2022 Man of the Year: Sam Folsom

Samuel Folsom / Library of Congress
December 29, 2022

2022 was not a kind year for the reputation of America’s oldest generations. Time and again, we saw this country’s elderly denizens cling to positions of power, sacrificing not just their own dignity but that of our institutions in the process. Take for example the 89-year-old senior senator from California, who has forgotten her longtime colleagues’ names. And our 80-year-old president, instead of spending his time with his grandkids, refuses to acknowledge one of them even exists.

At a time when Americans are in need of a positive example from this country’s seniors, they should look no further than Samuel Folsom. Folsom passed away in Los Angeles last month at 102, after a lifetime of bravery, sacrifice, and service to his country.

Folsom, of Peabody, Mass., was a U.S. Marine fresh out of flight school in 1941 when he was thrust into World War II following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. With next to no experience, 22-year-old Folsom and his 40-pilot squadron were sent to face off against the Japanese Air Force and their technologically superior Zeroes in the bloody 1942 campaign to capture Guadalcanal. Folsom had never flown at high altitude and had fired the guns of his Grumman F4F Wildcat only once, during training in California.

"Our experience was more than limited," Folsom explained. "It was almost nonexistent. But we went."

With the odds against him, Folsom not only survived the horrific Guadalcanal campaign, he thrived—the lieutenant got his first kill in a dogfight with a Zero, firing on and outmaneuvering the fighter until it began smoking and plummeted to the ocean.

"I poured in the rest of my ammo and he went into a spiraling dive," Folsom said, "disappearing into a cloud at about 3,000 feet, still heading earthward."

But it was the following day’s foray against the Japanese that saw Folsom pull off his greatest feat of the war.

Flying at high altitude with his squadron, Folsom spotted dozens of Mitsubishi bombers flying just over the ocean’s surface, on course to attack American ships. Folsom dove in on his prey, letting loose his .50-caliber guns on an enemy bomber in the face of return fire from the tail gunner. With the enemy pilot dead, the bomber disappeared into the ocean, and Folsom quickly moved on to his next target.

Firing on the second bomber, Folsom played a game of cat and mouse as the Japanese pilot evaded his fire. Finally, he took the bomber out for good.

"Closing in again, I peppered him with the last of my ammo," Folsom said. "This time I was rewarded by seeing him hit the water for keeps, right wing first. The plane catapulted into the sea."

American pilots took out 24 Mitsubishi bombers and 6 Zero fighters that day, and their eventual victory in the Guadalcanal campaign proved a turning point in the war.

Folsom, who was twice injured by shrapnel and once by a bullet, continued to serve his country after Guadalcanal, commanding squadrons during the battle of Okinawa and during the Korean War. He retired as a lieutenant colonel in 1958, but he wasn’t done saving American lives.

Even in his old age, Folsom proved willing to put his body on the line to protect his fellow Americans. In 1998, a 77-year-old Folsom walked into a Manhattan bank only to stumble upon a robbery in progress. The quick-thinking Marine raced outside to alert police officers, then helped pin down the criminal as the cops put him in cuffs.

Throughout his long life, Folsom demonstrated his commitment to delivering justice to America’s enemies, both foreign and domestic. He may be gone now, but we can be sure he’s downing Zeroes in heaven. Here on earth, he’ll always be remembered as an American hero, and, henceforth, a Washington Free Beacon Man of the Year.