UND Today

University of North Dakota’s Official News Source

UND’s Tuskegee Airman

At UND, Horace W. ‘Hoss’ Johnson’s teammates stood up for him; after UND, he stood up for his country as a Tuskegee-trained U.S. Army pilot during World War II

Horace "Hoss" Johnson and his wife
Horace “Hoss” Johnson married Felicia McLeod of Tulsa, Okla., on Nov. 13, 1942. Daughter Louise Johnson said her mother was known to be just as charming as her father. Recalling the many times she accompanied her parents to UND reunions as a teenager, she said she marveled at their magnetic personalities. “Every year, or every other year, we used to go downtown — I think it was Hollywood — for these UND reunions,” she said. “Lawrence Welk would always be playing there, and they were close. My parents loved Lawrence Welk.” In fact, the famous North Dakota band leader and longtime TV celebrity once had asked Horace to join his company on tour as a tap dancer. Among the other celebrities the couple met in their lifetime was astronaut Buzz Aldrin, whom they met at another UND event. Photo courtesy of Horace Johnson family.

In the University Armory on June 7, 1939 — Commencement Day — some 230 UND seniors picked up their bachelor’s degrees. Two of those students were Black graduates. One of them, Frederick D. “Fritz” Pollard Jr., you’ve probably heard of before.

This story is about the other.

Like Pollard, Horace W. “Hoss” Johnson was an Olympic-level athlete, lettering in three sports and ranking among UND’s all-time greats in track. Like Pollard, Johnson eventually would be named to the UND Athletics Hall of Fame.

And like Pollard, who became a Foreign Service and high-level U.S. State Department officer, Johnson went on to a fascinating career. Among other accomplishments, he became a U.S. Army artillery officer, then underwent pilot training to become an aerial field artillery observer in 1943.

This training took place at Tuskegee Army Airfield, the base near Tuskegee, Ala., where the Army Air Forces taught Black military officers to fly.

Senior photo of Horace Johnson
Horace “Hoss” Johnson (center photo, fourth row down) is featured in his senior 1939 UND yearbook. He earned his undergraduate degree in History. Photo by Janelle Vonasek/UND Today.

What movies are made of

That makes Johnson a bona fide Tuskegee Airman, a member of the storied group of Black pilots and airmen who fought in World War II.

Anyone “who served at Tuskegee Army Airfield or in any of the programs stemming from the ‘Tuskegee Experiment’ between the years 1941 and 1949 is considered to be a Documented Original Tuskegee Airman (DOTA),” Tuskegee University notes on its website devoted to the group.

“My father adored the Army and his country. He was an incredible patriot,” said Ann Johnson, the eldest daughter of the late Horace Johnson. “He knew in those days that the Black guys had to be in separate barracks — there was no intermingling — but he didn’t resent that. He loved his country and appreciated the opportunity it gave him to be a pilot and do all he did in service to his country.”

Roommates and friends

Frederick “Fritz” Pollard (left) and Horace “Hoss” Johnson
Johnson (left) and Pollard.

Black students were few and far between when Horace Johnson, a 1935 graduate of Globe High School in Globe, Ariz., enrolled at UND.

Make that very few and very far between. There may have been one other Black graduate in the decades before Johnson and Pollard earned their degrees. (Watch UND Today for more about that early history.)

But between the University’s founding and World War II, many years saw few or no African-Americans at all among the student body, a dearth that paralleled the very small number of Blacks in North Dakota. As Era Bell Thompson — the longtime international editor of Ebony magazine, who herself was likely the only Black student on campus during at least one of her two years at UND in the 1920s — wrote about the occasion of a Christmas dinner with family friends during her North Dakota girlhood, “Now there were 15 of us, four percent of the state’s entire Negro population.”

Remember that solitude — and the character that was needed to succeed in the face of it — as you learn more about Johnson and his exceptional achievements in tumultuous times, both in America and abroad.

Part of Johnson’s steel character might have been forged while he and Fritz Pollard Jr. — the 1936 high-hurdles bronze Olympic medalist and namesake for today’s state-of-the-art UND athletics center — were roommates in the old Memorial Stadium.

Horace "Hoss" Johnson
Johnson in UND yearbook.

Student-athletes who lived, studied and trained inside the old football stadium were known affectionately by teammates and friends as the “Stadium Rats.” For Johnson and Pollard, however, that moniker may have been more fitting for their unwelcome company.

“They didn’t like the mice scurrying around down there, so he and Fritz got a cat,” Ann Johnson said with a laugh before pausing to add a more serious note.

Like baseball’s Jackie Robinson of later fame, her father and Pollard were breaking the color barrier in intercollegiate sports. They endured racial epithets but displayed the courage and strength of character of doing so with a smile, she said, so that they could realize their dreams of competing at the highest level.

“The school had given them a little coal stove to keep the space warm,” she recalled. “The cat took care of the mice, and they didn’t mind it so much down there. Even though they weren’t allowed to stay in the dormitories, my dad said everyone at UND treated them like gold.

“They were the big people on campus, and everybody loved them because they were so dynamic and so unbelievable in sports.”

Not being able to stay in the dormitories was unfair treatment, but Johnson and Pollard didn’t let that deter them, she said. They ate with other students in the University lunchroom, and they could go anywhere else on campus.

Horace Johnson on in yearbook
As this photo of a UND yearbook page shows, Horace Johnson was a basketball standout at UND. As a student attending Globe (Ariz.) High School, Johnson had scholarship offers from several Big Ten schools, according to a story in the Globe Miami Times. But the Globe High principal persuaded him to go to UND, where he said the University would let him play basketball. Photo by Janelle Vonasek/UND Today.

‘They stuck by him’

Horace Johnson’s second daughter, Louise Johnson, recalled similar stories from her father, and suggested they help explain why — despite the difficult racial climate of the times — Horace Johnson retained a lifelong affection for UND.

“He loved the University of North Dakota,” Louise Johnson said. “He talked about his teammates and how nice everyone was to him there.

“When they traveled for games, there were places he couldn’t go because of the segregation laws back then. But if a hotel said he couldn’t sleep there, then his teammates wouldn’t sleep there either. They would refuse and sleep in the car or on the bus with him.”

Similarly, if they stopped at a restaurant that wouldn’t serve him at the lunch counter or table, they all would walk out, she said.

“They all loved Dad, and they stuck by him,” Louise Johnson said.

As the citation for his 1979 induction into the UND Athletics Hall of Fame suggests, Johnson was an athlete for the ages. He “lettered many times in each sport he participated in,” the citation notes.

“He lettered in football 1936-38, basketball 1936-39 and three times in track 1936-39. Hoss was widely known as an outstanding trackman and ranks among North Dakota’s all-time greats in that sport. He was named the Outstanding North Central Conference Athlete in 1937-38. In track he set conference records (in the long jump and 100-yard dash). He participated in the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s meet in 1939, finishing sixth in the 100.

“Johnson was also an outstanding football player on the same teams with such greats as Evan Lips and Fritz Pollard, both Hall of Famers. … There is no doubt Hoss was one of America’s premier athletes during his college days.”

Horace Johnson football team
Horace “Hoss” Johnson lettered in track and field, football and basketball multiple times while at UND. He was widely known as an outstanding trackman and ranked among North Dakota’s all-time greats in that sport. Johnson was inducted into the UND Athletics Hall of Fame in 1979. Photo by Janelle Vonasek/UND Today.
Horace Johnson in track photo
Johnson breaks the tape.

Clearly, Johnson was no stranger to athletic achievements, either at Globe High (where he’s also a member of the school’s Hall of Fame) or UND.

But the one sports achievement he craved most escaped him when World War II broke out. Like Pollard, Johnson had dreamed of bringing home an Olympic medal. He had been training hard to compete in the decathlon at the 1940 Olympics and was crushed when the war brought about the games’ cancellation.

“That was so hard on him. I’m telling you, he would have won, too,” said Ann Johnson, adding that her father even had raced against Olympic great Jesse Owens and lost by only a tenth of a second.

Of course, as one door closes, another may open. In Johnson’s case, while the coming of World War II extinguished his Olympic dreams, it also enabled him not only to learn to fly but also to serve his country as a pilot with one of America’s most distinguished military aviation groups.

“The Tuskegee Airmen were the first Black military aviators in the U.S. Army Air Corps, a precursor of the U.S. Air Force,” History.com notes.

“Trained at the Tuskegee Army Airfield in Alabama, they flew more than 15,000 individual sorties in Europe and North Africa during World War II. Their impressive performance earned them more than 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses and helped encourage the eventual integration of the U.S. armed forces.”

Low and slow, with the enemy below

When then-Second Lt. Johnson arrived at Tuskegee Airfield in October 1943, he was part of a cohort of Black field-artillery officers who would serve as aerial observers for recently organized Black artillery units.

These “liaison pilots” flew light, single-engine aircraft, many of the planes covered only in fabric.

Propaganda leaflet
Click image for larger copy.

Liaison training stressed procedures such as short field landings and takeoffs over obstacles, low-altitude navigation, first aid, day and night reconnaissance, aerial photography and aircraft maintenance, Wikipedia notes.

Armed with nothing but a .45 pistol or .30 carbine, the liaison pilots “flew low and slow,” the article continues.

“They flew varied and often hazardous missions over nearly every battlefield — medical evacuation from forward areas; delivering munitions, blood plasma, mail and other supplies to front lines; ferrying personnel; flying photographic or intelligence missions; serving as air observers for fighters or bombers; and other critical yet often unpublicized missions.”

Johnson served with the all-Black 93rd Infantry Division in the South Pacific, and his eldest daughter has proof of at least one of his missions.

Framed and hanging on her family room wall is a copy of one of the thousands of “surrender” leaflets her father dropped over Japanese troops on the Philippine Islands. (The leaflet pictured nearby, courtesy of the Pritzker Military Museum & Library, is of the style that Johnson likely delivered as a liaison pilot.)

The propaganda leaflets were dropped soon after U.S. Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur landed in October 1944, Internet sources say. The messages — often written in both English and Japanese — were meant to induce Japanese troops to surrender by demonstrating the humane treatment that soldiers would receive by Allied Forces.

Horace Johnson family portrait
Horace “Hoss” Johnson (second man from right) and Felicia (in white dress) take part in an outdoor portrait with family. Photo courtesy of Horace Johnson family.

‘I can’t say enough about my father’

After the war, Johnson served in the Army Reserves and eventually retired as a lieutenant colonel.

He married his sweetheart, Felicia McLeod, on Nov. 13, 1942, in Tulsa, Okla. He went on to earn two master’s degrees, and his wife earned three. They had two daughters and a son, all of whom earned their own advanced degrees (the daughters became dentists, and the son a probation officer).

Both Horace Johnson and his wife were longtime schoolteachers in the Los Angeles area. They had all the credentials for their Ph.D.’s but opted not to get them because they feared they’d get nudged toward the principal track, and they preferred working in the classroom, their daughters said.

They taught in schools in nearby towns, primarily school districts with underprivileged students.

“That’s what they loved,” Louise Johnson said. “They loved helping kids.”

There are other fascinating chapters in Johnson’s life that we won’t detail here, such as his longtime acquaintance and 1930s-era invitation to tour with Lawrence Welk — Johnson was an impressive musician and tap dancer, in addition to his many other skills — and pre-World War II prospect of playing with the Harlem Globetrotters.

Suffice it to say that Johnson’s children remember with love a deeply spiritual and extraordinarily gifted, yet equally humble man who learned some of his early leadership skills at UND.

“I can’t say enough about my father,” Louise Johnson said. “Every day I’m thankful for the things he taught me. He always said if you’re honest and you work hard, you can be anything and do anything you want. Don’t let anything hold you back because hard work will help you overcome any obstacles in your way.”

>> UND TODAY would like to kindly thank University Archivist Curt Hanson for his assistance in researching this story through the Elwyn B. Robinson Department of Special Collections.

>> EDITOR’S NOTE: In a companion story to this one, UND Today is happy to present excerpts from Army Maj. Welton Taylor’s book and interview about life as a liaison pilot during World War II. As liaison pilots, both Taylor and Lt. Col. Horace Johnson (UND ’39) served as Tuskegee Airmen and with the all-Black 93rd Infantry Division in the war’s South Pacific campaign.