RIP, Lt. Col. John Mosley

A trailblazing hero 

 

Saturday, May 23, 2015: The sad news came tonight that Lt. Col.

John Mosley died Friday.

 

This is part of the "Fourth Down and a War to Go" chapter in

Playing Piano in a Brothel.    

Mosley3.jpg 

 

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.'"

 

John_Mosley_1941.jpgCousins 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 re-emphasize:

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."

 

He 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."

 

Mosley5.jpg 

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.