Lt. James L. McCullin and Lt. Sherman H. White Jr. were the first black pilots killed in combat.
McCullin of St. Louis was a student at Kentucky State University when he learned about the black fighter squadrons being trained at Tuskegee Army Air Field, Ala. He was among nine men to graduate from flight training on Sept. 6, 1942. Nine days later, the 99th Fighter Squadron was declared combat-ready, although the group would not be deployed until April 1943. The squadron, and McCullin, arrived in North Africa on April 24 and began preparing for combat.
"Our pilots had their first mission on June 2, 1943," the official squadron history, written monthly by the squadron's intelligence officer, reported. "They did not encounter the enemy on this mission ... Pilots of the 99th Fighter Squadron had an average of two missions daily from June 2 to June 9, 1943. The missions were varied; some were to bomb gun positions on Pantelleria Island, others to serve as escorts for A-20s and B-25s."
While escorting bombers over Pantelleria, Italy, on June 9, the squadron saw its first enemy fighters, but the German pilots fled before contact was made.
Both 2nd Lt. McCullin and 1st Lt. White participated in combat missions in June, which was called a "comparatively quiet" month. The squadron would make contact with enemy fighters in the next month.
On the morning of July 2, McCullin and White were part of an escort for a dozen B-25 bombers. Near the coast of Sicily, German fighters swarmed to attack the bombers. Lt. Charles B. Hall shot down a Focke-Wulf 190, the first enemy fighter downed by a black pilot. But when the fighters returned to base, McCullin and White were missing.
Lt. Col. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., who led the mission, and other pilots believed McCullin and White had been forced to land along Sicily's coast. According to the missing air crew report, a search patrol was sent out, but did not find evidence of downed planes or either pilot. A Royal Air Force plane searched the area the next day, but had the same results.
A correspondent for Baltimore's Afro-American, who was at the 99th Fighter Squadron's base in Tunisia, sent a report to his newspaper after interviewing Davis and other pilots: "They did not have time to jump," he wrote of McCullin and White. "One day they were eating and playing games and talking of postwar plans back home — then they went on a mission — and never came back."
Several weeks later, McCullin and White were officially declared dead; no trace of the pilots or their planes has been found.
After the war, historians began to publish information on the Tuskegee Airmen. Among the first was Charles E. Francis, a U.S. Air Force first lieutenant. His book "The Tuskegee Airmen: The Men Who Changed a Nation" said McCullin and White had crashed during take-off on July 2 and were killed.
In fall 2008, an article in "Air Power History," the magazine printed by the U.S. Air Force Historical Foundation, sought to set the record straight: McCullin and White were killed in action over Sicily, not on take-off in Tunisia. Military reports for McCullin and White, dated July 3, 1943, say the pilots were last seen a little after 8 a.m. over the southwest coast of Sicily the previous day. The reports say the sky was hazy, with scattered clouds at 9,000 feet, and that the planes were likely lost due to "enemy aircraft," although no one reported seeing either pilot in trouble. Other pilots flying with McCullin and White that day, including Davis's account in his autobiography, back up those reports.
"It was on this mission that I saw my first enemy aircraft, an element of two FW-190s and a flight of four (Messerschmitt) 109s, far above my part of our formation, which was flying close escort to the B-25s," Davis wrote in "American." "When the enemy planes dove on the bombers, our top cover turned into them and kept them out of range. During this mission we had our first pilot losses: Lts. Sherman White and James McCullin.
"The loss of fighter pilots was like a loss in the family."