San Dieguito High honors classmates killed in battle

Twenty names read on Saturday, most by someone who knew them

Fallen Alumni Memorial monument, built in 2003.
  • Fallen Alumni Memorial monument, built in 2003.

During the Vietnam War, Del Mar resident 1st Lt. Jimmy Mitchell, a member of the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines, landed at Chu Lai in South Vietnam. On an August 31, 1965 patrol, the Marine from Del Mar was killed from a land mine explosion.

Nine of the 20 fallen San Dieguito alumni: Lopez, Cozens, Ramos, Mericantante, Curley, Peppin, Henricks, Dawson, Tworek

Nine of the 20 fallen San Dieguito alumni: Lopez, Cozens, Ramos, Mericantante, Curley, Peppin, Henricks, Dawson, Tworek

Mitchell graduated with San Dieguito High School’s class of 1959. He was ASB president, a surfer, lettered in several sports, and broke CIF records on the Mustang basketball team. He married his high school sweetheart, Jan Berttoncini, class of ‘61.

Upon their class’s tenth reunion in 1969, his friends and fellow classmates were shocked to learn of the death of Mitchell, along with fellow classmate, Navy Lt. Michael Zerbe, who was killed on April 15, 1966 after his helicopter crashed after takeoff from the USS Kitty Hawk.

It was then that classmates David “Chatto” Gonzalez and Jim Wheyland, who had also served in Vietnam, vowed that some day they would build a memorial on the high school campus, to honor their fallen friends.

As part of the campus’s 80th year anniversary, this past Memorial Day weekend, on May 27, over 60 relatives, friends, teachers, alumni, and students showed up to the campus’s Fallen Alumni Memorial monument, which was built in 2003 with the efforts of Gonzales, Wheyland, and other San Dieguito alumni veterans.

Each of the 20 names on the monument was read, most by someone who knew of the young men. They shared about the men’s interests in high school, their town, and their service to the country. Nine of the names were killed in action in World War II, with several having skipped graduation in order to enlist. Two names were from the Korean war. Nine were from Vietnam.

USN Capt. Richard Suttie, Class of ‘75, is the highest-ranking military officer to have graduated from San Dieguito. Suttie honored several of the fallen alumni, such as Private 1st Class David Peppin, Jr., from the Class of ‘65. Peppin, accepted into U.S. Naval Academy, fell ill, and had to drop out. In order to serve, he later joined the Marines in 1968.

“This was a Pat Tillman moment,” said Capt. Suttie, referring to the NFL star who gave up his football career to fight, and die, in Afghanistan after 9/11. “Being accepted at USNA meant he could have gone to any college he wanted to, graduated, and had a successful career. And yet he came back to join the Marines.”

Isaac Lopez represented his brother, Army Specialist 4 Victor “Chief” Lopez, from the Class of ’66. “Of all of us seven brothers, Chief was the only one that had his special personality; always smiling, always liked by everyone.” In the extended families of the close-knit Eden Gardens neighborhood of Solana Beach, a new grandson was named Chief, in remembrance of Lopez.

Tom Cozens, a fifth-generation Encinitasian, said after his uncle, Army Air Corpsman 2nd Lt. Richard Cozens died in his WWII B-24 bomber, in his personal effects, they found a opened letter with Tom’s recently-born baby picture inside. “He knew I was born,” said Cozens. “I’ve always had a special connection with him.”

Each year the school’s alumni association raises money to support partial college scholarships for two graduating students. The scholarships are given in memory of two of the fallen alumni.

The gathered group was advised that based on research by the alumni association., with information from the Department of Defense, no new names have had to be added to the monument from the Afghanistan or Iraq wars this year.

Ken Harrison is the chairman of the school’s alumni association.

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