Joe Foss, a Medal of Honor winner as a Marine fighter pilot in World War II who was a two-term governor of South Dakota, commissioner of the upstart American Football League and head of the National Rifle Association, died yesterday at a hospital in Arizona. Mr. Foss, who lived in Scottsdale, was 87.
A cigar-chomping curly haired six-foot captain who looked like his friend John Wayne, Mr. Foss inspired the nation as a wartime ace. Flying a Wildcat that was slower than the vaunted Japanese Zeros, he shot down 26 fighters and bombers in the battle for Guadalcanal from October 1942 to January 1943. With his 26th ''kill,'' he became the first American pilot of World War II to equal Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker's record in World War I.
Captain Foss was brought home in the spring of 1943 to receive the Medal of Honor from President Franklin D. Roosevelt and to go on a national tour to sell war bonds, spur military recruiting and inspire workers in war plants. Thrilling an America still reeling from Pearl Harbor, Captain Foss was pictured in his dress uniform on the cover of Life on June 7, 1943, described as ''America's No. 1 Ace.'
Joseph Jacob Foss was born on April 17, 1915, on a farm near Sioux Falls, S.D. When he was 12, he visited a tiny airport near his home to see Charles A. Lindbergh, who was taking his Spirit of St. Louis on a national tour after flying to Paris. The boy envisioned soaring through the skies himself one day. Four years later, he went up in a plane for the first time, a $1.50 sightseeing ride in a Ford Tri-Motor. After watching a Marine aerial team perform acrobatics in open-cockpit biplanes, he was convinced that the aviator's life was for him.
But a month before Joe's 18th birthday, his father was electrocuted by a downed power line in a lightning storm. The teenager had to help his mother and his brother, Cliff, work the farm while the dust storms of the Depression piled sand knee high. Working at odd jobs, he managed to afford occasional flying lessons and, at 25, graduated from the University of South Dakota with a bachelor's in business administration.
Seeing a chance to fly at government expense, he joined the Marines and won his wings in March 1941, nine months before the United States entered the war. On Oct. 9, 1942, he landed his Wildcat on Guadalcanal at the southern end of the Solomons, the setting for the first American land offensive in the Pacific.
The First Marine Division had gone ashore on Aug. 7, 1942, to seize a partly completed airstrip that was later renamed Henderson Field. In October, the marines were hanging on to the strip in the face of fierce Japanese efforts to retake the island and use it as a staging point to attack Australia, 1,600 miles to the south.
Flying out of Henderson Field over the next three months, Captain Foss and his fliers, a band known as Joe's Flying Circus for its acrobatic maneuvers, played a major role in defending Guadalcanal.
Early in November, while Captain Foss was strafing Japanese ships 150 miles north of Guadalcanal, machine-gun fire from a Japanese plane pierced his engine and shattered his canopy, narrowly missing the aviator's head. When the engine quit, Captain Foss ditched the plane in the ocean. It quickly sank. He freed himself and struggled in his life jacket for five hours in a rainstorm while sharks circled him. Finally, members of a Catholic mission from the island of Malaita, who were paddling by in canoes, rescued him.
On Jan. 15, 1943, Captain Foss downed his 26th plane. Ten days later, he was credited with a feat that may have saved Henderson Field.
A large force of Japanese bombers and fighters approached Guadalcanal, hoping to obliterate the airstrip. Captain Foss and his 11 pilots went up to engage them. He quickly realized that the enemy fighters were seeking to lure them into a confrontation while the bombers slipped through. Instead of battling the fighters, the Americans maneuvered nearby without attacking. Soon, the Japanese began to run out of fuel. Fearing that Captain Foss's group was a decoy for other Americans hidden in the clouds, the Japanese returned to their bases on Bougainville and Munda, leaving Henderson Field untouched. It never again came under a sustained attack.
In April 1943, stricken with malaria, Captain Foss went home. At a White House ceremony, President Roosevelt gave him the Medal of Honor, citing ''outstanding heroism and courage'' on his many missions to defend Guadalcanal. He also received the Silver Star, Bronze Star and a Purple Heart.
After the war, he rejected several offers from big business. ''I didn't want to be a dancing bear,'' Time quoted him as saying in 1955.He returned to Sioux Falls, where he and a friend ran the Joe Foss Flying Service, building it into a venture with 35 airplanes. He also organized the South Dakota Air National Guard and commanded a squadron.
When the Korean War broke out, the Marines recalled him, and he was a colonel who directed training.
He was elected to the South Dakota Legislature as a Republican in 1948. Six years later, at 39, he was elected the youngest governor in the history of the state. After serving two two-year terms, he ran for Congress against George McGovern, the future Democratic presidential nominee, who was seeking a second term in the House of Representatives. Mr. McGovern, also a highly decorated pilot in the war, defeated him.
In November 1959, the club owners forming the American Football League selected Mr. Foss as commissioner, hoping that his contacts in Washington could help them in an anticipated struggle with the long-established National Football League. Even though his football experience had been limited to benchwarming as a guard for the University of South Dakota, he accepted.
Under Mr. Foss, the A.F.L., out of necessity, divided broadcast revenues evenly among the teams. One move he made for the league was signing a five-year $10.6 million television contract with ABC in 1960 that included his pioneering idea.
As commissioner, Mr. Foss indulged his lifelong passion for hunting and fishing as host of ''The American Sportsman'' on ABC. He was criticized by some A.F.L. club owners who said he spent too much time filming his outdoors shows and flying as a brigadier general in the Air National Guard.
Mr. Foss, who advocated an association with the N.F.L. under a single commissioner while hoping to keep the leagues' identities separate, resigned as A.F.L. commissioner on April 17, 1966. Less than two months later, the league announced plans to merge with the N.F.L. in 1970.
Mr. Foss turned to television again, appearing on his syndicated series ''The Outdoorsman: Joe Foss'' from 1966 to 1974. The programs drew barbs from environmentalists and advocates of animal rights.
Much more controversy arrived when Mr. Foss was president of the National Rifle Association from 1988 to 1990.
On Jan. 29, 1990, he appeared once more on the cover of a national magazine, Time, which showed him with a pistol in his hand.
''I say all guns are good guns,'' he told Time for its article on gun control. ''There are no bad guns. I say the whole nation should be an armed nation. Period.''
Mr. Foss is survived by his second wife, Didi; a son, Frank, of Mankato, Minn.; a daughter, Mary Joe Finke of Billings, Mont.; a stepson, H. Dean Hall, and a stepdaughter, Coni Foss, both of Scottsdale; a sister, Flora Kanan of California, and six grandchildren. His marriage to his first wife, June, ended in divorce.
In the late 1990's, Mr. Foss was honored far from the spotlight when he appeared at a tribute to American heroes at a school near his home in Arizona.
''Well, I got there and I was the only living hero,'' Mr. Foss told Tom Brokaw in ''The Greatest Generation'' (Random House, 1998). ''All the rest were George Washington and those guys. But at least the school was studying history and thinking about heroes.''