Fred “Buck” Dungan – Hellcat Pilot – Ace – Nightfighter

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Fred Dungan

By Michael Fink

Few inventions had as profound an impact on the course of World War II as radar. Whether deployed ashore, on ships at sea or planes in the air, radar gave the Allies a decisive edge in combat. Fred Dungan joined the Navy just as this fledgling technology was being tested in aircraft. Though he didn’t know the purpose of Project Affirm when he was first told to report to Quonset Point, Rhode Island, he would soon find himself at the very tip of the Navy’s night fighting spear.

Fred Leroy Dungan, born in Los Angeles on June 27th, 1921, was a veritable workhorse of a man. He was an enthusiast of all things mechanical—especially things that went fast. While attending school full-time and participating in the Civilian Pilot Training Program, he also built and raced hotrods. It wasn’t enough for Fred to push the limits at school or during his free time, though: he also got a job working nightshift for Lockheed on their P-38 assembly line.

Normally Fred would have been exempt from military service due to his work in war industries, but he was not about to miss out on his chance to fly. Before the United States’ entry into the war, he regularly took trips down to Naval Air Station Los Alamitos to ask if any openings were available for students. None were. He returned over and over again hoping for a break. On December 8th, 1941, the day after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, men were lined up around the block to enlist in the Navy. The recruiter at Los Alamitos noticed that Fred was back again and waiting at the front of the line. He liked that. The recruiter happened to be Wayne Morris, a movie star and future fighter ace himself. Wayne immediately took Fred inside to get him enlisted. Soon Fred had his orders. He was free from work and school and on his way to ‘Wings of Gold.’

Becoming a naval aviator was just the first step. After a year of training Fred was told to report to Quonset Point to participate in Project Affirm. While being briefed on the program, he was asked by its leader, Bill Taylor, what he knew about the assignment. Fred admitted he didn’t know much of anything, and Taylor reportedly said, “Good, because if you knew something I’d have to shoot you.” Project Affirm was the Navy’s attempt to work with the MIT radiation laboratory to equip single seat carrier-type aircraft with radar. It was top secret stuff.

On December 19th, 1942, Fred was chosen to assist in the first ground control approach experiment. He was put in the back seat of an SNJ two-seater trainer whose canopy was totally papered over. It was up to the pilot up front, Fred in the back and “coaches” on the ground to bring the plane down to a successful blind landing. When all was said and done that day, the aviators had made history. They proved that with the right combination of training and technology, Navy fighters could operate during all hours of the day—and even in the pitch black of night.

Though he was relatively young and only a newly-graduated ensign, Fred fit right in with his fellows. He picked up a couple of nicknames including “Gunga Din” due to his last name, and “Buck” as a result of his Buck Rogers-esque personality. After initial training, the Navy’s first radar-assisted pilots were broken up into squadrons for carrier training. Fred went to Night Fighting Squadron 76 [VF(N)-76] in 1943. His detachment started aboard USS Yorktown early in 1944 and followed the ship’s skipper, Joseph J. “Jocko” Clark, to his flagship Hornet for a spring–summer 1944 deployment.

To say that Fred’s combat service was exciting would be an understatement. His detachment of VF(N)-76 picked up the nickname “Jocko’s Boys” due to their familiarity with the famous skipper-turned-admiral. Because of this relationship, and because of their desire to fly as much as humanly possible, Fred and his companions convinced the powers that be aboard Hornet to let them fly both day and night. It was during these sun-up hours in the cockpit that Fred got his chance to make history.

His first opportunity arrived on April 23, 1944, during a routine Combat Air Patrol (CAP) mission near New Guinea. A Japanese G4M “Betty” bomber on course for Hornet’s task group spotted Fred and his fellow fighters too late. By the time its pilot started to turn tail and run, Fred in his Hellcat fighter was easily overtaking the lumbering land-based bomber. In fact, Fred had to chop his throttle and weave so he didn’t overshoot his target. Fred opened up with his guns. The Betty plummeted into the waters below, cartwheeling itself to pieces. The plane’s pilot miraculously survived the crash, was subsequently picked up by U.S. Navy carriers, and later met Fred Dungan, the man who shot him down.

Fred’s next scoring day became one of the most famous in Navy history: June 19, 1944, the “Marianas Turkey Shoot.” Though that day is best remembered for the clash between American and Japanese carriers, Fred’s mission was to bomb Orote Field on Guam. After dropping his ordnance, he returned with his squadron mates to polish off some aircraft hidden on the ground. As they did so, the men noticed that a huge number of Japanese planes—50 to 60 of them—were in a landing pattern attempting to use the freshly pockmarked field. Though they were almost comically outnumbered, “Jocko’s Boys” attacked and managed to destroy 8 enemy planes before the fight fizzled out. Fred was credited with knocking two of them down.

The last major engagement of Fred’s career could make good Hollywood blockbuster material. He and his colleague John W. Dear took off from Hornet under the cover of darkness to launch a sunrise strike against Chichi Jima. They left their ship with 500lb bombs slung under their wings for the attack, and auxiliary fuels tanks centerline for their long return trip home. Despite the fact that the Navy had hit Japanese facilities in the Bonin Islands the previous night, enemy ships at Chichi Jima were at anchor with their lights on; nobody seemed to be on high alert. The sun rose just as Dear and Dungan began their bombing runs. Suddenly there were A6M2-N “Rufe” floatplane fighters milling about below them, glinting in the sunlight. Fred ditched his auxiliary tank and bombs, shedding the dangerous weight for the coming fight.

He came tore into the first Rufe with his machine guns and quickly eliminated it before the balance of power suddenly shifted. Fred found at least three Japanese planes on his tail. He radioed “Johnny” that he was about to cross his path with some planes in tow. As soon as Fred’s plane passed through his field of fire, Johnny Dear opened up with his guns and dropped two more of the Japanese fighters into the drink.

As the engagement wore on and Dear and Fred fought an outnumbered air battle, Dear’s picked up damage from enemy guns. Fred might have made it through the fight unscathed, but an enemy managed to get on his tail from above. Bullets clattered into his Hellcat. One bullet managed to slip through his plane’s armor and into the cockpit. If not for a buckle on his parachute harness it could have been much worse; as it was, he was hit in his shoulder. The bullet fractured his collar bone. It was to be Fred’s last combat mission. He’d shot down four enemy planes, bringing his final tally to seven aerial victories.

Fred “Buck” Dungan was awarded the Navy Cross and Distinguished Flying Cross. After the war, he retained the workhorse drive he exhibited in his youth well into his gray years. After he lost his beloved first wife, he found love again late in life. He was a volunteer sheriff; a member of the Golden Eagles—an elite organization that includes pioneer aviators and astronauts—; and active in the Legion of Honor, the Distinguished Flying Cross Association and the American Fighter Aces Association. In his capacity as a representative of the Fighter Aces Association, he met with President Obama in 2014 for the signing of the American Fighter Aces Congressional Gold Medal Act. His was a life well-lived. To all this Fred would simply say, “I’ve been so lucky.”

Fred Dungan passed away January 2, 2018 at the age of 96.

Buck’s Obituary

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