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An Interview with Joseph Jacob "Joe" Foss, 1915-
(USMC; 26 victories)

Joe Foss was born in South Dakota, completed a bachelor's degree and civilian flight training in 1940, and immediately enlisted in the Marine Corps. Shortly after the Pearl Harbor attack he became executive officer of VMF-121. On October 9 1942 he flew his F4F Wildcat from the aircraft carrier Long Island to Henderson Field on Guadalcanal to become part of the "Cactus Air Force." He quickly absorbed VMF-212 leader Joe Bauer's tactics, boring in close before firing at the enemy.

Four days after his arrival he scored his first victory, a Zero, and by October 18 he was an Ace. Despite six weeks out of combat with malaria, by early 1943 Foss tied Eddie Rickenbacker's WWI record of 26 enemy aircraft shot down, and was returned to the States for a war bond tour. In May 1943 he received the Congressional Medal of Honor from President Roosevelt. After a stateside stint training new pilots, he returned to the Pacific as commander of VMF-115 flying Corsairs. Foss, whose autobiography, A Proud American: Joe Foss, includes an excellent account of his career in the "Cactus Air Force," now lives in Scottsdale, Arizona. He graciously agreed to be interviewed in order to help make Combat Flight Simulator 2: WW II Pacific Theatre as compelling as possible.

Some quotes from Joe Foss

On Dogfighting
Dogfights are normally over in a matter of seconds. If you blink, you could miss the fight. If you blink during the fight, you could die.
---From Foss' autobiography, A Proud American: Joe Foss

On What it takes to be a fighter pilot
The impulse and the act must be one. Skilled fighter pilots have one thing in common: They are fast. The airplane becomes an extension of your body, like an arm or a leg. If somebody's coming at you with a red-hot poker, you instinctively get out of the way. You don't have to think about it. You just do it. In the air, whoever acts smartest and fastest is going to be the survivor. As the Red Baron said, "It's not the crate, it's the man sitting in it." If it were not so, the Grumman Wildcat would have been a flying coffin.
---From Foss' autobiography, A Proud American: Joe Foss

On Saburo Sakai
Saburo Sakai, the top surviving Japanese ace, with whom I often share platforms at university symposiums, recently told me that I am his best friend in America.
---From Foss' autobiography, A Proud American: Joe Foss

On the truth about combat (Foss to fighter pilot trainees)
"If you're planning on this being an easy job, you've got another think coming. You can end up dead in this line of work. War is dangerous! If you have any thought of chickening out, now's the time to do it. Being any kind of pilot in enemy territory means having your life threatened on every mission." . . . After one of my talks . . . thirty-six fliers bailed out of the program. I didn't lose any sleep over that; in fact, I was glad my strategy had gotten results.
---From Foss' autobiography, A Proud American: Joe Foss

Transcript of March, 2000 interview with Joe Foss
Interview by Jon Seal and Michael Ahn

Joe Foss: (discussing the Japanese assault on Guadalcanal): They could see everything, you know. And they strafed, and there's nothing we could do. Absolutely we were pinned down, and the anti-aircraft weren't that good, and I can imagine it could make you nervous if you're under that kind of blitz. You wouldn't want to stand up there and man your gun too well, because it wasn't too safe.

There was no safe place on the island there. And [the Japanese] thought, in both cases, that they could come in on there, but they'd have gotten a good reception of course. Then they better have some tough bozos leading the attack, but they really thought they had us at that time.

Interviewer: You described that shelling in your book, and it's really pretty horrific. It was two continuous nights of shelling, and it was non-stop.

Joe Foss: Well they just, they thought they could wipe us off the island. But everybody was dedicated, real dedication, I don't care whether you were ground pounder or what job you had.

They say, "How did you get the Congressional Medal of Honor?" and I said, "I was just surrounded by good people." They made it possible for those of us who were in the firing lines to produce.

We couldn't, number one, start back on the ground. If the airplane was shot up, you aren't going to go anyplace, and those guys fixed those suckers so that they would go. They would have to change the engine, which in those days only lasted 70-some hours, because you were flying full throttle and on take-off and anytime the plane was running it would suck that coral into the tank, and that would just like filing the cylinders, your piston rings and all would go out in a hurry.

Interviewer: How did you fly? Actually you just said it, but basically you got in the cockpit, and from the moment you took off, the moment you landed you were flying that plane has hard as you possibly could, or did you…?

Joe Foss: Yeah. You see, on a scramble, you go full speed. Altitude advantage was the name of the game. And if you didn't get up there they were coming down on you, and they did.

We went at it day after day, where they had the advantage…. The only thing we had to let us know they were coming was the coast watchers up the line. See, there's a great story about that. There's a book called The Coast Watchers. Ever read that?

VIEW LARGER IMAGE
Interviewer: No.

Joe Foss: If you can get a copy of that, I've forgotten who wrote it. But it's a terrific story. You see, they were the radar, and they started way up in Buna and Buka, way up at the end of the Bougainville, where they bleed through when they fly right down what we called the gut, between the islands there, the Solomon Islands chain. And these coast watchers would count how many left, and how many came back.

So the smokers that we got - planes that we would hit and they were smoking - you had no way of staying on a plane till it crashed. If they didn't blow up, and they started smoking, that was good enough. That meant that sucker was out of action, and so you'd get busy on something else.

You never had to look for targets. See, if you're outnumbered six to one or four to one, and we were even, of course, they were hesitant to get involved with us because we had had very good luck.

If you read this Sakai's book, you'll find that all the aces ended their career there, the top guys at Guadalcanal. He almost ended his career there, although he was not shot up by a fighter. He made a mistake and flew up the kazoo on the dive bomber SBD, and didn't realize there was a well-fed old Iowa farm boy sitting back there, and he just, "Oh," and plastered him right in the puss.

And of course that's why Saburo was blind on one eye, his right eye. Bullet went in and skimmed along inside his helmet. You look at that helmet, you wonder how that guy ever lived. The helmet, the last time I saw it, and I don't know if Saburo Sakai gave the helmet to the Fredericksburg Museum, Nimitz Museum down in Texas, or if he just had it there at home, but the bullet hit the goggle, and their goggles were not as nice as ours, they were sort of heavy and it was a good thing it was because it hit here, and that deflected that .30 caliber, because if it went here he'd have been… the end of the waltz.

Joe Foss (Discussing the Wildcat):. See, General Motors built a lot of them, but I only flew those in training, for the simple reason that they had only four .50 calibers in them. Whereas the Grumman Wildcat had six. That's the only way I can tell them apart, is to look at the gun ports, and see how many of them are… how many guns there are.

Interviewer: How much do you think luck played in… how much control do you have in your life during…?

Joe Foss: In combat?

Interviewer: Yes.

Joe Foss: In combat if you didn't get scared you wouldn't have a brain, because you realize that it's a matter of life or death.

When someone's shooting at you, if you don't get a thrill out of that, you're never going to get one. You're dead.

It was that simple, you know. Actually, the only time that you get over being scared and what you call really nervous in the service was when you're in actual combat, because you've got, it's like, if you've ever competed in sports. Once you get into the game, you concentrate on the game. If you're going to take a tennis match or play football or baseball or rugby or name anyone of them. Boxing. Why, before the match you know you try to size up the enemy. Who is the other guy? That's the same way in combat, you know.

You see those airplanes up there, and, [acting nervous] "Oh, we're just about ready to engage." Once you get into it, at least I wasn't shivering and shaking. I was concentrating on getting that sucker, and trying to avoid the rest of the boys. How come we never had a lot of air crashes, collisions, I don't know. Plus we didn't have air traffic control up there.

You're going all the way, and so is the enemy, and you're really concentrating on that. That's the way it is. Combat on the ground is the same way. I've visited with a lot of the hand-to-hand combat people, and they respond the same way. Once you get into it, it's just like you're going to wrestle somebody, box them, fight them. You want to win, and it's a little more in combat you not only want to win but you want to kill that sucker, wound him so he isn't going to get you.

Interviewer: How did you motivate your men to feel that way?

Joe Foss: Well they all… you can't imagine… those of us who live represent those that didn't. They gave their lives as simply in those days as you go and deposit money to purchase something. They had confidence in this country, and they knew that they liked the lifestyle that they had, with freedom, freedom. Which the opposition didn't intend to give you…

We were dedicated for this because we knew what the Germans were doing, and we knew what the Japanese were trying to do. They wanted world domination. They wanted to take over and tell us how we were going to live, and operate, and they were going to try with their sneak attack they set us off on high blower. Boy oh baby I'm telling you, I saw that thing coming way, way ahead of time. I enlisted in the field artillery, Army National Guard in 1937. I knew there was going to be a war and I wanted to be in it. I love this country.

Interviewer: Were you flying then?

Joe Foss: No. I flew privately. I was flying. I had paid for my lessons, and was flying. And then the CPT program came along and I took that. And then in 1940 I got out of the Army Guard and into the Marine Corps, because I wanted to fly.

Interviewer: I think it's hard for people to understand that you and the men on Guadalcanal were willing to give up their lives.

Joe Foss: Absolutely.

Interviewer: There's a story that you tell about Roger Haberman getting wounded in combat, and being shipped back to the rear, and then showing up on your doorstep. He actually went AWOL - he was wounded and he actually went AWOL to be back, to get out. Why do you think he did that?

Joe Foss: Because they wanted to be… they felt they could contribute their share. Doc Everett, same way. He was wounded, and the way that the doctor took care of you, we'd hold the guy down on the cot for his operation, and the doctor would dig out the shrapnel or bullet with a thing like they clean your teeth with. And dig it out and put that sulpha powder on. Now Doc Everett flew immediately afterward.

My CO, Major Davis, Duke Davis flew the same day he was wounded in the morning, and he flew that same day. He got hit on the side of the face, the right arm, and the right leg a little bit. The shrapnel was dug out and he had all this swelling, and taped up face, and here he was went right back up in combat, the same day.

Interviewer: So why do you think he didn't say, "You know what? I'm here, I'm just going to take three days and heal a little bit..."

Joe Foss: Absolutely the strong belief in "I contribute to this" is their thinking. "I contribute so much I don't want to let the rest of my guys down. I just want to be there, come hell and high water", as they say.

It's hard for people to understand that. Their dedication to country. You see, like in sports. You don't have it where the individual has that dedication to his team that they used to have. Like Babe Ruth and a whole crew of athletes of that day stayed with the Yankees and the same way in football. They had a loyalty.

Now they worry about the all-mighty dollar, in most instances. And as a result it's taken a lot away from sports. I like the faces, I like the people, I like the same ones. I like to get to know 'em. But now you really have to follow on the sports page to figure it out.

Interviewer: I've got a question about training. We've been reading a little bit about guys who finish their training right at the beginning of a war and they find themselves seeing Guadalcanal in the thick of things. What was the difference between what they taught you in training and what you really learned when you got into combat? Did you feel, "Wow, I'm going to have to get my own education here?"

Joe Foss: No, actually the training really prepared you for combat. Even though we didn't get much training compared to today's combat individual, whether they're on the ground or in the air or wherever they are, they have had so much training, you cannot believe it. Background stuff. They're really prepared in comparison to what we had.

Interviewer: Well, what you had, now I'm curious about this. When we go through the Navy training manuals, the scripts that the trainers would use in flight with their students, there wasn't a lot of discussion about combat. You learned the Chandelle, you learned the Immelman and you learn the Split-S, but early on in the war was there anyone who said, "You're going to need to know this because this might happen to you."? Did you pick it up through scuttlebutt? How were you able to leverage what you learned, in combat?

Joe Foss: Well, I talk about that first squadron of ours, VMF 121. They average 213 hours total in an airplane. So I say when you have that, I don't want to ride with you, taxing around the airfield at night. In the daytime I'm okay, but at night I wouldn't want to do it.

They had never flown the Grumman F4F Wildcat, most of them, when we left the shores of the United States. We didn't have any planes to fly. We had some SNJs, the T-6s, the airport called them. We had the SNJ's, three of them, and there we had 40-some pilots.

Then on the Wildcat, we had two Wildcats, and a couple of Brewster Buffaloes. That's the total airplanes that we had when we were at Camp Kearney, there at San Diego, waiting to go to combat.

Okay, when we got on the ship, the Matsonia, and sailed for overseas, we just read manuals. [Points to after-action reports] We just had these things that we'd read, you know, what combat was all about, that was just late from the guys, Marion Carl, and John Smith, and the rest of the crew that was there. Bob Galer, they were the top guys, see, of that day.

So we read probably the same sheet you have here, what they said about combat. And then we would play poker the rest of the time, and the ship was so slow it took us 30 days to get zigged and zagged across the blue Pacific to New Caledonia.

So we flew the planes off the carrier, most of the guys had never been on a carrier. Now I was carrier qualified, one of the few guys along with our commanding officers, Major Duke Davis. So the rest of them haven't gone through anything.

So we go to Tontuda, and we wanted everybody to get a couple of flights there, and so the kids got a couple of flights, so they had some time in the type aircraft they're going to fly in combat. Some of them had no time at all in the Wildcat, when we arrived at Tontuda. They flew off the carrier and landed there in Tontuda.

Okay, then we'd go back aboard the carrier, and head for combat, and then when we got up within 300-some miles of Guadalcanal , the enemy subs were concentrating on getting us, and we didn't want to lose our planes, and so right away then we catapulted off, the double catapult would shoot us off.

I was the last guy off. The plane just ahead of me was flown by a Lieutenant Simpson, and the hook broke, so he went putt, putt, putt, fall off the bow of the carrier, hit the water, and that was one of the famous pictures that was taken as far as I was concerned, during the war.

Every plane that takes off the carrier, there's a camera outfit out in the bow, and they photograph it. And in this case, when Simpson hit the water, the splash was open, and it appears that he was running on the leading edge of the airplane. And they blew that picture up so it was about seven, eight feet tall, and I saw it on the walls of the various clubs of the Pacific, where they would have an officer's club and they showed this lone pilot running, and it looked like…. But he got out of there so fast, and for good reason too, because that carrier's right behind him, and if that carrier gets close to you it sucks you down in the screws, and chews you up so there's nothing left.

I called back - I was the next guy off, the last guy. So I went off and then I called and they said they picked him up, the destroyer right behind him got him that quick, so we were missing one plane and one pilot. Then I headed north to Guadalcanal.

Then the next sensation I got was when I saw the bomb holes around Guadalcanal. You see, there were bomb holes and artillery marks and so forth, all around. You had to be concentrating.

Interviewer: Did you have any expectation of what you were going to see before you saw it? Had you heard that Guadalcanal? Were you expecting a fully-formed base?

Joe Foss: No, I knew it would just be a hole in the woods, in the jungle. I wasn't expecting anything, I knew.

I think some of our planes got shot at by our own people, they were a little nervous coming in, but they missed.

Then I knew the people on the ground gave us a great reception. Boy they were yelling, they were glad to see us. And that old John Smith...

I had never met John before, and here he was one of the top aces, he had 16 or 19 airplanes, whatever it was, to his credit. And so I said to John, "Are you old veterans going to show us around?"

And this guy was really a deadpuss. He very rarely smiled, and he just says, "Tomorrow you will be veteran."

Interviewer: Chilling, chilling. What were the things you would tell a new pilot?

Joe Foss: My advice to them was just stay alert or this will be your last place.

To tell somebody about aerial combat, I would say is a joke. You got to actually witness and be in it.

You do things in aerial combat naturally I say that destroy your own airplane. You can't think, really, how this is going to affect the aircraft. You wouldn't do it if you were flying around looking at the clouds, the stuff that you do when somebody's after you or you're after them. You put out 100%, is the only way I can describe it.

I had a terrific wingman. Boot Furlow. Boot, he had to anticipate what I was going to do. That's the toughest job, to be a wingman. You've got to watch what the guy ahead of you is doing. You try to stay as close as you could, but of course we were madly scissoring, that maneuver was invented by the Navy, and Jimmy Thach and Jimmy Flatley were the two guys that call it the Thach/Flatley weave, and I got to know both guys after the war, and I never asked them which one of you guys invented that, but, I don't know, I've heard both ways. I wasn't with them when they did it.

Interviewer: Do you remember when you first heard about that maneuver?

Joe Foss: Yeah, we heard about it on the carrier going over. They briefed us; every day we had briefing sessions on the carrier going over, trying to tell us about it. Actually those that were trying to tell us about it didn't take much time to get everything in there, they were so busy that they just men of few words, and then didn't give you…. You never had to worry about a long-winded discussion period, it was short and to the point.

Interviewer: Did you understand it? It's a fairly complex maneuver…

Joe Foss: Well, to keep from running into one another. But it never concerned anybody. We got so good you could do it in the clouds.

I still say that I was surrounded by the best people in the world. Every other fighter pilot that lived through it would say the same thing. You had to believe in the people that you were with, and somebody says, "Well, it must have been really tough when you lost someone." It was, it was in comparison to losing a brother. Even though you'd only known the individual for a few weeks or days, a loss to me.

But I couldn't cry, I just inwardly I felt really bad about it, and especially when I knew that this young man was a father of a little baby, that he'd left a pretty wife, and all I could imagine what she was going through, and he never came back. So when I lost someone I thought of all of these side things, and it was a sorry day.

Interviewer: You mentioned in your book that people didn't talk about it.

Joe Foss: No, you didn't, you never… now I find that some of the diaries - we checked everything that went back. We made certain that we didn't send something home that would embarrass the individual. And their private effects, and what they've written.

There were a couple of times that I read in the diary that they weren't supposed to keep a diary, but some did. You would read where they sort of closed the book on themselves and made it sound like this is the end of the chapter. They seemed to know that they were going to get killed. I don't know how, I never had that feeling.

I never, in the sorriest situation that I was in, I never figured that I would get killed. I got scared, but I didn't feel that this is the end of the waltz, that the airplane's going to blow up when they started smoking and all.

I will always remember that that one time I got shot down when they were yelling, "Bail out! Bail out!" [on the radio]. I didn't know my airplane was smoking, and I didn't realize that that instant I had just been hit by a shell in the oil cooler, and that black that was going out was oil.

And so on the ground Colonel Joe Renner was looking up, and he said [over the radio], "Whoever that is, bail out." He thought it was fire, see, and that the airplane was going to blow up.

Then when I kicked it to the side, and I was ready to go. I looked up and here [a Zero was] just coming, peeling, coming right at me, so I kicked the thing around to my tail toward it, and I had already unhooked my communication after I heard [Colonel Renner] say "bail out," but then I hooked up and got my belt on real quick, I guarantee you, and that time the guy hit me again, BRRRR, really rattled it.

And the second [Zero] had got me, and then I was yelling, "Greg! Rudy!" And of course that was Greg Loesch and Rudy Radel.

And these two Zeroes never saw them, and they pulled up and were getting ready to hit me again, figuring we really got this old duck.

And Greg and Rudy came by and WHACK, WHACK, got those two guys, knocked them off in a hurry. But then I of course coasted down and landed on the field.

Interviewer: So all you had to say to your men were, "Greg! Rudy!," and they knew exactly what to do?

Joe Foss: Oh, they knew. They knew that that was me.

Interviewer: That really is the kind of teamwork that Colonel Bauer teaches.

Joe Foss: Yeah, we had great teamwork.

Interviewer: Were you actually giving the Zekes shots so your wingmen would have shots on the Zekes?

Joe Foss: No, I was chasing the guy. I was battling away. The thing about it, we had company in any direction we went. The one time, I think there were 24 Zeroes in the area, and there were eight of us, so that's three to one.

Those guys had the altitude advantage. If I had been running that show I'd of shot every one of us down, but those guys screwed up, and it ended up-we've got almost half of them we got out of the deal, see? That was a case where [another Wildcat] flight was supposed to come down and join us, didn't.

Interviewer: Was there a lot of that?

Joe Foss: No, there wasn't a lot of it. There was very rarely did that happen.

Interviewer: But it happens.

Joe Foss: It happened in this case. It was a new beginner, and he never led another flight.

Interviewer: People sort of knew.

Joe Foss: He was new and done in a hurry.

Interviewer: How did you feel about the Japanese pilots you fought against? What did you think of their tactics and their skills as pilots?

Joe Foss: No, I thought they were pretty good. You know, the maneuver's they'd do as far as doing slow rolls, going straight up, and that would tee me off, knowing that they could do that, and had enough power and speed advantage to do that kind of stuff. Naturally it would really rowl me that they would do that.

I'll say that they were a cocky group. The only one I ever met during all my combat right at the time was the one that Conger ran into, and they both bailed out at the same instant, out of the two wrecked airplanes. How they got out is a miracle, because of the altitude that they were at, and they both came out of there at the same time and then they were falling, the two bodies, and the parachute in both instances starting to open as they went behind the palm trees that I was looking over.

And so then we jumped in the jeep, and tore down there. There was already a Higgins boat going out to pick them up, and the guy closest to shore waved the Higgins boat off, and so they knew then that they'd recognized it that the enemy was the guy that waved them off, and they thought that he's a great sport, so they went out and picked Conger up, and said "That guy you just knocked down there is really a friendly guy."

So old Conger thought that was terrific, and he was riding on the side of the PT, or Higgins boat, rather, and he jumped up on the side of that thing-he's a short guy, and the sailors must have had a hold of his feet.

He extended his hand toward the guy, and the guy took his pistol and stuck it right between old Conger's eyes and pulled the trigger and it went click.

You've got to admit that you'd get sort of a thrill out of that.

And of course Conger's fever went up a little bit. [Conger] hit [the Japanese pilot] with a gas can or a boat hook…. So whatever he got him with, it parted his hair absolutely straight down the middle, and he had a nice fresh haircut, and the hair was a butch, and he had the blackest hair you ever saw in your life, but he didn't bleed much, was just a little blood, I guess the salt water sort of stopped the bleeding.

So then they pulled [the Japanese pilot] in. Of course, before they got him, he tried to kill himself, and the gun wouldn't go off, so that was what you would say was a lousy handgun.

Then, of course, when he came in and they got him out, they were really curious to see what the people we were fighting looked like, and here was this nice shaped guy - I always think of him, that modern day people wouldn't understand this: Tony Kansaneri. He was an old-time fighter. And he was a real nice, built, solid guy with a waist on 26 or so, and broad shoulders, and really a fighter. This guy, his flight suit was in perfect shape, you know.

And he had a scarf, old original, like you'd get ready for graduation. And of course we didn't wear this kind of crap, no way. We looked like farmer Jones going out to milk.

And so when he hocked and spit at us, see, some of the guys were moved like the were going to shoot, and I says to the whole crew, "Oh, forget this foolishness here. The interrogation officer will be here in a minute."

That's the last I saw of the guy until years later, down there at the Nimitz Museum, this guy came up and said, "Is Major Conger around yet?" And I said, "No, I've heard that he isn't going to be in until tomorrow."

And so then somebody interrupted, and the guy went away, this Japanese guy. So then the next day, here comes Conger, and I said, "Hey Jack, there's a friend of yours that was asking about you, that guy right over there." He looked over, and said, "I don't know him." Old Jack was sort of belligerent. "I don't know him." And I said, "Well, he sounded like he was a good friend of yours."

So I took him over and introduced him, and it turned out to be the guy that tried to shoot old Jack. See, I saw their picture in the paper once, they were doing the dancing bear act [lecture circuit] together, out of Milwaukee at some party they were having there for old veterans and so forth, and they were there.

Interviewer: So what did he think of meeting this man who tried to kill him?

Joe Foss: They went out and played golf.

Interviewer: The great equalizer.

Joe Foss: I think Saburo Sakai and I think the guy's name is Ishikawa - I think that he and Jack and somebody else played a round of golf.

Interviewer: So you see this small, young pilot I would imagine, but tough and dedicated. When you went back, and you talked, were you less intimidated by the Japanese pilots or were you more intimidated, or how did you feel about a guy that would try to kill himself and try to shoot your fellow pilot?

Joe Foss: I always said, we're fighting some real SOBs. I wasn't friendly toward him, because of some of the things they had done right there.

The one thing they emphasized, the way they operated, was when old Vusu got caught. He was the head of the natives there on the island of Guadalcanal, and Vusu would float back and forth through the lines like a shadow, and he'd go back there, and of course he told our people how many people were back there and all, and he was really on our side.

Of course, then the Japanese patrol caught him, and them wanted him to talk, so they hung him in a tree like a hog, hung him up by his heels. And they were tormenting him, sticking a bayonet in his elbows, and the backs of his legs, and then when they heard our patrol coming, they left him there to die, and of course our guys cut him down and carried him down, and he went in the hospital.

It was about a week later, I guess, maybe not even that long that he came out, and Bob Cromie - he was the reporter for, war correspondent for the Chicago Tribune - who after the war dedicated his life to the Tribune. He says, "What will you do if you catch up to that patrol?" And old Vusu looked right through all of us and looked at the hills there and said, "I kill him."

And then Clements, the Coast Watcher and the group that ran with him and Vusu went up there in the mountains back on the lines, and they found that outfit, and they waited until they bivouacked, and that night they went in with their machetes and killed every one of them. Clements wanted to bring the commanding officer of the outfit back to interrogate him, but Vusu was dead set and "I kill him," and whacko, and off went his head.

Interviewer: Don't mess with the locals.

Interviewer: The Pacific war was very personal.

Joe Foss: Different deal. See I always carried a handgun with me. I carried two handguns. I had a .22 handgun, loaded with hollowpoint bullets, and I had a couple of clips for it, and that under my shoulder where it didn't show, and I had a .45 on my hip.

Of course, what I always figured, if I bailed out and land on an enemy airfield or someplace where they could get at me, I could play dead till they get right up around me, and then kill as many of them as I can before they killed me, see?

Interviewer: Pappy Boyington got beat up quite severely a whole bunch of times when he was taken prisoner.

Interviewer: But he, amazingly in his book, he came full circle and forgave them.

Joe Foss: Yeah, he was just a tough guy.

Interviewer: We talked about the coach, Lieutenant Colonel Bauer who was lost in the war and it seems like everyone who knew him revered him. I just wanted to get your take on him, what you thought of him. Why was he such a great leader, and how did he inspire you?

Joe Foss: Well, he just was a very positive man, a big man. And he'd shown what he could do, he'd knocked down about a dozen airplanes, I've forgotten exactly how many. So he wasn't just blowing smoke, he's actually done it.

And he knew the tactics, watched everyone else. He was right in the thick of the fight, and of course this one day he says to me, "Joe, I want to go up with you and just fly wing on you," and I said, "No sir. I'll fly wing on you, sir." So he says, "All right."

And this is when we were going on up to attack the enemy fleet that was coming down the slot, with the escorting six cargo ships. And so we coordinated the deal with the Navy, off the carrier. The planes off the island were to go and intercept this outfit, and they were located between the Russell Islands and Choiseul, coming down.

So everybody fired up. On the Grumman Wildcat, to start that you use the shotgun shell. If you didn't get it started on the first time, well then you had to pull the throttle, pull the propeller through, and sometimes you could start it on the second shell without doing that, but normally the best procedure was to pull it through several times and it would pull throttle and get the gas out of the chambers, see?

So Joe, or Colonel Bauer, didn't get his airplane started. So then I told the rest of our crew to go and Loesch, I think it was, to take and lead my flight. So we waited and waited for Colonel Bauer, and he finally got his plane started, see? Then Boot and I joined up on him.

We took off. We were several minutes late. When we got up to altitude, and we were approaching the area where we could see the enemy fleet in the distance, you could see the columns of smoke rising up like the photograph you had there. Black smoke. So we'd knew they did their work well.

As I recall there were six ships that were smoking like that, and so then I actually I see our planes returning already, down low where the dive bombers would scream down and way down there could see them.

And we were in a spot about 20,000 feet at the time, and I just thought that Colonel Bauer would turn around and we'd go back. It was too late, you know, we were out of the deal and the attack was over.

But no, he just came on, and floated toward the fleet, toward all the smoke, and when we get up over the fleet, why he just gave the signal to dive, and which was a wish-wash, and we'd peel off and down we go, and Joe in the middle and Boot on the right side and me on the left side, and we went down right on the water.

Right down, and we're flying just five, ten feet off the water, strafing these ships, see? And I thought, oh boy. Any minute now the Zeros are going to be coming. There's got to be some Zeros around here. While we're horsing around, right in the middle of the fleet, mind you. We're zigging and zagging and tearing around making turns in there within the fleet, which isn't the safest place to be doing gimmicks.

And just exactly what I said it, just like it started snowing, and those son of a guns were behind us, and the first guy made a run on me, went by and I popped him; an easy shot. He overran me, which is a dumb deal to do. He should just hit me and break off, but he didn't. He just wanted me to see him. And so I got on the tail of another one, and almost ran into a ship, concentrating on the airplane.

Interviewer: So you're about, you're literally about 20-30 feet off the ground.

Joe Foss: Five, ten feet off the water. We were down there. See, when you're so low, and then you're in the middle of the enemy fleet, they can't shoot or they'll shoot one another. But here are all the ships milling around, and it's really like circus day, you've really got 'em. It's an interesting place to be, and we were hitting life boats and everything else.

Interviewer: But at the same time you can't break. You're so low that you can't break left or right, you can only go up or straight.

Joe Foss: Well, we just raised up enough to make a turn. But, what happens is that just off to my right why Joe Bauer just put the plane right on its tail. There's a Zero coming right down, and the Zero blew up. He nailed that baby in great shape.

That's when I almost hit the ship. I just looked at that, and I shouldn't have taken my eyes off. And the guy that I was chasing, I had him smoking real good, and so he never went anyplace, he probably just landed over there, crashed a little. But I didn't see him go down, that guy at all.

And so then I figured, we better get out of here. And so I make a turn toward where Joe was, looked around and saw no sign of Joe. But Boot was over there blasting away, and so I call, "Let's go." My radio was dead. They hit my radio. I'd gotten hit a couple of times; I don't know how many bullet holes, but I had enough that the radio was blown.

And so I swung back to go on back the other way. When I did, I just caught this oil streak, it just went in from right in the fleet, and just went in the direction of Guadalcanal, see? So then I figured that had to be Joe Bauer. I followed it, and I gave the doop-de-doop signal for Boot and he caught it, that we were going home. Boot was off to my left then.

So when we went by where Joe Bauer, I saw this guy in the middle of a big oil slick, and he just jumped up and waved to us like that. "Go home, get out of here," see? So the enemy wouldn't see us. If we circled, they'd know he was out there. So I "pulled the chain for dear old Maine" to drop the dang rubber boat I had, but it didn't come down. Joe was in the water with no boat, nothing. Just a life jacket.

Interviewer: He had his Mae West?

Joe Foss: Yeah, he had is Mae West on. So then Boot and I just headed for home, right on the deck, and they got home. I called as quick as I could, tried to, but no radio, so I couldn't tell them that the colonel was missing.

When we landed, I just said, "Colonel Bauer was down. I saw him in the water there, he's down." Joe Renner says, "Come and we'll get in the duck and go after him."

So I got in the duck, it was parked down there with the rest of us. The hatch was out in the bottom, so I'm getting the hatch in, you know to flip the thing over and have to screw it down. You land with that sucker open; you're in trouble.

What happened, Joe taxies out, Joe Renner taxies out, and slotted down in the throttle, and a B-25 taxies in from the side, and Joe had enough speed, so he got that doggone duck airborne, and we went over the top of the B-25, and hit the runway on the other side.

Now that was a case of the Lord just picked the airplane up and set it down, because we didn't have that much speed. And I wasn't buckled in. I was trying to crawl from the bottom up to the top, and I couldn't figure out. See, I didn't see the B-25, I didn't see anything, and I couldn't figure out. So I said, "What was all of that, and he said, "Some blankety blank taxied out in front of me."

And so we head up there, and a duck doesn't go very fast. We could see all of the smoke from the distance and then it kept getting darker and darker. By the time we got to where the enemy fleet was, it was pitch dark. Absolutely black.

And what's Joe Renner do, goes straight into the middle of that deal, and then we're flying around almost hit a ship, and I'm pleading, "We can't see the colonel here in the dark. We couldn't pick up an elephant, we couldn't see him, sir. And I'm just telling the colonel we've got to get out of here before we run into a ship. He was flying right on the water, and we almost hit a ship. We almost hit a couple of them. Hit a lifeboat, we were right there, see.

So he finally listened and climbed up. Turned around and said, "What I'll do, I'll be here in the morning with my flight, and you fly this thing, and we'll be here before daylight, so we can see and pick up the colonel.

And so the next morning we were there before daylight, and circled around in the dark. Then when it got light enough to see, there were no ships, there was just garbage all over the sea. Some were bodies, some were just boxes and old crap. When a ship sinks, it's amazing how much garbage comes to the top.

Then we lined up and we're flying back and forth. And we fly back and forth and here comes the Zeros, there were six Zeros, and eight of us. So two guys got left out. We just turned, got into it, and we had six more airplanes to our credit. We got rid of them all there in short order, and two of the boys didn't get any.

So then we line up again and go at it. Back and forth, flying line abreast, and we went the other way and we combed that entire sea. And the only Zeros we ever saw, and we could have gotten really in trouble was we were combing away at it there and we stayed until we were getting really to the outside area of the gas.

So we turned around and went home and that was the end of Joe Bauer.

Interviewer: Could you describe him?

Joe Foss: He's a tall, high cheekboned individual. He was part Indian, or as they say today, Native American. It was just a 24-karat man. Now Joe Bauer, Joe Renner was the same extraction, and can you imagine three Joes all bolloxed up in this deal.

But that was in itself just three guys named Joe on the thing. But it was a sorry day. Everybody loved Joe Bauer.

The thing about it, though, to think that we couldn't find him. Evidentially, either a shark got him, or they saw, and they were so mad because of what we had done, and were doing, that they went over there took him out of the water and they got him. Lord knows what happened to him.

Interviewer: I wanted to ask you about the other aces. Actually, I have to tell you a quick story about Chuck Yeager, this was when I was younger and I was working for a radio station. It was right after The Right Stuff came out, and I asked him, first question right off the bat: "General Yeager, can you tell me what is "the right stuff" in a pilot?" And he just took me to task right there. He hated that question. Basically he said, "There's no one factor, you know. A man can be a great pilot. He could be a great fighter pilot." Do you agree? You've met a lot of the pilots that flew the war - do you sense a commonality between you?

Joe Foss: You have to be an aggressive character. Now, all fighter pilots that live through the war were not aggressive. Some were more or less quiet.

But, you cannot be a leader and sit on your hands or come out and say, [quietly] "Well no, I think we're going to go out and we're going to really fight today. I realize that this is really tough and you've got us outnumbered, and," and so on.

Why if you don't come out and say, "Okay men. Let's take this baby, and we aren't worrying about them. What we're going to do is what we think is best for us, and we're going to put out and be alert 100% of the time.", if you weren't, somebody would sneak up on you and get you.

Now Chuck is a very aggressive character. He might call himself Mickey Mouse, which he ain't. You met him, you know that he chewed you up over a ham sandwich there.

The category of fighter pilot, you have to be, I don't care where you fit in to it, a feisty character that's ready to fight. That's the name of the game. And of course now today it's different, because you're fighting long-range. You do not see the enemy in most instances. You're looking at black boxes, and you go the top box up there is the radar. And you've got that 180 degree here on the left, and 180 degree here, and you see the ghost coming at you over here. You figure out your leads, and all of that stuff. Long range you get a hit and you didn't know really what you hit, but you got rid of it, it goes off the screen. It's a different deal.

You can compare it to hand to hand combat. It was hand to hand combat in Europe, and in the Pacific during the war. But you just look at fighter pilots, and you'll see a different type of individual.

Interviewer: A high level of aggression.

Joe Foss: Yeah, the bomber pilots - now, I never wanted to be a bomber pilot. I'd go nuts as a bomber pilot. You have to be braver than brave to sit there and take it, you know, and just drill on the target, you're going for the target, and you're going there in spite of everything.

And when say the copilot gets killed or a pilot gets killed, all those instances where it actually happened that way, they pull off the dead guy and another one gets in the seat, and go. They really earned their money. I don't want any part of that.

I am a loner when it comes to that, me and my airplane. I'm in control of that airplane all the way, and I'm not checking with somebody saying, "A little to the right and a little to the left, and blow them up in the middle." It was like, I don't want no part of that.

Interviewer: I've got kind of a two-part question. It's really about fear. One is I read in your book, and I also read in Major John Smith's interview here that you said at the beginning that Japanese, early reports about the Zero and its pilots were pretty scary. As a matter of fact, John Smith says that "we were all scared of each other for quite a while. We were learning as much about them as they were about us. It was just about even, we were still scared of each other." I wonder how long did it take for you guys on Guadalcanal to overcome those early rumors that the Zeros and it's pilots were invincible and that you had a real hard row to hoe?

Joe Foss: I didn't take me any time. I didn't think they were invincible. I just, I had known some of the kids who had knocked them down, and I figured if they can knock them down, why I can knock them down, and there's no sweat and I met old John Smith and Bob Galer, and Marion Carl.

Bob Galer, now there's a little guy that was All-American basketball player from, I believe it was University of Washington. It was the state of Washington anyway. He was All-American, and I'd say he weighed about 140 pounds or so, and moved like a piece of greased lightning. He had the right attitude.

Marion Carl, there's nothing stopped him. Big old tall guy that was just so dedicated to it that nothing appeared to stare him.

Then there was old John Smith, who was a self-contained guy more or less. Smith was different than Galer and Carl. Smitty, he was really all business. For him to relax, he was a lot like Curt LeMay, General Curtis LeMay, in that when John Smith laughed, he'd [woodenly] "Ha, ha, ha," and that was about it. He'd just never got carried away with it.

Interviewer: Colonel Bauer-

Joe Foss: Now there's a guy that would, Colonel Bauer, he was outgoing, and just happy all the time. Go around slap him on the back, always had something to say. He was a one-man gang, really. He'd of made a great football coach, basketball coach.

And in fact they called him coach, you know, because he was always willing to stop and tell some kid that had just arrived, that was scared to death, nothing to do with this, all you've got to do is go get 'em. They're out there and you're here, and so get the shortest way you can go. Now there were others there.

A senior officer, an old guy like I was, at age 27 I was classified as old, should stay on the ground and give good advice. I couldn't have any more stayed on the ground and tell somebody how to go after, then I could to run over and smash that window.

I absolutely wanted to be there and, in fact, almost killed myself being there when I took that airplane that had been grounded and took it up, and the guy who grounded it was right. I just almost got my head cut off by Colonel Bauer, he really got on to me over that. "Too bad you didn't get killed," he said. "You're too dumb to live!" He said, "Taking that airplane off, it was grounded!" And I said, "Well I didn't especially agree with the guy that grounded it, and I had to try it out. I'm sorry I made a mistake, sir."

And I wanted to get back in the air right away to get away from him. I totally dismantled the airplane. There's nothing left of it. You land in a palm grove, and you really got problems in River City, as they say. The landing gear came off on the first tree I hit, the top of it. That sort of curved a little bit of it. I went down hit the next tree about 14 feet up, and that broke the airplane, it was just a pile of junk.

The only mark I got was it broke the windshield, and a piece of flying glass hit me and went through my helmet and hit a vein in my head, and the blood was running down both sides of my face. So I was nervous in the service, it sort of knocked me cold for a minute or so.

When I came to, I couldn't imagine where all the blood was coming from, then this guy yelled at me to come over there and ambush the front trench, see. So I ran over there and jumped in the trench with this guy, and he said, "Take your helmet off. He recognized me, and he said, "Captain, take your helmet off." And so I took my helmet off, and he looked at it and it was just this little hole that was squirting a little blood. He said a lot of bad words, and I put my helmet back on to stop it, and then the meat wagon came, and that's one of the funniest sights of the war.

[The Doc] came and he saw this blood on the airplane, and they didn't realize how close they were to the front. They were right on it, see? And he says, "Oh he must be hurt! He must be hurt!" And they're looking around on the ground there for me, and I'm sitting over there laughing, watching these guys stumble around. And the driver, it's just the driver and the doctor, and one other.

I swear that the doctor had been drinking some of his brandy, you know. They gave me a bottle of that to stabilize you when you were hurt. It would teach you to never drink brandy. Boy, that tasted like kerosene, it would make your eyes spin in opposite directions. It was just really something. I don't know if you guys have ever tried it. That brandy is a biting snake, and so I just got a big kick out of it.

But I was dreading to see Bauer, because I knew he was going to explode, and I was right, he did. I wanted to get in the air, and I did. I was ready to go on a flight and I was out of there a little bit later. I got back in the air where it was safer than around him. He really was mad.

Interviewer: I wanted to get your opinion on the Wildcat. What kind of plane was it like to fly for you? What are your impressions in landing it and fighting in it?

Joe Foss: I loved that Grumman F-4F Wildcat. I just loved it. It was like a brother to me. It was tough, and I would be able to destroy the enemy with it, and I couldn't blame it for the speed it didn't have, but I felt at home.

I felt protected in there because of the durability, and it was a part of my body. It was just like I was going around. I was so familiar with it that it could be falling upside down, I never had any fear of unusual positions.

Of course, that probably dates back to when I was instructing for the last months that I instructed. I was an aerobatic instructor. I instructed all the slow rolls and snap rolls and all of this stuff. And I'd fly six hours a day. My eyeballs would be crossed by when you get done after a day's work like that, you know.

You do it once and the student does it once, then you do it twice because he doesn't get it yet, and maybe you'll do a half of one to get 'er there. I felt like that old Grumman was a part of my body, and that's why I felt so safe, really. Because I figured I could outrun 'em, if need be. So I twirl over and go straight down, but I found out they could catch you that way too.

That time that I was shot down and I evidently peed 'em off, I shot this plane down and then the other guys that were with him, three other guys that were with him, three other guys, came after me, and they really filled me with lead. Followed me right over the field.

Interviewer: You know, Sakai says the same thing in his book. He's talking about two of his fellow pilots, Uta and Nishizawa, and he says that they flew as if the Zero was an extension of their body. Exactly the same thing, that they have the same feeling about their aircraft.

Joe Foss: Well, it's a great feeling. When I felt that way about a P-51 after the war, see, when I was CO of the South Dakota Air Guard. I flew that baby, some days, maybe five, six days in a row, every day. Go out and do aerobatics, or gunnery or something, and I'd go fishing with that airplane.

Any airplane where you can fly and fly and fly, you get so that it becomes a part of your body. You'll perform a lot better.

Interviewer: How about the Corsair?

Joe Foss: Corsair, I finally got so I felt the same with the Corsair, and I could do any maneuver in the book, and felt at home in the Corsair.

Interviewer: I've read that some pilots say they love the Wildcat because the scale of it was such that they felt control, and you didn't feel as if you were part of just a massive machine. The Corsair is way, way bigger and heavier.

Joe Foss: Actually, every airplane that I've every flown that I liked. After I flew it a while I just felt at home.

Now, the first jet I ever flew was the F-80, and Gabby Gabreski checked me out in the thing. Gabby is a real relaxed guy, and so Gabby says, "It's parked over there, and here's the book."

And so I said, "Who's gonna follow me around and tell me what to do?"

Well, he said, "I've got a young guy here." And so I looked at this kid. And now he was a real expert, but he did have, as I recall, 300 hours in that airplane, but the Lieutenant was sort of nervous in the service: here's a colonel, or I guess maybe I was a BG at the time. No, I was a colonel. And here was a colonel, and he was a first Lieutenant, so he didn't talk much, and he told me about the airplane.

So I got this what I call a hurry-up check out. Some weeks later, why I run into General Charlie Meyers, who is the head of the Training Command, at a cocktail party and reception. And so I visited with him and I said, "You know, General, there should be a class where senior officers could get checked out on jets, because I don't think you can afford to lose these highly experienced individuals when they get into jets, because of their not really knowing all of the intricacies of the opposite operation of a jet. I think it would be nice if you could just have a concentrated school or course on work, where they would get this adequate training in jets." Then the general took me very serious.

Two weeks later, I had orders for Williams Air Force Base. Out there in July. It was hotter than blazes, and I thought that anyone that lived in Arizona has a mental problem. Because on the runway the temperature is actually 142 degrees, and we were walking around out there.

But, you look at my log book and you'll find that it one month's time out here a few days over, I flew over 100 hours. And I took the same ground school that the cadets were taking. There were 12 of us in that class that came out here, and I'd be willing to make a bet that none of the 12 of us there were crashed in the jet.

We went on to fly an assortment of jets after, see. So I flew for years around where I only flew jets, never got into the prop jobs after that. It was the greatest thing in my life, actually. That's why I lived there.

Interviewer: In the book you talked about the Mitsubishi Betty bomber. I have read a lot that the Betty was this thing that was easily blown up, but you actually have high praise for the bomber.

Joe Foss: The thing doesn't seem to blow up that easy.

Interviewer: Can you tell me what it was like to intercept and attack the Betty?

Joe Foss: Well, the Betty was a tougher airplane to knock down than a Zero. They weren't the same class at all. It was a good airplane for what they used it for. It was fast, and you see they came in there and we were having a tough time getting up where they were. They cruise in there and of course if they nosed over, you never did catch them. They just left you back there sucking air. I had to give them a good rating, with the Betty.

Interviewer: Did you have a preferred method of attack?

Joe Foss: Just be as close to 90 degrees deflection as you could get, because there's the Betty going out, and I loved to come, just try to run into it. On an overhead how you do that, you cruise out here, turn over on your back and come by going the opposite direction.

The closer I could come to it, the better I liked. You didn't have to use your sights, see? You could just pour the lead into that baby, and for them to get a shot at you, it's a cold day, when you come in.

Or the other is a high side, where you come go on a 90-degree. I preferred that; any time I got near a bomber of any kind.

Interviewer: How far out would you open up on them?

Joe Foss: Well, I would say about 350 yards. If I was as smart at the start of my wartime as I was when I finished my duty, why I would have gotten a lot more airplanes.

I think that the biggest problem was that I had at least, and I think a lot of others have the same thing, we shot out of range. The airplane looked bigger, and if you shot at a Zero out of range, on a deflection shot, he was gone. He just saw those tracers, see, we loaded one tracer, one armor piercing and two incendiary. Any way you wanted to load.

But having a tracer in there, I really shouldn't have had any tracers, because they scared away the airplanes. I always said, you throw snowballs at 'em, and they didn't hang around after that.

Interviewer: In Europe they came in with API, you know, where it was armor piercing, break through the skin and then boom. Was any of that available that early?

Joe Foss: Our ammo was lousy. They had to re-belt it all, because a lot of the casings were split, and if you shot a split casing, you would jam your gun.

Interviewer: Expand too much to eject.

Joe Foss: Too much expansion. I don't know, I can remember looking at a belt and seeing that about ten percent of the casings were split, so that meant they had to go over and take a look. Punch 'er out and put another one in there.

Interviewer: What did you set your guns' convergence at?

Joe Foss: Oh, 350, 300, 250. So you had to comb.

Interviewer: How much, I know you were in dogfights, but how much of the element of surprise? When you saw a Zeke or formation of Zekes how much prep work did you do before you actually went in and attacked?

Joe Foss: I just went in and attacked. With the speeds we had, you start maneuvering around and you'd either scare them off or get some others that were in the area coming after you.

You see, when there's a lot of targets - and there were - you didn't want to hang around there too well.

Interviewer: Jumping onto the next question, you were telling a story earlier where you would call out the names of your wingmen, and they instinctively knew what to do. Now, we're trying to figure that out because there's no recordings of what you would hear over the radio. Actually, in our sim, we have simulated radio transmissions.

Joe Foss: Well, you didn't to a lot of talking on the radio, for two reasons. One, a high percentage of the time they didn't work. And the other time is you just didn't want a lot of extra flack on the air.

Interviewer: And so if you saw bogie at three o'clock high….

Joe Foss: That would be it, you know.

Interviewer: And everyone would know what to do.

Joe Foss: They would. You wouldn't say "We're going to circle around here to the right" because we never knew whether they understood us and so we weren't giving away any…. There was no way that we did a lot of talking.

You are not on the air much. If somebody got on there telling their life history, why we'd say, "SHUT UP!"

Interviewer: Well, what about in the fight? Was there a lot of hollering?

Joe Foss: No. And the only time there'd be any if you saw a plane diving on a guy and didn't think he saw it, why you'd yell then.

We knew pretty well the position of the rest of the flight. Now the one time that I passed out, my oxygen mask got unhooked. So I was breathing fresh air up there, and I'd just sort of settle back and I imagined that I was listening to a radio program, and I was just totally out of it.

I was sitting in a big chair, and I couldn't figure out why there wasn't music, and I couldn't understand what they were saying.

Now Greg Loesch was on my wing, and Greg followed me down. And he was yelling "PULL OUT! PULL OUT! PULL OUT!" And when I got down, and it's a wonder I ever did come to, breathing through that tube with my oxygen mask on.

When I came to, and started realizing I'm not in this big chair, and I looked over and they were right on my left side was the hills, right there. I mean, right there. Fortunately I was off to the side. If I come in going any other way I'd of hit.

I was below the top of the hills to the left, and I didn't see anybody or anything, and I just pulled up and prayed "Lord I hope there's not a hill ahead of me," and I just pulled up into the soup.

You know, after you've been out you don't come back that really fast, but I did. I came back and I popped out and there was a Zero coming from right to left, and I just had the lead just right. I just squeezed it and he blew, see? Exploded.

And Greg Loesch says, "And I escorted you all the way down and then you shoot the only one." It was the only one that we had a chance to shoot at. See, he was still right there on my wing.

Interviewer: I was reading your description of strafing destroyers - you talked about going into a group of eight or more ships, maybe a cruiser and destroyer screen. They're throwing everything but the kitchen sink at you, and it sounds, well basically I wonder would you call that the most dangerous kind of mission? You were flying off Guadalcanal. It certainly sounds risky to me.

Joe Foss: Yeah, actually everybody talks about aerial combat. I maintain that hitting ground targets, and especially ships is more dangerous than aerial combat.

See, in aerial combat you know who's going to be shooting at you. Attacking ships or ground targets you know that the whole outfit's going to shoot at you, and everybody's mad at you, they just blast away you know? You could walk on lead up there. And how you get by with it is just a miracle.

See, in the battle of Savo Island, we came over our assignment, VMF 121, just eight of us. We came over 1200 feet. We each at two 100 pound bombs on, just to look tough. Using a hundred pound bomb on a ship is like hunting an elephant with a fly swatter, forget the bombs.

So we come up over the ship, and of course, peel off, and go absolutely straight down or you're going to be shot down.

On a battleship they have rows and rows and rows of, what do they call them, pom pom guns. And they look, they operate like a milking machine. I looked into the flash of those things, and I thought, "How are they missing me?"

But I realized I was so straight, that all of the lead was going under my belly. I was putting out those .50 calibers, sprinkling around the deck real good. And I got so interested in that ship that I almost hit the superstructure and went off the starboard side of the thing, or going the other way. It was going this way and I was going the opposite direction, so it would be the left side of the thing. I almost hit the superstructure, and then, when I missed, that, I almost hit the water alongside the ship.

Then on I went out of there weaving. And I was yelling, "Keep it straight, keep it straight!" All my boys I knew there were seven kids following me, and all seven made it, see. By doing that, we drew all the fire, everybody was, the other ships were shooting too.

And of course, the miracle of it, they did such a good job. Then George Dooley and his torpedo squadron came around the corner, and one of the torpedoes, either George or one of his boys put in there, hit the rudder on that ship, and jammed it full starboard, I guess you would call it. Right.

So that the thing would, any time they shoved on the coal, would just go on a circle. So they couldn't go anyplace. They couldn't tow it. They didn't have one to get hooked on that way, you'd have a better target. So the thing had to stay there, and that was the end of her, you know.

And General Geiger came down again, asked us to go down and do the same thing over again, he said, "You did such a good job there, we want the same people to go back, dive bombers and torpedo plants and so forth. And do the same thing exactly the same."

We went back and did it a second time. We were getting ready to do it a third time, and the good Lord sent a thunderstorm located right over the enemy fleet. The thing rose up to, I suppose, 50,000 feet, and that's unusual for that part of the world. And so I tried to go in, and we went in and it was just solid water. It was like being under Niagara Falls. I just made a 180-degree turn. Came out of there and said, "There's no way that we should fool with this, let's get out of here."

And a guy named Joe Ravik says, "We're going in." He was in a dive-bomber. So I said, "Good luck!" and he went in. And of course, four of 'em just got their nose in there, and they went up, up, up, up; the currents were so strong, it took them so high that they had to bail out of the airplane, and it sucked the guys and their chutes up and out the other side, and spit 'em out over the Choiseul Island, clear over there from the Russells, and spit them out over there, and two of them, including Joe himself got the side of his face hit with hailstones and it almost took out, I believe, it was his left eye.

Two weeks later they came back. A Coast Watcher picked them up over there. They were eating with the birds on Choiseul. But a tropical storm is not something you want to tangle with….

Interviewer: We were talking earlier about Charles Lindbergh, and it isn't documented that he flew combat missions. Can you tell us about how he ended up flying with you? And did he actually fly tail-end Charlie?

Joe Foss: Well, the way…. First of all, I was having a problem with the Corsairs, they had a lot of bugs in them. So we had three of them quit on us, and this is out of 24 airplanes. Brand new. Out of the three of them, everybody chose to bail out, except one guy. And the guy chose to land on Highway 101 in Iowa City. Don't anybody try that or you're not only wreck your airplane, you'll probably kill somebody. So Bert Kesh, he tried to land on the highway, and totaled the airplane. All that was left was he was left, in the seat, and he slid down the highway there. The first one by to pick him up was a nurse from general hospital, so then they loaded him in the back of a car, and took him to Huff General Hospital, and the son of a gun was back flying in 30 days.

But I just didn't want any more of that 14,000-pound airplane quitting and you'd have to bail out or try some sort of a weird landing. So I went over to Colonel Sandy Sanders, and said, he's always such a friendly guy, and he says, "Well, what can I do for you? I know you want something. Do you want to borrow a cigar?" I said, "No, I need an expert." So he said, "That's simple." And he reached over and picked up the red phone, and he said, "Hi, Charlie." And it was General Wallace on the other end. Charlie Wallace. He was the head of Marine Aviation on the West Coast, located in San Diego. So he and Sandy talked a little bit, and Sandy just handed me the phone. And I said, "Hi, how are you General Wallace?" "Fine, and how are you, Joe?" and I said, "Good." And he said, "What can I do for you?" And I said, "Sir, I need an expert." So he said, "Oh, that's simple. What do you need him for?" and I said, "Having trouble with those new Corsairs." I said, "I've got all these inexperienced mechs here." I had 600 mechs there, and I had two squadrons working with their head and assigned to one. So I had two squadrons. And I said, "I've got all these inexperienced men, but out of 650 mechs that are here, six of them have been in the ring less for less than six months." So I said, "You can't say that we're overstaffed."

And so he says, "I'll send you up an expert in the morning." So, "Thank you, Sir," and I give it back to Sandy, and I went on my way.

The next morning, a knock on the door, and who came in but Charlie Lindbergh. My office was about this right here, and my desk and there's hardly room for anybody to come in. And he says, "Charles A. Lindbergh." And I said, "I've always wanted to meet you. How are you, sir?" and, "Sit down."

There's one chair in the office. So he sat down and he says, "When do I go to work?" And I said, "Right now." And he said, "Okay I've got to get a place to stay, and then I'm ready." So I said, "No you don't even have to do that. You can go home with me. There's plenty of room." I was renting a house from Ronald Coleman - the movie actor, and with that was 40 acres of ground, and a housekeeper and a few other things, and the house was totally equipped.

So he stayed with us, and after he got all the bugs out the thing, he said, "Major, I would like to have you -" (He always called me Major) "- would you get all of the troops together, because I want to talk to them." So we called all of the troops together and he climbed up one of those old stands you used to put against the C-47 to get in and out of it. He got up on there so that everybody could see him. He said, "I just want to thank all of you for all of the courtesies that you've extended me. I just haven't been able to do a thing for you. It's been a one-way deal."

So, he said, "One request I have is I would like to fly tail-end Charlie in this outfit, thank you."

So then I got up, and said, "Colonel Lindbergh, you don't have to fly tail-end Charlie in this outfit, you just present the body wherever you are in the world, and you'll be on the flight schedule."

So a month after that, who shows up but Charlie Lindbergh. We were striking Rabaul, New Britain, Kavieng, New Ireland. All that crappy duty, you know.

So, I took him with me, and the first mission was to strike Kavieng, and dive right down their throats. He pulled out and went around, and made us run on his own. He hit an oil dump.

Interviewer: Is this a strafing run or a bombing run?

Joe Foss: Strafing.

Interviewer: And this is in an F-4.

Joe Foss: F-4U. And so, when we get back, I said, "What you just did would get us all killed, and especially me, if I didn't say something to you. If you got killed out here, do you realize how much of a investigation would mean?" So I says, "That's something you don't do is pull out of formation."

[He said,] "Well, I saw the dump and that right there, and it was just ripe for pricking."

And of course he blew it up, it was really good-sized fuel ordinance dump. He flew every flight I made, and then with the Exec, he flew with every single mission.

Then he went down to New Guinea, and did all the missions there, till he shot down an enemy airplane, and then that was on the war report, and civilians are not allowed to shoot down the enemy airplane.

So then old General Macarthur saw that on the war report. Everybody wanted to hang for giving permission for a civilian to fly.

I didn't care if you came from Quack. If you could fly that airplane, I would say, "there's one there." We were short a pilot sometimes. And somebody gets sick, malaria and all the rest of the crud that they picked up, and so there are times when some assume stay down.

So anybody that came by that was qualified to fly got a job with me. And I've always felt that way, you know. If you're qualified, I don't care where you come from. Doesn't bother this cowboy.

Interviewer: Just one comment about the F-4U that you were talking about the bugs and the problems earlier. I saw a report interview with Joe Renner, and he was being interviewed about the Corsairs, right on their first duty tour. And he said, "The Corsair is the first airplane any of us had ever seen that would do absolutely everything the manufacturer claims it would do, but it will only do it one day a week."

Interviewer: Very diplomatic way of putting it.

Interviewer: He sounded like a pretty abrasive guy.

Joe Foss: Well, he was. Oh, was he ever.

Interviewer: I have one more question - what was your most memorable mission?

Joe Foss: Well, I'd say the first one, when I got shot down.

Interviewer: Can you tell me about that?

Joe Foss: That first one when I shot an airplane down and that moment of exhilaration, thinking I already won the war.

And then the second matter of five, ten seconds later, BRRRRRR! And he hit the oil cooler and oil started pouring out, and I just curved and dove.

Actually the three guys-there were four planes, see, and I got the lead guy. I dove right straight down and made like I do in a slow roll, going straight down. And these guys were still shooting at me and hitting me, and of course when the engine froze, it just exploded the reduction gear, so the prop became a free agent, and it must have been doing 50,000 RPMs because it caused a lot of vibration. Noise, just screaming noise.

On the ground everybody looked skyward and saw this guy, and as I approached the earth, I get down and I just pull out, and they're still with me. I swung up towards the mountain, and then I came in over the enemy territory, the hills there.

I put it on the ground and I was going still way too fast. I dropped the flaps but they didn't work because they're pressure flaps and going that fast they don't come down. So then I pushed the gear panel, released it, got my arm down. I was afraid they'd hit me in the arms or something, and I had my heels on the brakes, so that it wouldn't hit me on the heel. Because of the way they were going BRRRRR, bouncing off the back.

So when I hit the ground I just thought, "Oh, why'd I ever leave the farm?" I said the score to myself: the score is tied. I got one of them and they got me, so right now would be a good time to take a trip.

So I get down and I couldn't get the airplane stopped. So that's when I say the Good Lord took that airplane over. And I turned and I went right up between the palm trees. The only row that didn't have storage stuff, trucks or ammunition, or oil or trenches; when the sucker quit I just was too scared to get out of there.

I think they counted 248 or 58 bullet holes in the dang airplane. And that's going in, not coming out. They just really salted me.

So, I went down to operations, they picked me up in a Jeep. I get down to operations, and here are all these kids patting me on my back, and their eyes just, "Aw, Skipper, that was great." See, they'd watched, they'd seen that. That was their, actually a lot of them, first glimpse of combat where they knew the guy.

From then on I was the King High to the kids. And I couldn't afford to back up, I just picked up speed from there on. You get all these kids that weren't shaving yet, you know, backing you: 17, 18- year-olds.

And that again back to what I said earlier, I think of them all the time, like when you have people denouncing this country of ours, giving us a real bad time. I think of those kids, what they did and what they wanted.

Interviewer: You know, when reading your account of that fight, you land, you think, "What a boob I made of myself. I didn't even see that guy." And they're saying, "You did it, you're great." And then you had that great hurray, and you think to yourself, "Hey I must really be good."

Joe Foss: Yeah, that's absolutely right.

Interviewer: Really wonderful opportunity. We really appreciate it.

Joe Foss: You guys educated enough?

Interviewer: We're getting an education!

 

Be sure to read the Wartime Interview with Joe Foss as well!

 


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