NRA at 150: Two American Icons & Past Presidents

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posted on March 4, 2021
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Within the pantheon of American heroes, two gentlemen with deep ties to both the U.S. Marine Corps and the NRA stand out—Maj. Gen. Merritt A. Edson (1897–1955) and Brig. Gen. Joseph J. Foss (1915–2003). Both men earned the Medal of Honor, our nation’s highest award for gallantry in combat, on Guadalcanal during World War II. Both served in the Marines, both served as NRA president, both were devoted husbands and fathers, and, today, both are interred at Arlington National Cemetery.

As we commemorate the 150th anniversary of NRA’s founding, we are reminded that the Association has deep roots among our nation’s military leaders who strove to increase the marksmanship proficiency of our fighting forces in the years following the Civil War. Edson and Foss are not alone in having served as NRA presidents and having earned the Medal of Honor—Brevet Maj. Gen. Alexander Shaler (1827–1911) earned his at the Battle of Fredericksburg, and served as NRA’s third president.

Merritt A. Edson was born in Vermont where he eventually joined the Vermont National Guard and saw service on the Texas border in 1916. He joined the Marines the following year, seeing service in France during World War I. He became keenly involved in the marksmanship programs of the Marine Corps. He first competed at the National Matches at Camp Perry in 1921. He returned in 1927, 1930 and 1931, and was captain of winning Marine Corps rifle and pistol teams in 1935 and 1936.

Promoted to colonel in 1941, Edson formed the 1st Marine Raider Battalion and entered 1st combat on Tulagi in August 1942. From his entry in Who’s Who Of USMC History, “The battle for which he will be long remembered by Marines and a grateful American people was the defense of Lunga Ridge on Guadalcanal on the night of 13-14 September 1942. His Raider Battalion, with two companies of the 1st Parachute Battalion attached, had been sent to a ridge line a short distance south of Henderson Field.

... When the Japanese forces unexpectedly and viciously attacked the position on the rst evening, they penetrated the left center of Col. Edson’s line of resistance, thus forcing a withdrawal to a reserve position.”

Approximately 800 Marines withstood the repeated assaults of more than 2,500 Japanese on the “Bloody Ridge,” as it became known to the world. But to the men of the 1st Raider Battalion it became known as “Edson’s Ridge,” in high honor of the of officer who “was all over the place, encouraging, cajoling and correcting as he continually exposed himself to enemy fire.” It was for this action that Edson, nicknamed “Red Mike,” received the Medal of Honor.

Following World War II, he was the first director of the Vermont State Police, and became the 31st NRA president in 1949. He also became NRA’s first executive director in 1951, serving until his untimely death in 1955.

Joseph Jacob Foss was a native of South Dakota, and was fascinated by aviation ever since he saw his rst airplane by over his farm in the early 1920s. He was also a keen sportsman, and learned to shoot and hunt at an early age. The strong work ethic instilled by his father led him to dutifully perform his farm chores in order to earn enough allowance money to buy his first gun, a 12-ga. Winchester Model 12.

He went to the University of South Dakota, graduating in 1939 after having earned his civilian pilot’s license and setting up a flying club at the university. He hitchhiked to Minnesota to join the Marines as an aviator in 1940 after having served in the South Dakota National Guard. Commissioned a Marine second lieutenant after training, he wanted to be a fighter pilot but was considered too old. Perseverance prevailed, and, after repeated attempts for transfer, he was assigned to Marine Fighting Squadron 121 as the executive of officer.

In October 1942, he landed at Henderson Field Guadalcanal and established what became known as the “Cactus Airforce” or “Foss’s Flying Circus.” By 1943 he had equaled Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker’s World War I record of 26 enemy planes shot down. He received the Medal of Honor from President Franklin Roosevelt in the Rose Garden of the White House, and his photograph appeared on the cover of LIFE Magazine. In 1989, his portrait appeared on the cover of TIME Magazine.

After the war, Foss became a brigadier general in the South Dakota Air National Guard, the first commissioner of the American Football League and weekly host of “American Sportsman” on ABC. In 1988, he became the 51st president of NRA.

We owe a great deal of gratitude for the service that these two American heroes gave to our Association and nation during the course of their lives. Lest We Forget.

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