Twelve South Dakota governors served in the armed forces. The list included 5 U.S. Army veterans, 3 U.S. Navy veterans, 2 veterans of the U.S. Air Force, 2 who served in the U.S. Marine Corps, and 2 who served in the South Dakota National Guard:
Arthur C. Mellette – South Dakota’s first governor served in the Union Army during the Civil War. Mellette had been offered a commission as a lieutenant. His older brother, however, was an invalid and had been drafted into the Army. Mellette turned down his commission to serve in the enlisted ranks in place of his brother.
Charles H. Sheldon – South Dakota’s second governor also served in the Union Army during the Civil War, rising to the rank of captain.
Leslie Jensen – It was more than thirty-five years before another veteran served as governor. Jensen was a member of the South Dakota National Guard’s 147th Field Artillery. In 1916, the unit was deployed to patrol the Texas-Mexico border, and the following year was deployed to France after the United States entered World War I. Jensen was discharged from active duty as a captain in 1919. Following his service as governor from 1937-39, Jensen reentered active duty. He commanded the 147th, which was activated in 1940 as U.S. entry into World War II loomed. Jensen deployed with the unit to Australia, contracted malaria, and was reassigned to General Douglas MacArthur’s Australians headquarters. He is the only WWI veteran to serve as governor, and for that reason Jensen’s Trail of Governors statue portrays him in a WWI-era uniform, and is placed near the Soldiers and Sailors War Memorial building, which is South Dakota’s WWI memorial. Jensen is also the only SD governor to serve on active duty after leaving the governor’s office.
M. Q. Sharpe – Sharpe served in the U.S. Navy from 1907-11. He entered the Navy at 29, after having attended a couple colleges and worked in several jobs. Following his naval service, Sharpe, who was a native of Kansas, followed his mother to South Dakota, when she had established a homestead in Lyman County. He enrolled in the USD School of Law and went on to establish a prosperous practice in Kennebec.
Sigurd Anderson – Anderson was an assistant attorney general when the United States entered World War II. He entered the U.S. Navy as a legal officer and served in the Philippines. Anderson was discharged in 1946, and was elected attorney general later that year.
Joe Foss – No South Dakota governor is better known for his military record than Joe Foss. A member of the South Dakota National Guard since 1937, Foss enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1940 and became a naval aviator. He served as executive officer of Marine Fighting Squadron 121, known as “Joe’s Flying Circus.” Foss downed 26 enemy airplanes in 63 days at Guadalcanal in the Pacific theater during World War II, matching the record set by fighter ace Eddie Rickenbacker in World War I.
Foss was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor and the Distinguished Flying Cross. His citation said that “His remarkable flying skill, inspiring leadership and indomitable fighting spirit were distinctive factors in the defense of strategic American positions on Guadalcanal.” A photo of Foss receiving his Medal of Honor from President Franklin D. Roosevelt was featured on the cover of Life magazine. Foss was welcomed by 50,000 people upon his return to Sioux Falls in 1943, and became nationally known for his heroic war record.
Following his service overseas, Foss toured the country to promote war bonds, and was discharged as a major in 1946. That year, Foss was a founder of the South Dakota Air National Guard, attaining the rank of brigadier general. He returned to active duty in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War, training pilots from 1950-51.
Foss’ heroism is celebrated in South Dakota in many ways, including the naming of the Sioux Falls airport as “Joe Foss Field,” and the designation of his birthday, April 17, as “Joe Foss Day” each year. Foss’ Trail of Governors statue portrays Foss in his naval aviator flight suit, scanning the horizon for enemy airplanes.
Nils Boe – Boe was a Minnehaha County deputy state’s attorney when the U.S. entered World War II. He served in the U.S. Navy from 1942-46.
Frank Farrar – Farrar was a member of the U.S. Army Reserve while attending USD. Following graduation in 1953, Farrar served on active duty for two years during the Korean War, being discharged as a captain in 1955.
Richard F. Kneip – Kneip was in the U.S. Air Force from 1951-55, serving in occupied West Germany.
Harvey Wollman – Wollman served in the U.S. Army from 1958-60.
William J. Janklow – Janklow dropped out of high school in 1956 and joined the U.S. Marine Corps to avoid being sent to reform school. He was injured during the Quemoy-Matsu crisis off the coast of mainland China and was honorably discharged in 1959.
George S. Mickelson – Mickelson joined the U.S. Army after graduating from USD in 1965. Mickelson served in Vietnam and was discharged in 1967. Mickelson’s oldest son, G. Mark Mickelson, was born in Fort Knox, Kentucky in 1966 while his father was on active duty.