Lt. James L. McCullin Jr.: A Memorial to a Fallen Hero

Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Tuskegee Airman Lt. James L. McCullin Jr was one of the first African American pilots lost in combat while flying for the United States when his plane disappeared over the coast of Sicily. His sister created a memorial quilt to highlight and honor his service.  

Memorial Quilt for Tuskegee Airman 2nd Lt. James McCullin (After 1943) by Vivian Lucille McCullinSmithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

A memorial quilt

Since the 19th century, recording memories and creating memorial quilts have been ways for families to honor and remember lost loved ones. For Vivian L. McCullin, a memorial quilt was a way to keep the memory of her deceased brother, James L. McCullin Jr, alive. On July 2, 1943, after escorting B-25 bombers on a raid over southwestern Sicily, Tuskegee Airmen 2nd Lt. James L. McCullin Jr. and 1st Lt. Sherman W. White Jr. failed to return to base, becoming the first two African American pilots lost in combat while flying for the United States. Lieutenants McCullin and White were presumably shot down by enemy fighters over Sicily, but no crash sites were ever found. This unfinished quilt cover, donated to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture by McCullin’s nephew, tells the story of Lieutenant McCullin from his time in college and training at Tuskegee Institute to serving with the 99th Fighter Squadron in the Mediterranean and his post-death legacy.

James Lawrence McCullin Jr. was born on November 25, 1918, in St. Louis, Missouri, to James and Bessie McCullin.

McCullin attended Kentucky State College (now University) where he played football, basketball, and joined the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity.

McCullin graduated from Kentucky State in 1942 with a bachelor’s degree in sociology and economics. After graduating, McCullin enlisted in the Army Air Corps at Jefferson Barracks outside of St. Louis. Shortly thereafter McCullin was sent to Tuskegee, Alabama, to train as a pilot.

Training aircraft used by Tuskegee Institute (ca. 1944) by Boeing Corporation, Original ManufacturerSmithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Training the Tuskegee Airmen

Before World War II, African Americans were barred from flying for the U.S. military. Due to intense pressure from civil rights groups and the African American media, in 1941, the Army Air Corps formed an all-African American pursuit squadron with a training base at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. In addition to training pilots, the program at Tuskegee trained support personnel including mechanics, navigators, nurses, and others who kept the more than 900 Tuskegee pilots airborne throughout the war. Thirteen African American men volunteered for the first flight training program and many more followed. They were determined to serve their country and show skeptical military leaders that African Americans could be top fighter pilots. Graduates eventually joined the 99th Pursuit Squadron (later the 99th Fighter Squadron) or the newly formed 332nd Fighter Group under Col. Benjamin O. Davis Jr. (one of the first graduates of the program and later the first African American Air Force general). The Tuskegee Airmen were recognized for their record of safely escorting bombers on their missions, putting to rest any doubts about the abilities of African American pilots.

This PT-13 Stearman Kaydet was one of the planes used to train airmen at Moton Field in Tuskegee, Alabama.

Memorial Quilt for Tuskegee Airman 2nd Lt. James McCullin (After 1943) by Vivian Lucille McCullinSmithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) was the ideal place to train African American pilots. Founded in 1881, Tuskegee Institute, under the direction of Booker T. Washington, was dedicated to training African American students in both academic subjects and practical skills. Steeped in a long history of training African Americans, Tuskegee had everything the Army Air Corps was looking for: facilities, technical instructors, and an ideal climate for year-round flying.

In March 1941, the new pilot training program at Tuskegee received national attention when First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt took to the skies in a plane piloted by chief civilian instructor at Tuskegee, C. Alfred “Chief” Anderson. When the first lady said to Chief Anderson that she’d “heard colored people couldn’t fly airplanes,” he responded, “Well, we’re not having any problems here.” Chief Anderson and Mrs. Roosevelt spent more than a half hour in the air. After landing, she announced, “Well, you can fly all right.”

Photographs and stories of the first lady flying with a black pilot demonstrated Mrs. Roosevelt’s support of the training program at Tuskegee. The ensuing press coverage helped promote the program and validated the capabilities of African American pilots.

James McCullin graduated from the pilot training program at Tuskegee on September 6, 1942. His diploma states that “James Lawrence McCullin has satisfactorily completed the course of instruction prescribed for Pilot Training at the Tuskegee Army Flying School.”

Lieutenant McCullin and eight other African American men were part of graduating class 42-H (pictured here). Lieutenant McCullin is standing far left. Pictured directly directly in the center (fourth from the left) is Lt. Robert W. Diez, who was featured in a popular War Bonds poster during the war.

Keep Us Flying! (1943) by United States Department of the Treasury and Betsy Graves ReyneauSmithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Lieutenant McCullin’s classmate, Lt. Robert Diez, is featured on this famous War Bonds poster created for the United States Department of the Treasury in 1943 by artist Betsy Graves Reyneau. Heroic images of Tuskegee Airmen such as this poster helped recruit new servicemen and build support for the war in African American communities.

Memorial Quilt for Tuskegee Airman 2nd Lt. James McCullin (After 1943) by Vivian Lucille McCullinSmithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Tuskegee Airmen enter the war

Nine days after Lieutenant McCullin received his pilot’s wings, the 99th
Fighter Squadron was declared combat ready. The group was deployed in April 1943 and arrived in North Africa on April 24. The 99th Fighter Squadron joined the 33rd Fighter Group under commander Col. William W. Momyer and had their first mission on June 2, 1943. According to the official squadron history, “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.”

Upon their arrival in the Mediterranean, pilots of the 99th Fighter Squadron, including Lieutenant McCullin, were assigned to pilot Curtiss P-40 Warhawk fighter-bomber aircraft. The P-40 was a single-seat, single-engine fighter that first flew in 1938. The P-40 was used by most of the Allied powers and remained in service throughout the war.

On July 2, 1943, Lieutenant McCullin took part in a mission escorting a dozen B-25 bombers to their target. Over the coast of Sicily, the group was attacked by German fighters. Lt. Charles B. Hall shot down a Focke-Wulf 190, becoming the first African American pilot in the U.S. military to shoot down an enemy fighter. However, when the fighters returned to their base, Lieutenant McCullin and another pilot, Lt. Sherman H. White, were missing. A search patrol was sent out, hoping to find evidence that the pilots had been forced to land along the coast of Sicily. In a report to the Baltimore Afro-American a correspondent with the 99th Fighter Squadron wrote, “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.”

In his autobiography, Col. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., who led the mission, described the day: “On 2 July I led a 12-plane escort of 12 B-25s to Castelvetrano in southwest Sicily. It was on this mission that I saw my first enemy aircraft, an element of two FW-190s and a flight of four Me-109s, far above my part of our formation, which was flying close escort to the B-25s. 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. We believed at the time that both these pilots had made a forced landing along the Sicilian coast, but regrettable, it did not turn out that way. The loss of fighter pilots was like a loss in the family.”

Lieutenant McCullin's legacy

No traces of Lieutenant McCullin, Lieutenant White, or their planes were ever discovered. Lieutenant McCullin and Lieutenant White were legally declared dead on July 3, 1944, per Army regulations, one year and one day after they went missing, making them the first black pilots ever killed in combat for the United States. Lieutenant McCullin is listed among the Tablets of the Missing at the North African American Cemetery in Tunis, Tunisia, and has a headstone at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis County, Missouri.

Lieutenant McCullin was posthumously awarded the Air Medal for “heroic or meritorious achievement while participating in aerial flight” and the Purple Heart “for military merit and wounds received in action.”

Purple Heart medal awarded posthumously to Tuskegee Airman 2nd Lt. James McCullin (1944) by United States ArmySmithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

This Purple Heart was posthumously awarded to 2nd Lieutenant James L. McCullin Jr. on October 12, 1944.

Memorial Quilt for Tuskegee Airman 2nd Lt. James McCullin (After 1943) by Vivian Lucille McCullinSmithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

In 1948, Kentucky State University named its new dormitory in honor of Lieutenant McCullin. McCullin Hall still stands on the KSU campus today. A plaque inside McCullin Hall reads, “Lt. James L. McCullin was a gentleman, a scholar, and a true thoroughbred, who entered Kentucky State College in 1938. … Lt. McCullin was killed by anti-aircraft fire in action over Sicily on July 3, 1943 [sic], thus becoming the first KSU graduate killed during World War II.”

Between 1942 and 1946, 992 pilots were trained at Tuskegee and 355 were deployed overseas. By the end of the war 84 pilots had lost their lives, including 68 pilots killed in action or accidents. Through this memorial quilt and other objects donated to the National Museum of African American History and Culture by his family, Lieutenant McCullin’s story and the story of the Tuskegee Airmen will be told for generations to come.

Credits: Story

Written by Douglas Remley, Rights & Reproductions Specialist, NMAAHC

View objects in the NMAAHC collection relating to Lieutenant McCullin.

View objects in the NMAAHC collection relating to the Tuskegee Airmen.

Various death dates for Lieutenant McCullin appear in the documents reproduced on this quilt. Lieutenant McCullin went missing on July 2, 1943. However, since he was never found, the Army Air Corps could not legally declare him dead until one year and one day after he went missing. On family records and personal objects, including the memorial plaque at Kentucky State University, his death date is listed as July 2, 1943. However, on all official military documents, including his headstone at Jefferson Barracks Cemetery, Lieutenant McCullin's death date is listed as July 3, 1944.


“2LT James Lawrence McCullin, Jr (1918-1944)” Find a Grave. Accessed April 23, 2020.

Davis, Benjamin O. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., American: an Autobiography. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991.

“James L. McCullin.” American Battle Monuments Commission. Accessed April 23, 2020.

Smith, Erica. “Lt. James L. McCullin First Tuskegee Airman from St. Louis.”, September 26, 2009.

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