WASHINGTON, D.C. -- One of the great blessings of my life is to have spent much of it hanging around with heroes. A good number of them have been close friends. Last week, one of those hero-friends, World War II Marine air ace Joe Foss, departed this veil of tears to be with his Maker. Those of us who knew and loved this remarkable man miss him dearly. But the parade through the "Pearly Gates" had to be a doozy.
Like all Marines, I'd learned about the heroic feats of Joe Foss during the battle for Guadalcanal -- the first U.S. offensive of World War II. But when I met him in 1989 -- we were both speakers at a business seminar -- I was prepared for the legend, not the man. In place of braggadocio, there was self-deprecating humor and modesty. Rather than claims of courage, he testified to his faith. Instead of crediting his own proficiency in knocking down 26 enemy planes in 44 days of aerial combat, he spoke of the skill of his fellow pilots -- and the hand of God in their victories.
He captivated the audience -- and when we finished, hard-nosed businessmen and women waited patiently for his autograph. At the time, he was also president of the National Rifle Association. I think most of the crowd became members that day. I did.
In the years afterward, I learned much more about and from this man who was never given to half-steps or uncertainty. Like many of his generation, the Great Depression had not treated him kindly. After his dad died, he dropped out of college to help his mom make ends meet on their South Dakota farm. When he finally graduated in 1940, he enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve as an aviation cadet.
After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, he persevered over the bureaucrats who had told him that he was too old -- at 27 -- to be a fighter pilot. Ten months later, on Oct. 9, 1942, as executive officer of Marine Fighting Squadron VMF-121, he landed his F4F Wildcat on the dirt strip called Henderson Field on embattled Guadalcanal. By Nov. 19, he had downed 23 enemy aircraft.
After recuperating from malaria and wounds in New Caledonia and Australia, Joe returned to the "Cactus Air Force" on Guadalcanal on New Year's Day 1943. On Jan. 15, he shot down three more Japanese planes -- bringing his total to 26 -- matching Eddie Rickenbacker's record in World War I. Together, the pilots in his flight -- calling themselves "Foss's Flying Circus" -- bagged 72 enemy aircraft in the skies over and around Guadalcanal.
With the Japanese in retreat, Joe was ordered back to the United States, awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor (he had already received the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Silver Star and the Purple Heart) and dispatched on a cross-country war bond tour. His photo on the cover of Life magazine was captioned, "America's No. 1 Ace." All this adulation might have been an ego trip for some, but when I asked him about it, he chuckled and called it a "dancing bear act."
Had he done nothing more in life, Joe Foss would already have been a legend. But he was just getting started. After the war, he helped organize the South Dakota Air National Guard and returned to active duty during the Korean War. He was elected to the South Dakota state legislature and two terms as governor. Never one to shy away from controversy, Joe was elected the first commissioner of the American Football League, advocated a "Super Bowl" and went on to become the president of the National Rifle Association.
I once asked Joe what motivated him in this remarkable career. His answer: "The good Lord gave me certain gifts and talents -- just like He does for all of us. He gave me good eyes. That's why I was a good pilot. It would have been wrong for me not to use those gifts. The challenge is to use them for good. I hope I have."
Joe Foss also had the ability to discern what wasn't so good. In 1956, he turned down $750,000 for the screen rights to his story (he was to have been played by his friend John Wayne) because the movie script added a fictional romantic subplot. Joe wouldn't have anything to do with it. He was the real thing: unadorned, unaffected and unequivocal -- a man who loved his country and answered her call, simply because it was the right thing to do.
A few weeks before the stroke that claimed him, I interviewed Joe for my Fox News Channel show, "War Stories." En route to New York for the taping, a young airport security guard tried to seize Joe's Medal of Honor because he thought it could be used as a weapon. "And that wasn't the worst of it," Joe objected. "The kid didn't even know what it was!"
Well, if Joe Foss has his way, there won't be many more youngsters in America who don't know what a Medal of Honor is. Last year, Joe, his lovely wife Donna (Didi) and a handful of friends established the Joe Foss Institute to help veterans take the message of America's heroic history, patriotism and defense of freedom to our nation's schoolchildren. The Institute will officially launch on Jan. 22, the day after Joe Foss is laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery.
It's a fitting legacy. He "fought the good fight." He "finished the race." He "kept the faith." But then, he would. That's the way Joe Foss lived.