Vietnam Veterans of America
In the July/August 2015 cover story of The VVA Veteran investigative journalist Louise Esola wrote about the seventy-four sailors who died when the U.S.S. Frank E. Evans was struck by a much larger vessel in 1969 and sank within minutes. Here she updates readers on efforts to memorialize those men.
BY LOUISE ESOLA
As the story goes, on March 29, 1969, an old, undermanned American warship left the continental United States two months early to fight the war in Vietnam. On board were some 170 officers and sailors, give or take, some who’d already been on a WestPac tour. That was the code word for “Vietnam,” one of them would joke many years later when there really wasn’t anything funny about it. He laughed because that’s what you do when you can’t cry anymore and you are left with memories—when you went to bars in the Philippines with your new best friends and got into fistfights, all a bunch of kids on a wild ride, and when you’re the only one still alive in a black-and-white photo of young men who thought they had their entire lives ahead of them. Only they didn’t. Because a third of the men of the U.S.S. Frank E. Evans—a little more than two months into their tour—would take their last breaths. The death toll was seventy-four. And the country doesn’t want to remember them.
The U.S.S. Frank E. Evans arrived off the coast of Vietnam in early May 1969, ready to provide gunfire support for U.S. Marines engaged in Operation Daring Rebel, a furious effort to seek out and destroy enemy encampments on a barrier island south of Da Nang. The twin barrels of the Evans’ three gun mounts sprayed out fifty-pound shells at a rate of fifteen per minute on a good day, as many as twenty-two per minute if they pushed it. By the end of the operation they had fired thousands.
With no ammunition and the aft gun mount out of commission, and still understaffed, the Evans did what all Seventh Fleet warships did during the Vietnam War. She cruised to Subic Bay in the Philippines. From there, the Evans picked up twenty-eight more men—mostly draft-induced enlistees who saw the U.S. Navy as the best bet at the time—and a full war allowance of ammunition, along with orders to participate in a Southeast Asia Treaty Organization exercise.
It was—like war exercises today—a show of force. All of the men serving on participating U.S. ships would collect Vietnam Service Medals for their work during the exercise.
Just days in, and in the middle of the night, the Evans collided with the H.M.A.S. Melbourne, the flagship of the Australian Navy and an aircraft carrier some ten times her size. The ship was operating two hundred miles from Vietnam—the closest land and the reason the ship was there that spring of 1969. In fact, the SEATO exercises were held in those waters because U.S. vessels were on call in the event they were needed in Vietnam.
The June 3, 1969, collision was a harrowing ordeal for the men who survived it, and they would revisit the event in nightmares well into old age. It was a nightmare for the U.S. Navy, too, which ranked itself at the time as last among the armed services, for its ships were old—the Evans a creaky twenty-four years old and at least a decade past her due date—training was lax, morale was low, and the list goes on. Esquire magazine that same month chronicled the sinking U.S. Navy in a satire piece detailing years of mishaps and misfortune: “Esquire’s Official Court of Inquiry into the Present State of the United States Navy.”
For the Nixon administration it was another thorn: The war wasn’t ending as Nixon had promised. Hamburger Hill had just made headlines, and nobody was rushing toward peace talks. In the middle of the political storm was the tragedy of the U.S.S. Frank E. Evans. Only one body was recovered: Kenneth Glines, 19, of Independence, Missouri. Seventy-three others went to the bottom of the South China Sea. One was the son of a chief, the most senior enlisted on board: 20-year-old Lawrence Reilly, Jr. Three were brothers: the Sages of Niobrara, Nebraska, ages 19, 20, and 21. Some of them were fathers, a few about to be. Some were planning weddings. A handful were just out of high school. One joined because his brother had been killed. The Evans was the only warship that left the United States to fight in Vietnam but did not return.
THE SECOND TRAGEDY
And now, the second tragedy: When workers finished America’s most revered, most visited memorial in Washington, D.C., the names of the Evans’ seventy-four men were nowhere to be found. Parents, wives, children, friends, and shipmates have been writing letters since 1982. They’ve attracted the attention of lawmakers. But roadblocks still exist, and that’s the official update.
Some do not think the seventy-four earned the right to have their names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. We hear: They didn’t die in enemy action. Fact: Neither did about one-fourth of the names on The Wall. We hear: Friendly fire doesn’t count. Fact: There’s no official tally, but experts have said many of those on The Wall are there as the result of friendly fire. We hear: They were outside of the combat zone. Fact: The official “combat zone” for the Vietnam War was a perimeter sketched for tax purposes and was never strategic. The names listed on The Wall include many who died outside of that arbitrary zone. We hear: There’s no proof the men were participating in the war effort. Fact: The only reason the Evans was there was to fight the war. She was fully loaded with a “full war allowance,” as her skipper told investigators in 1969 who asked why the ship sank so fast—three minutes—giving men little time to escape.
The VFW didn’t support the effort to add the seventy-four names to The Wall until its leaders learned that the crew of the Evans—and all the crews of all the U.S. warships in those same waters for the same exercise—received Vietnam Service Medals. Criteria for the medal and for inclusion on The Wall essentially mirror one another. The American Legion and several cities that were homes of the fallen sailors passed resolutions in support of adding the names to The Wall. The state of California in 2015 added the names of the twenty-one Californians killed on the ship to its memorial on the capitol grounds in Sacramento. There was momentum.
THE THIRD TRAGEDY
Some time in early 2017, with the Navy supporting the effort and the Pentagon continuing a hard line against it, the Evans lost its Vietnam Service Medal. Somebody went into awards.navy.mil and removed the medals from all the U.S. ships participating in the SEATO exercise in late May and early June 1969, the Evans included. That site is no longer online, but proponents, myself included, managed to save the before and after. Lawmakers are seeking answers but with little success.
That’s the third tragedy of the U.S.S. Frank E. Evans, a harrowing ordeal for Gold Star families and veterans seeking answers only to have emails go unanswered; of congressional bills and amendments stalling, getting lost, getting ignored; of lawmakers pledging support only to retreat. At least one roadblock comes in emails and letters from the Department Defense, which told one lawmaker in a December 2016 letter that there was no proof that the ship had been supporting the war but that it would approve adding a special plaque listing the names of the seventy-four in the now-cancelled Education Center at The Wall.
Those who knew and loved the seventy-four are skeptical but hopeful. Today the families and friends are promised a Senate bill. However, some are battered, as lawmakers don’t spend the time listening to the facts and realities of the men who died aboard that ship. Some families fear that for lawmakers it’s only a ploy for votes.
Today the U.S.S. Frank E. Evans Association is calling on the President to issue an executive order. And the group is calling on Americans to voice their support. Contact your elected representatives and tell them about seventy-four Americans who gave their lives in the middle of the Vietnam War. Write to the White House, too.
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