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WWII Navy flying ace and night-flying pioneer dies at 96

An F6F Hellcat, the type of plane flown by Fred Dungan, takes part in a heritage flight.

IAN COTTER/U.S. NAVY

By FRED SWEGLES | The Orange County Register (Tribune News Service) | Published: January 5, 2018

World War II fighter pilot Fred Dungan used to describe July 4 as his second birthday the day in 1944 when he spoke with his maker and was granted a second chance at life.

Badly wounded when his Navy Hellcat was shot up during a Fourth of July battle over a Japanese-held Pacific island, Dungan grew woozy while flying his crippled plane back to land on a U.S. aircraft carrier.

Close to passing out, he landed safely. He looked so bloodied, the man removing him from the cockpit cried out, "Get a stretcher! This man is dying!"

But that wouldn't happen until nearly 74 years later.

Retired Navy Lt. Cmdr. Dungan died Tuesday, Jan. 2, at his San Clemente home. The decorated World War II flying ace and night-flying pioneer was 96.

His war story

"We had our own fireworks," Dungan used to say, recounting his final combat flight.

His Hellcat and another had been sent up from the USS Hornet at 3 a.m. that July 4, each aircraft equipped with six machine guns and a 500-pound bomb. Their target was Chichijima, a fortified Japanese island, Dungan said in previous interviews.

While trying to spot shipping from the island below, Dungan and pilot Johnny Dear came under enemy anti-aircraft ground fire. A Japanese destroyer escort added its own fire.

The two Americans targeted the ship, making three strafing runs, leaving it dead in the water.

"Two Hellcats knocked out a fighting ship, which was really unusual," Dungan said in a 2009 interview. "We hadn't used our bombs. We were saving those for a tanker or something."

The bombs never found targets, because Dungan and Dear soon found themselves in the dogfight of their lives. Dungan shot down four Japanese planes, Dear three. But as Dungan turned his Hellcat to get a fix on an anti-aircraft battery on the island, something struck him in the shoulder.

The bullet wound would knock him out of the war. He earned the Navy Cross, a Purple Heart, the Distinguished Flying Cross and, in 2009, induction into the Golden Eagles, an elite group of naval aviators. President Barack Obama awarded him the Congressional Gold Medal in 2014.

Dungan ran a flying school after the war before embarking on a 34-year sales career with the 3M Company. He raised two children, outlived two wives and later bonded with companion Joan Hanson, widow of a retired Navy lieutenant commander.

An earlier fight
 

Two weeks before Dungan was shot out of the war, he and a fellow U.S. pilot defied outlandish odds over the Japanese-held island of Guam.

Their squadron had just raided Guam's airstrip, Orote Field. All the pilots departed except Dungan and Bill Levering, who had stayed behind to take intelligence photos.

As Dungan descended through a cloud, he said later, he could hardly believe his eyes. Below him, 20 Japanese bombers and 20 torpedo planes were lining up to land at Orote Field. Above him, some 20 Japanese fighter planes were dotting the sky to protect the landing formation.

Dungan, in a 2012 interview, admitted what he did next may sound suicidal: He dove sharply, right into the enemy landing formation.

With Levering joining him, it would be just two Americans against 60 Japanese, at least until 40 friends could heed a sudden radio call, reverse course and join in.

Dungan and Levering caught the Japanese off guard. Dungan said he flew in beneath the landing formation, figuring Japanese fighter pilots wouldn't dare shoot at him there. Levering didn't make the steep dive, was hit and had to limp back to the ship.

Dungan said he destroyed the first plane in the landing formation, thought he crippled the second and may have disabled a third enemy plane on the ground. He then proceeded to survive a harrowing dogfight as the returning American planes began to pick off more Japanese aircraft.

"One of the Japanese survivors commented that this pilot who dove into the air group that was landing was either the most stupid pilot in the world or the bravest," Dungan said.

"He didn't know I had just called for help," he said. "Our group had just hit that field and were just a minute away."

That day, Dungan survived a determined skirmish with a Japanese fighter pilot who flew out of a cloud upside down, firing at him. "I kicked my plane into a skid," Dungan said. As both planes turned, they came so close Dungan said later he could see his foe's facial features.

In an article in "American Fighter Aces," Dungan wrote he threw his plane into a vicious turn, peppered the Japanese Zero with bullets and, as it went down, saw the pilot raise his right hand in a salute.

Dungan later learned the Japanese formation had flown 600 miles from Truk Island, planning to use Orote Field as a base to attack the U.S. fleet 120 miles west of Guam.

"They knew where our fleet was, and they would attack our fleet at night," Dungan said. "But now the Americans were onto them."
 

Years of service

Dungan and four fellow Navy pilots were credited with shooting down 27 Japanese planes in 1944. Dungan was credited with seven, qualifying him as an ace.

But that's not what qualified him as a Golden Eagle. He was inducted for his pioneering 1942 role in the Navy's development of radar-assisted night flying.

Dungan was the safety pilot in the back seat, ready to take the controls if necessary, as pilot Bruce Griffin made the first "blind" landing with the cockpit windshield blocked out.

Dungan would devote the final two decades of his life to service with San Clemente's Retired Senior Volunteer Program, helping police in town. He was the oldest RSVP, honored by the group in 2016 when he turned 95.

"I'm the last in my squadron," Dungan said at his birthday party. "But I've made a lot of new friends. That's pretty nice."

Celebration of life

A celebration of life is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. Jan. 13 at Casino San Clemente, 140 W. Avenida Pico. Dungan is survived by daughter Carol Dungan of Seattle, Wash., son Robert Dungan, of Springfield, Mass., and fiancé Joan Hanson. He survived earlier wives Jean Stammel and Lorayne Keller. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be directed to hospice and to Honor Flight.

(c)2018 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.)
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