MARINE CORPS AIR STATION YUMA,Ariz. -- In the Marine Corps, perhaps only one position is more respected, admired and revered than the Commandant of the Marine Corps. Being in the presence of an individual who holds this position leaves most Marines awe-struck, and with a pride for being part of the military.
One can only obtain this position through bravery, self-endangerment and self-sacrifice that is unsurpassed while in a combat environment. This position is held by a recipient of a Medal of Honor.
Through a chain of Marine connections, a group of five Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron-13 Marines had the opportunity to meet one of these legends, and help him celebrate his 87th birthday.
Master Gunnery Sgt. Billy Stuart Jr., MALS-13 aviation supply chief, Sgts. Francisco Hernandez, Brianna Owens and Richard Colpitts, and Lance Cpl. Janeth Mendiola, had the honor April 17 of meeting Joe Foss, former Marine captain who was awarded the Medal of Honor for acts of aviation bravery at Guadalcanal during World War II. The Marines, individually selected by Stuart, helped Foss celebrate his 87th birthday at his home in Scottsdale, Ariz.
"I always think it's an honor to even be in the same room with someone who has done so much for America," lamented Stuart, explaining what the initial meeting was like.
The Marines, dressed in their "Charlie" uniforms, met Foss at a Scottsdale restaurant for a private breakfast, then proceeded to the Foss residence to see his Medal of Honor and listen to his war and life stories.
"Our initial dilemma was 'what do we call this man,' because he's done so much," said Hernandez, who added the meeting was very inspirational.
Foss, who was born in South Dakota, April 17, 1915, told the Marines a little about his Marine Corps career and how he earned the medal at Guadalcanal.
After earning a business degree from the University of South Dakota in 1940, Foss enlisted in the Marine Corps reserve as an aviation cadet. He earned his wings seven months later and was commissioned as a second lieutenant.
In October of 1942, Foss was sent to Guadalcanal as executive officer of, then, Marine Fighting Squadron-121, which he flew the F-4F Wildcat fighter plane.
Foss led mission after mission, with his first victory coming on October 13, 1942, he shot down one Japanese plane. Within nine days at Guadalcanal, Foss became an ace with five kills. By the time he left, Foss had accumulated 26 planes-shot-down, a record unsurpassed in WWII. Five of the men he led would also become aces.
In May of 1943, Foss was awarded the Medal of Honor in Washington, D.C., by president Theodore Roosevelt, "for outstanding heroism above and beyond the call of duty."
Foss since has gone on to be a key figure in the South Dakota Air National Guard, and the governor of South Dakota, among other achievements.
"Me sitting there, listening to what he said, it was all I could do. I was so full of pride I wanted to cry," said Owens, explaining her admiration for Foss. She added she just wanted to tell Foss "Thank you, because he didn't know any of us, our families or anything, and he just got in a plane and did what he had to do, no questions asked."
The Marines spent a good portion of the day with Foss, who for an 87-year-old was, according to Hernandez, in very good shape.
"(Foss) told me, 'I have yet to retire,' and that just amazes me," said Hernandez. He added, seeing the Medal of Honor up close and reading its inscription gave him chills on the back of his neck.
Upon the day's end, Foss signed personalized copies of his biography for each of the Marines. But more than just souvenirs, the Marines said they left with a new-found respect for the military, and an appreciation for what they themselves do.
"Makes me appreciate what I do more and especially what those who came before me did," said Hernandez.
Each Marine said the experience really enriched their lives, because it's not every day one gets to meet a person of such grandeur.