Saturday, March 10, 2012

Joe Foss and Saburo Sakai

I have previously written a small anecdote concerning Colonel David Hackworth.  After that blog was published, I received enough mail about the Colonel to have written a book about his exploits.  I can only say that the Colonel lived large.  Hopefully, pretty much the same thing will happen this week when I tell my small story about General Joe Foss.

Where do you start with a man like Joe Foss?   Governor of South Dakota, Commissioner of the American Football League, past president of the NRA, and Brigadier General of the Air National Guard.  Probably the best place to start the story is to mention that during World War II, Marine Captain Foss received the Medal of Honor for his victories with the "Cactus Air force" at the Battle of Guadacanal.  A fighter "Ace" early in the war, Joe Foss was a natural leader, and more important, a man who made friends everywhere he went.

Almost twenty years ago, I was invited to a dinner honoring the Marine Corps’ birthday.  The guests of honor were General Foss and Saburo Sakai, the top  surviving Japanese ace of the war.  Actually, this wasn't my first meeting with the famous Japanese ace.  About fifteen years earlier, I had had a lunch with Sakai in New York.  I was working  for Bantam Books and we were publishing his autobiography, Samurai, so I  got the opportunity to talk with him at length about his experiences in the war.

Amazingly, in 1993, Sakai remembered me from our earlier meeting.  There must be a shortage in Japan of geeky guys who stare with their mouths open.   

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It was a wonderful evening.  Both men related their experiences of the war and each man complimented the other.  When Sakai was asked who he thought was the greatest aviator of the war, he immediately answered, "Joe Foss."  Joe was smiling, but I'm still not sure what that twinkle in his eye meant.  Both of these men were entirely at peace about the war, and Sakai was actually a Buddhist acolyte by this time.  While neither would have wanted to actually harm the other, it was sort of a shame we didn’t have an F4F Wildcat and a Mitsubishi Zero standing ready at the airport.  The town may have missed an opportunity to have a hell of an airshow.

I had come to this dinner prepared.  Years before when I was cleaning out the attic of my father's house, I had found a mint condition Life Magazine from June 7, 1943.  The cover featured a smiling Captain Foss, America’s top Ace, wearing the Medal of Honor that Franklin D. Roosevelt had just hung around his neck.  Of course, I had kept the magazine—when that magazine was printed, it had cost a dime-- to me it was priceless.

Years later, I was hoping that General Foss would sign that magazine, and if he did, I wanted the signature to be perfect.  I had borrowed a Parker Fountain pen that had been manufactured during the war.  I wanted a period pen for that antique magazine.

Finally, the opportunity presented itself.  I walked up to the general and handed him the magazine and pen, while I politely asked him for his autograph.  As General Foss accepted the magazine, I wondered what he was thinking about as he looked down at a picture taken of himself from fifty years earlier--a time when he had just received his nation’s highest honor.

General Foss smiled.  "Wow!  I haven't seen one of these in years," he said as he autographed the Life Magazine just below his own photograph.  "They don’t make pens like this anymore."

Maybe the most remarkable thing about that truly remarkable man was that he honestly believed he was just an ordinary man.

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