Remembering South Dakota’s Ace
A column by Gov. Dennis Daugaard:
“South Dakota draws an ace.” That was one headline following the gubernatorial election of Joe Foss. The plain-spoken, unpretentious South Dakota hero held many titles throughout his life, only one of which was “governor.”
Foss is best known as the Medal of Honor recipient who shot down 26 enemy planes in 63 days at Guadalcanal during World War II. The former governor served in the South Dakota National Guard, the Marine Corps and the South Dakota Air National Guard, which he founded. Foss took down 20 zero fighters, four bombers and two bi-planes. Three times he had to make dead-stick landings when his engine was damaged from enemy fire. In another instance, his plane was shot down near the island of Malaita. Not a good swimmer, he was fortunate that some nearby natives rescued him. As it turned out, Foss would have ended up on a crocodile-infested beach, had he kept swimming
As governor, Foss emphasized a balanced budget and urged the increase of reserve funds, which he said should be used only in emergencies and not to increase spending. He described his role and the role of legislators as being the “hired hands of the people” and he became South Dakota’s “leading salesman,” touting the state’s low tax burden to outside businesses. Under Gov. Foss, the first-ever state-level economic development office was established.
His down-to-earth manner remained intact while in office. On one occasion, he dressed as a clown for the Shriners parade to raise money for children with disabilities. He also knew he was the governor of all South Dakotans, not just those within his political party or social class. When first elected, the Governor-Elect held a press conference where he was asked about plans for the traditional inaugural ball. Gov. Foss surprised reporters, as well as members of his staff, when he said all were invited to attend. When asked what people should wear, Foss responded, “I don’t care as long as they’re comfortable. It’ll suit me fine if the men wear overalls, cowboy gear, business suits or tuxedos.”
After serving as governor, Joe Foss went on to become the first commissioner of the NFL and president of the National Rifle Association. In 2001, he founded the Joe Foss Institute which today promotes American history, patriotism and service.
Looking back on it all, Foss concluded in his auto biography that, of all the things he had experienced, his faith was what mattered most. When asked by reporters what the highlight of his life was, he’d say, referring to heaven, “It hasn’t happened yet.”
In 2004, the year following his passing, the state Legislature designated April 17 as Joe Foss Day in South Dakota. The day is a working holiday to remember, as it says in the statute, “South Dakota’s favorite son and war hero.” It’s an occasion to tell the story to our children and grandchildren – the story of South Dakota’s ace.