San Dieguito remembers alumni who made the ultimate sacrifice

San Dieguito alumni participated in the Memorial Day tribute.
(Karen Billing)

There are 20 names on San Dieguito Academy High School’s Fallen Mustang Memorial. On Memorial Day, alumni ensure that the lives and experiences attached to those names will never be forgotten.

On Saturday, May 28, a group of alumni gathered to read their names and tell their stories, those who gave the ultimate sacrifice in World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam. Local Boy Scout Troop 782 presented the flags for the ceremony and would dress the memorial with American flags on the Monday holiday.

Evan Ballow, class of 2022, recipient of one of the annual scholarships awarded to graduating seniors in memory of a Fallen Mustang, was also in attendance.

Established in 2003 by the San Dieguito High School Veterans Association, the memorial will celebrate its 20-year anniversary next year. It is positioned at the front of the school under the shade of a tee— benches sit near a plaque that reads “All gave some, some gave all.” For the event, sponsored by the SDA Foundation that maintains the memorial and scholarship program, it was marked with flowers and a wreath.

A name hasn’t been added to the memorial since the class of 1969.

“There is no greater honor than giving your life for your country,” said Tony Kranz, class of 1977 and Encinitas City Councilman, who helped shared the Fallen Mustang stories, many of them very difficult to tell.

U.S. Air Force Second Lt. Walter Hunt was a member of the class of 1941 and a native of Solana Beach. With a quick smile, slicked-back hair and a letterman jacket, he was known to be a charmer. He was killed in May 1945 when his plane crashed into the sea on a bombing run on a highly fortified Japanese base. His high school best friend came home from the war and married his sister Betty, who served on the San Dieguito alumni committee into her 90s, passing away just last year.

“She told us she missed her brother every single day,” said Dan Dalager, class of 1968 and former Encinitas City Councilperson.

Some of the Fallen Mustangs remembered on the memorial.
(Karen Billing)

U.S. Army Spec. 4 Victor Lopez, known as “Chief”, grew up in Eden Gardens, Solana Beach. A member of the class of 1966, he worked as a letter carrier, loved music and played the drums in a band in his church. During his sixth month in country in Vietnam he was killed by a booby trap explosive device in 1969. Chief made a strong impact on his fellow soldiers and many of them came to California and became like family to the surviving Lopez brothers.

Friend and classmate Jay Helmentolar spoke lovingly of U.S. Marine Corps First Lt. James Mitchell, class of 1959.

“Jimmy was everything,” Helmentolar said. “He was a wonderful guy and everywhere he went he was a leader.”

Mitchell had a deadly jumpshot on the basketball court, was a sprinter on the track team and served as class president. He was killed by a land mine in 1965 at age 25, leaving behind his high school sweetheart Jan and a six-month-old baby girl: “He never got to hold his daughter,” Helmentolar said.

U.S. Air Force Cpl. Joseph Mettam, class of 1939, was on a B-24 bomber flight that went down in 1944 in the jungles of New Guinea. His plane was found in 1983 and his remains were brought home, 39 years after his death.

U.S. Army Pfc. Thomas Mericantante, class of 1967, of Solana Beach, could draw anything he saw, played the saxophone and football. He was only 18 years old when he was killed in 1968, supporting operations along the DMZ, his seventh month in country.

U.S. Navy Corpsman Jack Vaughn, would have been a member of the class of 1949 but he enlisted in 1948 just one month after his 17th birthday. He was killed in action in Korea in 1950 at 19 years old, hit in the back by a missile while tending to his wounded comrades.

U.S. Army Pvt. William Raney, class of 1949, nicknamed Preston, was killed in action in North Korea in 1951 at 22 years old. His best friend John Miller, class of 1949, came home from the war and started a family, naming his son Preston.

Reflecting on the stories told that day, Monica Fenner Mojonnier, class of ’84, said it was amazing what an impression these men made in their short lives.

Doug Bowen, class of 1958, speaks at the Fallen Mustang Memorial.
Doug Bowen, class of 1958, speaks at the Fallen Mustang Memorial.
(Karen Billing)