This story is yet unfinished. It began in the dark early-morning hours of June 3, 1969, in the South China Sea. The USS Frank E. Evans (DD-754) was participating in an exercise called “Operation Sea Spirit” with 450 other ships from the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO) nations when the tragedy that would take the lives of 74 sailors on the USS Evans’ crew occurred. Here is what I have been able to find out about the event.
At about 0300 in the morning on June 3rd, the USS Evans, which had already practiced a defensive maneuver to protect the Australian light carrier HMAS Melbourne five times, somehow made a wrong turn, ending up in the path of the Melbourne. The carrier collided with the Evans, ripping the destroyer apart. The crew aboard the Melbourne said it sounded and felt like they had ridden a bicycle over a piece of corrugated iron. The Melbourne literally had cut the Evans in half.
The bow of the USS Evans sank in a very short three minutes. Most of the crew were asleep at the time, and, when the bow went down, it took 74 of the Evans’s crew with it. The Melbourne crew leaped into action and started pulling the Evans’s survivors aboard the Melbourne.
Other ships came to the rescue, and some set about securing the stern section of the Evans, preventing it from sinking. The stern section was then towed by a fleet tug, the Tawasa (AFT-92), to Subic Bay in the Philippines, where it was stripped and decommissioned on 1 July 1969. The name of the USS Frank E. Evans was stricken from the Navy List that same day. The stern section was then towed out to sea and sunk by fleet target practice.
Now the rest of the story. Note the date of this event and the location: June 3, 1969, the South China Sea. This event happened in the middle of the Vietnam War. Prior to this tragic event, the USS Frank E. Evans (DD-754) and most of her crew had been serving off of the coast of Vietnam. They had provided onshore artillery fire support for ground troops on many occasions, including during the Tet Offensive of 1968.
I could not find out for sure if the USS Frank E. Evans would be headed back to Vietnam after this exercise had been completed. The crux of the problem for the surviving crew and the families of those who died in this incident is that the accident happened 100 miles outside of the official Vietnam combat zone.
The result is that, though this ship and its crew were, or had been, serving in Vietnam, the fact that the event took place outside of the official combat zone meant that they were not counted as Vietnam War losses. Hence, the names of these 74 men who died are not included on the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C.
The surviving crew members and the families of the lost sailors have been trying to get the names of the 74 who died in the incident placed on the Vietnam Memorial Wall for over two decades now. Over the last 20 years, several efforts have been undertaken to accomplish this goal. According to the Navy Times, over the last couple of decades, various elected officials have introduced bills or amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act to get the names of the 74 sailors put on the Vietnam Memorial, but to no avail.
Most recently, Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., introduced S 849, the USS Frank E. Evans Act, in 2019, with bipartisan help from Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H. Despite the bipartisan support for the bill, it continues to lag in committee. The efforts have been countered by some in officialdom, saying that there is not enough space on the wall, to add so many names.
Of course, the fact that the incident occurred 100 miles outside of the official combat zone is another argument. But the crew and the families of those who died believe that their shipmates and family members were and had been serving in Vietnam, and they argue that they died serving the nation in Vietnam.
This is a tricky one. You can see the arguments on both sides of the issue of placing the names of the 74 sailors who lost their lives that dark night in the South China Sea. All I can say is that these men were Vietnam veterans who happened to be engaged in a military exercise with allied nations in the South China Sea. It is a matter of location and circumstances. I fully understand and sympathize with the surviving crew members and the families of those who died.
We want the surviving crewmembers and the families of the 74 sailors who lost their lives in that tragic accident in the dark of the early morning hours of June 3, 1969, to know that they are not, nor will they ever, be forgotten. We honor what the USS Frank E. Evans did for ground forces in Vietnam, and we keep the fallen and their shipmates and families in our thoughts and prayers. Keep up the fight. Fair Winds and Following Seas.