REGION — Just three weeks shy of his 100th birthday, WWII B-25 pilot and veteran Howard Dungan passed away on July 12, leaving a strong legacy of service to both his country and the San Diego community.
Later serving for 36 years as a teacher and guidance counselor in public schools, he would go on to teach and inspire multiple generations of students and residents across San Diego County.
Howard’s daughter, Michelle Dungan, remembered her father’s storied life, extended from the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, to WWII and through the present day.
Born on a Nebraskan farm in 1920, Howard grew up in an age before electricity was available in rural areas, with only kerosene lamps to light his family’s home at night, a physical pump for water and an outdoor lavatory.
“He would ride a horse back and forth to school,” Michelle reminisced. “It was still the Great Depression, so when he was finished with school he’d head into work at a local bowling alley. In his town, setting pins.”
Howard’s childhood years mirrored that of many younger Americans during the Great Depression in that after completing high school, he sought work anywhere he could, traveling the country picking apples, processing poultry, and learning a bit about banking before moving to San Diego in 1939.
It wouldn’t be until one fateful morning in December of 1941 while driving back from Tijuana with his future wife, Anita, that Howard would feel truly called to serve his country — a call he continued to answer his entire life.
That morning, as Howard pulled up to the U.S. – Mexican border, the agent looked at him and asked, “haven’t you heard? The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.”
Dungan would go on to join the Army Air Corps as an officer and B-25 pilot, eventually landing a duty station in Hawaii, flying missions over the Philippines, Japan and China. By the war’s end, he had achieved the rank of First Lieutenant.
His high school sweetheart, Anita, whom he married in 1943 prior to his deployment, would go on to serve as a Rosie the Riveter, filing and welding B-20’s for Ryan Air in San Diego while Howard was away at war.
When Howard returned from the war he used his GI Bill, completing his college degree and teaching at Roseville Junior High for 36 years, impacting the lives of students spanning all of San Diego County.
Joanne Haeussinger, a close family friend, recounted meeting Howard when her 5th grade class at Aviara Oaks Middle School in Carlsbad wrote him letters prior to his trip with the organization Honor Flight in 2013.
Howard had later contacted the school and asked if he could visit the students who wrote him letters, say thank you and share his story.
“The day arrived, and into our classroom walked the most adorable 92-year-old gentleman you could ever meet,” Haeussinger said. “He answered their questions and told us his stories… growing up on a farm in Nebraska, becoming a pilot in the military, flying in the Pacific Theater, marrying his high school sweetheart, and going back to school to become a teacher on the GI Bill after the war ended.”
Howard Dungan and Haussinger would remain friends, and he returned three years later to attend the middle school graduation of those same school children, a sign of his steadfast dedication to public education.
“In the last few days, I’ve been thinking of this question, how do you honor someone right now [during COVID]? How do you honor such a long and full life,” Michelle said. “You support public education Support your local schools, work to make them better, get involved with your own child’s schooling.”
For close family, Howard’s passing was exceptionally challenging thanks in part to COVID-19.
Though Howard did not explicitly die from coronavirus, current restrictions placed on hospital visitations kept his family from seeing him until the hospital determined his condition terminal, complicating communications.
“It was a relief to all of us that we were able to say our goodbyes,” Michelle said. “The next day he passed away of congestive heart failure. We don’t know how we’re going to proceed with his memorial yet but we do know he will be cremated and placed next to my mother, Anita, in Fort Rosecrans.”
In the weeks leading up to Howard’s hospitalization, Haeussinger had begun collecting 100 birthday cards for his 100th birthday. She had been able to deliver 50 to him prior to his passing and is still collecting cards to this day, to be delivered to Michelle, at a future memorial service.
After a lifetime of service to his country and the local San Diego community, Howard’s legacy lives on in not only the students he taught and mentored but the American freedoms San Diegans enjoy to this day.
Howard is survived by his daughter Michelle Dungan and her wife Veronica Zerrer.
For more information on how to submit thank you cards, please contact either [email protected] or [email protected]. The Coast News will update this piece with information on memorial services as become available.