this.

So the admiral says to my men, "Be my guest. Sit down." He met them all and asked each one how many planes he had shot down. My flight alone had 78, that group of guys right there. So then we just started talking war games. Then he said to the commander, "How long have you been over here, sir?"

He said, "I just got here last week."

Halsey said, "I'll get you some orders so you can get into combat and find out what it's all about." Poor guy.

Naval History : How did your men get the Aussie uniforms?

Foss : They ran into some guy in a bar and got the idea. My boys were just fresh out of the jungle, you know. And they were a decrepit-looking outfit. They had wrinkled uniforms. When you twisted your uniform to dry it, then put it on, you looked like you crawled out from under the bridge.

They also got pith helmets, which was the first time I ever saw a Marine in a pith helmet. And shortly afterward, I bought one for ten bucks—a real Navy one. I still have it with a Marine insignia on the front; I wear it whenever I hunt in warm weather. I think we were the first Americans in the Pacific to wear pith helmets. Then the next thing I knew, our guys were wearing shorts. So I think we were sort of the pioneers of the clothing operation in the Pacific.

But my dirty bunch of boys just looked so nice all dressed up in those green flared Aussie jungle jackets. And Halsey had never seen anything like that, with all of the Marine trappings attached.

Naval History : One account says that on one of your missions, you came extremely close to a Japanese battleship.

Foss : Right. I almost hit it.

Naval History : A story that I read is that one of the other fighter pilots saw you thumbing your nose at the Japanese. Is there any truth to that?

Foss : [Laughter] None. I didn't waste time on that. I was busy just trying to avoid hitting the dang ship. I just missed the superstructure, and I came close to hitting the water alongside the ship.

Naval History : How do you rate the performance of your airplane, the Wildcat?

Foss : It had great firepower, and I just felt at home in it. The one thing that put me a notch above any of the rest of them was that I had talked my way into ACTG at San Diego; that's Aircraft Carrier Training Group, which was strictly Navy. No Marine ever got in there—no Marine.

I was in an outfit called VMD-1. V means heavier-than-air, M for Marine, and D for photography. It was a photo-reconnaissance squadron. I was the most junior man, number 40 in that squadron. And we didn't have any airplanes. Twice every day, I went to headquarters and picked up the mail. And then I just sat around studying books on aerial photography. But I didn't want to study. I wanted to get with the war.

So I got to know the three colonels: Colonel Al Cooley, Colonel Tom Ennis, and Colonel Parmalee. They were the number one, two, and three, down the line in wing. Colonel Cooley and Colonel Ennis liked cowboys, and I was a cowboy sort of a guy. I could talk their language about the West. We were getting ready to go to war, but we still didn't have any airplanes. We were waiting for F4F-7s, which had no guns on them. They were flying gas tanks, meant to take pictures. Actually, I could see no end for me in that outfit; I wanted to go to war to shoot the enemy. So I said, "Could I get a set of orders to go to ACTG?"

And they said, "It would do you no good; you can't get in over there. We cannot send Marines over to ACTG."

So I said, "Well, I'm ready. If I go over and talk them into letting me in, will you give me a set of orders?"
They laughed and said, "Sure, we'll give you a set of orders."

I got in to see the commanding officer, a Navy captain. When I appeared before his desk, he said, "You're a Marine. What the hell do you want?"

I said, "Sir, I want to get in."

He was a rough-talking sucker. He said, "The answer is no. We're only training Navy pilots here, and we can't handle all of our own people, much less a Marine. We just don't need you."

I said, "But sir, I would like to go through."

"I'm telling you to get out of here, and get out now," and he chased me out.

That made me mad, naturally. So I thought, "I'm going to hang around here all day and find out about this place. I'm not going back and tell the colonel that I didn't get in. I'm going to make a run at it tomorrow." I was scared, but I was going to figure it out.

So, the next day, I just walked in there. And boy, he roared like a lion: "I told you yesterday, no!"

I said, "Well, the thing about it, sir, is that I want to go to war. And I won't get to go to war if I'm flying a gunless airplane and taking pictures. I want to fight. And I'll do anything to get in here. I'll sweep the hangar, I'll take care of the funeral detail, absolutely any job you have that no one else wants."

Out of the clear-blue sky, he said, "Go see Lieutenant Ed Pawka."

Boy, I got out of there fast, went down and introduced myself to Ed Pawka, and said, "I'm your student." Then I got in a jeep and tore back over to the other side of the field, to VMD-1, walked in to Colonel Parmalee and said, "I need a set of orders. I got into ACTG." He couldn't believe it.

I flew 136 hours in 30 days. I flew morning, noon, and night. I even beat my instructor, and he was really good. After that, Colonel Parmalee said, "You really want to go to war?"

I said, "Yes, sir."

And he said, "Well, there's an outfit leaving next week, and they need an executive officer. And you are coming up to make captain. The skipper is a tough guy named Major Davis."

I said, "That's fine with me, sir."

He said, "I see you just got married last week. Do you still want to go to war?"

I said, "Yes, sir." With that, I was executive officer of VMF-121.

Naval History : Many people know you as a hero. Who are your heroes?

Foss : Actually, I've had lots of heroes, before the war and after. In sports, it was Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. My aviator hero was Charlie Lindbergh, and my dad, who was also interested in airplanes. My dad was really a great guy, as far as aviation was concerned.

My first ride in an airplane, though, was on a Saturday night in a Ford tri-motor, with a guy named Clyde Ice, who just died two years ago, at age 103, having logged 43,000 hours as a bush pilot. I say he was the greatest in the world, and I'm still trying to get him into the National Aviation Hall of Fame. He could take off and go in any direction and seem to know where he was every time. He never scratched an airplane in 43,000 hours. And he flew more mercy missions and delivered more babies than anybody I know. He'd go out to ranches and pick up women in labor. When they couldn't make it all the way, he'd land in a field someplace and deliver the baby. He had all kinds of the wildest stories, but he was one of the great men. My wife has some of the best pictures of old Clyde you ever saw. When he was 100, you'd swear that he was only about 65 or so.

He went hunting when he was 102. I tried to get the sporting magazines to do a story on him, because he got a moose, a deer, and an antelope—all of them shot in the neck. He didn't get his elk. I asked him, "Clyde, how come you didn't get your elk?"

He said, "You know, Joe, it's just so dang dry this year that they could hear me coming."

I wondered how many people 102 years old were out hunting in the Wyoming mountains. But the sporting magazines never did anything. I tried the same thing at the National Aviation Hall of Fame. They said, "Well, you know, it goes by the vote." I told them that just once I'd like to see an old guy who can walk in under his own power receive the National Aviation Hall of Fame Award. Clyde was a natural. He'll make it; I think he's the next guy up. But they horsed around too long.

Naval History : A great deal has been written about you. Is there anything else you'd like the American public to know about Joe Foss?

Foss : I'm a born-again Christian, and I profess that fact. And I'm a past national president of the NRA [National Rifle Association], and still on the board of directors. Some people in this country are against these two groups, calling them "the religious right," and "the nuts who want to keep guns." I fight them every inch of the way. All of these people are here compliments of the gun, for crying out loud—from the Revolution to the present. And any country that's been de-balled of all its guns is going down the drain. I'm not really nuts.

I'm telling it the way I see it. What I say, I mean.


Mr. Curtis was designated a naval aviator on 12 August 1982. Having completed primary helicopter training in Pensacola, Florida, he reported to Naval Air Station North Island, California, to fly the Boeing H-46 Sea Knight. He left the naval service in January 1989 and worked in sales for eight years. He resides in St. Charles, Illinois. This article came to Naval History from Mr. Ron Altman, an advertising and promotion executive in St. Charles, Illinois. Mr. Altman is in the process of launching The Military Connection, an Internet website devoted to telling the stories of unsung combat veterans.

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