Lest We Forget

Lieutenant Commander Thomas Cutler, U.S. Navy (Retired)

This was just the beginning, however. In the days that followed, he continued to make the skies a very hazardous place for enemy aircraft. By the 23rd he had downed 11 Japanese aircraft. His aggressive, close-in tactics, which caused another pilot to joke that he often left powder burns on his targets, were not without their cost. In those 11 days, four F4F Wildcats piloted by Foss were too damaged to fly again.

On the 25th, the Japanese launched an all-out air assault on Henderson as part of a concerted effort to overrun the field. Foss and five other Wildcat pilots took to the air at about 1000, quickly shooting down three aircraft—two were Foss's kills. That afternoon he shot down three more to become the Marine Corps' first "ace in a day."

In the off hours when he was not flying, Foss and some of the other fliers took to the jungle, armed with rifles, to hunt for Japanese soldiers. While this kind of aggressiveness was laudable, it was soon forbidden by higher authority because the pilots were considered too valuable to risk in this way.

Foss continued to fight like a tiger in the air, narrowly escaping death on numerous occasions, including ditching once in the ocean, nearly drowning and being consumed by sharks in the process. While Japanese aviators could not subdue this intrepid flier, a much smaller aerial combatant was able to take him out of the skies; Foss fell victim to malaria and had to spend six weeks recuperating in New Caledonia and Australia.

When he returned to the fight in January, he soon shot down more aircraft, bringing his total to 26 kills—a Marine Corps record.

Home from the war with a Medal of Honor among many other decorations, Joe Foss continued to do extraordinary things. Twice elected governor of South Dakota, he also served as first commissioner of the American Football League and was instrumental in the formation of the South Dakota Air National Guard. Joe Foss passed away on New Year's Day 2003.

Lieutenant Commander Cutler is the author of several books, including A Sailor's History of the U.S Navy and Brown Water, Black Berets .
 

 
 

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