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John Mosley of the Tuskegee Airmen
Veterans Day Week Tribute
See also: Nov. 11 newspaper story on Navy dive bomber radioman-gunnerMosley3.jpg Don Straub, former Colorado A&M and Denver Bears baseball star

November 6, 2011:
 The Denver Post periodically has been carrying a display ad on its online sports section front for the  Nov. 19 Spreading Wings Gala at the Wings Over the Rockies Air and Space Museum. The event, also called "Red Tails: An Evening With the Tuskegee Airmen," honors the members of the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group. 

More information is

Update, January 21, 2012: The movie Red Tails opened this weekend, and I'm looking forward to seeing it soon.

In honor of the Tuskegee Airmen, here's part of the "Fourth Down and a War to Go" chapter in my book Playing Piano in a Brothel. That chapter is about the players in the 1942 Colorado-Colorado A&M game and their World War II service, and this passage features A&M's John Mosley, who became a Tuskegee Airman.

Number 14 John Mosley, Guard


Many of the players in the 1942 game came from Denver, and one of them was a trailblazer. Aggies guard John Mosley was raised in a home on Marion Street, across the street from Whittier School. John Sr. was porter on the Union Pacific Railroad and his wife, Henrietta, was a housewife.


"The old expression was that it takes a village to raise a child," John Jr. told me. "Denver was actually a village at that time, so all the neighbors and community people in the area helped raise the children. We couldn't go two or three steps without someone saying a word of encouragement or criticizing us for what we were doing or not doing."


Significantly, the Aggies' program was integrated long before the University of Colorado's. I came across Mosley while researching my book Third Down and a War to Go.


At the time, covenants and standards essentially prevented black families from living anywhere other than extreme northeast Denver. "The types of things going on in Denver were quite similar to what was happening down South, in terms of drinking fountains and the various department stores," he told me. The segregated lunch counters in downtown Denver included those at Kress and Woolworth, and he took pride in being part of the movement that led to their integration in later years.


I asked how those experiences couldn't have left him embittered.


"I didn't look at it that way," Mosley said. "I looked at it as an opportunity to move ahead. I really didn't have any bad feelings about who was responsible for the segregated activities and the types of discrimination we experienced. I was too busy trying to ensure that I got everything I possibly could out of school and also to participate in athletics."


Mosley also was active at his church and with the Boy Scouts, the all-black Troop 150, and sang in a quartet called the "Junior Mills Brothers." The quartet appeared in many of the Denver theaters and also on KLZ radio. Mosley laughed and remembered with wonder that they once were paid $5 for each gig.


He often went fishing for crawdads at City Park, using pieces of liver as bait. "We'd go down to Lafayette Street and sell crawdads to people," he said. "Crawdad meat was considered very tasty at the time." He also visited the old National Guard field on what is now Park Hill Golf Course and watched planes land and take off. "I pretended I was flying," he said.


A National Merit Scholar at Manual, Mosley went to Fort Collins with his childhood buddy, Charles Cousins, also the son of a Pullman porter, and enrolled at A&M. "I wanted to go to school with my buddy," Mosley said. "He went up there with the intention of going to veterinary school."


Mosley was an all-city fullback at Manual, but he wasn't pursued to play collegiate football, even under the limited recruiting practices of the times.

There were nine black students at the school. Most of the time, six men shared a small house off campus. Four of Mosley's housemates were Harry Martin, Eugene Combs, Jesse Douglas, and Junior James. "We called ourselves, 'The Lonesome Boys,'" Mosley said.


Most of the Fort Collins restaurants wouldn't serve blacks. "We would load up on food in Denver, as we came down on weekends," Mosley said. "Our whole existence was cooking for ourselves. We could eat at the student union and there was an ice-cream parlor where we could get ice cream. All the rest had signs up. Some of the things were so demeaning, I didn't want to recall them, but I do remember, 'No Niggers allowed,' or, 'We don't serve Niggers here.'"


Cousins and Mosley went back and forth from Denver to Fort Collins during their college years. "As a result of working on the Union Pacific railroad in the summertime, Charles and I were able to acquire Model A Fords," Mosley said. "We went up in tandem because if one broke down, we were able to have the other pull or shove or render some help to make sure we made it down from Fort Collins to Denver or back up."


Housemates nicknamed him "One-Tea Bag Mosley," because he tried to nurse a single bag through a month. They saw no humor in him trying out for football as a freshman in 1939. "I just showed up and asked for a uniform," Mosley said. To reemphasize: before that season, there wasn't a single black player in the Mountain States Conference, which included CU.


Nearing his thirtieth anniversary as the Aggies' head coach, Harry Hughes welcomed Mosley. "I guess he felt that he knew he was retiring soon and to have a black on his football team was no big deal because they couldn't do anything to him," Mosley said. "And he recognized that I could contribute to the team."


His teammates' reactions, especially at first, were mixed.


"I had to sell myself not only to Harry Hughes and the coaches but to the players," Mosley said. "There were many players from Texas and the Western slope, farmers and so forth, who didn't like black people. That was quite an experience to gain the support of my teammates. My first night out for football, one of the players from the Western Slope tackled me, and in doing so, he slapped his hands down on my helmet at the ears. That actually knocked me out. When I came to, Eugene Combs was there on the sidelines watching and he was laughing. He said, 'I told you not to go out for football. I told you these guys weren't going to treat you right.' But the fact that I could play football and block and tackle was productive in showing what I could offer to the team. I won't call out any names now, but there were several players on my team who never accepted me. But most did."


John_Mosley_1941.jpgHe played fullback until he was switched to guard as a senior.


"Naturally, there was name-calling and that type of thing," he said. "I had no problem in my responses, because I didn't respond. It was my teammates, Dude Dent and Woody Fries, who were quite vocal in ensuring that those voices didn't get out too much. The way I responded was through my ability to tackle and to run the ball hard. I never had to 'fight my own battles' on the football field. There were some things that were said, and that was constant, but if anyone tried to challenge me any other way, all my teammates would come and get in their way. I always backed off. I got several awards for being a good sportsman, and that was one thing I didn't have to worry about. The way I got around that was on the next play or subsequent plays, if I was blocking someone or tackling, they knew that they got hit and blocked. So you always had a chance to get back at those who weren't too polite."


During the 1940 season, when Mosley was a sophomore, the Aggies traveled to Salt Lake City to play Utah. On Friday, they went to a movie theater. An usher told Mosley he would have to sit in the balcony.


"As the team went in, Coach Hughes asked the players, 'Hey, where's Mosley?' Somebody said, 'They sent him upstairs.' He told the assistant coach, 'You go in there and make this announcement: All Aggies, get the hell out of this damn theater!' The team came out and they were asking, 'What's wrong?' And Coach Hughes said, 'We're not going to that damn theater because they wouldn't let Mosley sit downstairs.'"


By the time the 1942 season began, Mosley was down to one roommate, Harry Martin, who was majoring in chemistry and went on to be a physician. They lived near the campus. Mosley considered CU the enemy on the playing field and noted that while the Buffaloes' football program hadn't yet been integrated, he had friends attending the school. "We used to go down to visit them, and they were restricted, as we were," Mosley said. "They were off campus, on Water Street. That was the black district down there and they lived with black families."


At A&M, Mosley was named vice president of his class as a junior and senior and hoped to become the first black in Advanced ROTC at A&M. "I had the correct academics and was well-known on campus, and I thought it was a shoo-in for me," he said. He took a physical at Fitzsimons Army Hospital.


"Understand, I had been playing football for six years and wrestling and taking physical exams every year," he said. "I went back up to Fort Collins and was awaiting my assignment for Advanced ROTC, and they said, 'Sorry, you didn't make it; you didn't pass the physical.'"


Doctors told him he had a heart murmur.


I asked Mosley if he was an angry young man at that point, given what he was going through in Fort Collins and in football and wrestling. "Very definitely, but I had had some very good white friends and buddies up at CSU," he said. "I certainly wasn't angry at them. I was angry at the system. The president up there was a guy named [Roy] Green. I never will forget Green. He was a racist S.O.B."


When the door was shut to Advanced ROTC, Mosley sought an alternative.


"They were starting up a program called civilian pilot training, and it was at most of the colleges around the United States," he said. The civilian pilots ferried military aircraft to bases around the country or even to bases overseas. "So I decided, 'This is the way I am going to beat this game,'" Mosley said. "You had to get your own flight physical and pay for it. I got my money together, went to the flight physician, and he examined and passed me."


He started taking flying lessons in Fort Collins.


"When you signed up for civilian pilot training, you had to either sign up for the Army Air Forces or the Navy," he said. "At that time, the Navy wasn't even thinking about having blacks fly their airplanes. The only thing that was left was this experimental group, down in Tuskegee."


The all-black 99th Fighter Squadron was formed at Tuskegee in June 1941. By late 1942, the 332nd Fighter Group was considered the umbrella organization for the Tuskegee Airmen. Mosley made it his goal to join the Airmen.


Before he entered the service, an experience as his graduation ceremony approached left him reluctant to return to Fort Collins for many years. Fort Collins businessman "Sparks" Alford clumsily tried to congratulate Mosley.


"Sparks was really the sponsor of the team," Mosley said. "He went on all of our trips and he owned the Burlington, the bus run from Fort Collins to Denver. He did give me a job of mopping up the bus station, which was just a little cubbyhole down by the train station. I worked for Sparks for two years, I guess, maybe three, and we were good friends because he was a sponsor of the team. Whatever the team needed he would certainly work very hard to try and give the team that type of support. In getting my diploma, I was the happiest person in the world, thinking, 'Boy, I really have it made,' and that type of thing. I saw Sparks, and Sparks came up to me and said, 'Hey, John, very good, if you every get in jail just give me a buzz and I'll get you out.' That to me was the most disappointing thing, to suggest that I might be a candidate for jail. I'd never been to jail in my life and certainly hadn't been involved in any problems up in Fort Collins. For him to think that the only thing I could do was to get involved in trouble some way left a very bad taste in my mouth."


Mosley was astounded when he wasn't drafted after graduation. "My peers were given their degrees early so they could go in," Mosley. "I got my degree, and my process was sitting and waiting. September came along, and nothing. I thought for sure I would be going down to Tuskegee." He complained to the draft board, and he was told that there had been a mix-up and his draft board believed he already had been called up. Soon, he was called in to the Army.


Instead of being sent to Tuskegee to fly, however, he was dispatched to a segregated field artillery unit at Fort Sill.


"I started writing letters, along with my parents, to congressmen and the White House," Mosley said. "I said, 'Look, I have actually been trained in flying, and why haven't I been sent down to Tuskegee?'"


He got his wish two months later.


"When I was going through," he said, "they didn't graduate any more pilots than they needed with the 99th [Fighter Squadron]. If they lost two people in the 99th, two people would graduate. They would eliminate you for anything-shoes not shined or for any attitude you had that wasn't appropriate. I often tell people I'm the best pilot in the world, but there were pilots better than I was who got washed out for nothing because they didn't realize they had to demonstrate they could out-strategize their white instructors. Those were the kinds of things we had to go through.


"The one goal I set for myself was I wanted to get those silver wings. I knew I had to do everything in the world to scrap and to prove myself. Although we had black instructors through primary training, they were all white instructors at basic and advanced. That's where the washouts were frequent. We used to say, 'How many did we lose in Europe, three or four?' And three or four would graduate from the next class. It was that sensitive and [there was] quite a bit of trying to outdo your fellow classmates so you would be selected to advance. That wasn't very pleasant, either, because you were fighting against other blacks down there trying to make it. I didn't tell my flight instructors that I already knew how to fly."


Why not?


Mosley said the word was that instructors would feel threatened by that and find a way to "wash out" that Airman.


Following pressure from black-owned newspapers and from the White House, the first black airmen served in combat, flying fighters in North Africa and Europe. In 1945, Mosley was one of the first blacks trained to be a bomber pilot. "They didn't trust us with B-17s, with bombs," Mosley said. "They thought the first thing we'd do was head for 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. They really had to sell Congress with 'we think we can trust those guys now,' so we were permitted to fly B-25s."


Part of the training was at Tucson, and then at Freeman Field in Indiana.


"They had a provision that there would be no black officer above the rank of captain, and there wouldn't be any white officers below the rank of major," Mosley said. "The white officers were all considered instructor personnel, and they had an officers' club they called the Instructors' Club. To ensure that we as black officers recognized that we weren't supposed to use it, they had two MPs standing up there. We discussed this and said, 'This is not right.'"


The angriest was pilot Daniel "Chappie" James. Mosley said James announced that the pilots should just storm into the officers' club. Eventually about forty of them did just that and were arrested, but Mosley was on a training mission to South Carolina at the time.


"The commander of the airfield used to carry around a swagger stick and put it under his arm," Mosley said. "We used to mock him by picking up a stick and carrying that. He decided to court-martial everybody involved. He had issued a statement that we were supposed to sign, that we understood we were not supposed to go into the officers' club. Of course, nobody signed it. We were sent back to Kentucky by Fort Knox. They thought by moving us back there, it would be a more secure thing. They thought there might be a revolution."


While the insurrectionists were awaiting their court-martials, Mosley said, they were under confinement at the Kentucky airfield in a barracks behind barbed wire. "German prisoners also were housed there, and they had the complete run of the base," he said. "They could use the PX. The airfield was somewhat separate from the Fort Knox unit, but the Germans had assignments over there, picking up the trash and things like that. It was most embarrassing to watch those German prisoners and then to look over there to the barracks that housed the guys who were under arrest, and the German prisoners had the full run of the base, it seemed like. So you knew what they thought of us. That was really disturbing."


Mosley said that the court-martial was held in the base's theater. Future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall was one of the defending attorneys.


"It was a comical show for all of us blacks on base because we had to get there at six in the morning to get in line and get in the theater, because everyone wanted to crowd in there to watch this court-martial," Mosley said. "It really was the white base commander who was on trial. It was embarrassing to him and to the armed forces and the War Department, and following that, only about four people received a very minimal reprimand and letters in their files."


By then promoted from copilot to pilot, Mosley and others were ticketed to fly in Pacific combat had the war continued into late 1945. As a reservist after the war, he was asked to write a position paper about the possible integration of the armed services and was told it would it would reach President Harry Truman's desk. He doubts that it did. But that report also is part of the reason why he always felt he had at least a small role in Truman's decision to integrate the military.


"The integration of the armed forces was really a prelude to all the kinds of civil rights activities that took place in this country," Mosley said. "That's why I use the Tuskegee Airmen as being the basis for all of this developing and making America what it should be. You asked why I wasn't bitter. It was because I was part of the movement to prove that we were capable of making a contribution to the development of this great nation. We had the foresight to know that this would be the best nation in the world. And it is the best nation in the world. The Armed Forces would have never been integrated had it not been for the Tuskegee Airmen proving they could fight, wanted to fight, could be relied on to fight, and were not afraid of giving their lives to accomplish their missions and goals."


During the Cold War years, Mosley spent reserve stints in the new U.S. Air Force flying supplies to West Germany and North Africa and also worked for the YMCA. During the Vietnam War, he was an operations officer in Thailand as U.S. pilots flew bombing missions over North Vietnam. He retired from the Air Force in 1970 as a lieutenant colonel and served as special assistant to the undersecretary in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare in Washington before returning to Denver. He worked at the regional office for the Department of Health and Human Services until he retired.


Mosley was inducted into the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame in 2009, and I was honored to introduce him at the banquet.


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