By D. Allan Kerr
The Navy destroyer USS Frank E. Evans served America during World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnamese War. It was a training exercise, however, which brought the ship’s service to a brutal end in the South China Sea.
On the morning of 3 June 1969, the Evans (DD 754) was literally sliced in two during a collision with the Australian aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne. The American ship’s bow section sank in just a couple of minutes, killing 74 of her crewmen.
Fifty years later, survivors from the horrible accident and family members of those lost are fighting to have the names of these sailors added to the famous wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Proponents argue the Evans had just concluded an extended tour off the coast of Vietnam, providing offshore bombardment support, prior to its fatal collision. What’s more, she was slated to return to this role following the exercise, which was organized as a 40-ship “show of force” demonstration for the North Vietnamese.
The Navy, however, insists the incident occurred outside the designated combat zone of the time, and therefore the “Lost 74” don’t qualify for inclusion on the Washington, D.C., wall.
The four U.S. senators representing New Hampshire and Maine – Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan of the former, Susan Collins and Angus King of the latter – have joined co-sponsors of a bill to have the sailors’ names added to the memorial.
Among those lost was 21-year-old Gary Joseph Vigue, a 1965 Dover (NH) High School graduate who left behind a wife and a 5-month-old son.
“It is long overdue that these men join their fellow fallen brothers and receive the recognition they deserve on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall,” Shaheen stated.
“Boundary lines drawn in the water shouldn’t determine the respect we pay our servicemen and women killed in the line of duty,” she said. “They gave their lives for this country and their sacrifice deserves equal recognition.”
Prior to the 1969 collision, the Evans had provided gunfire support for the 101st Airborne during the Tet Offensive in February 1968 and served off the Vietnam coast in 1966.
Before that she had an impressive battle record dating as far back as World War II, serving as an escort vessel in the Pacific. During the Korean War, the Evans earned five battle stars and took part in the siege of Wonsan.
Commissioned at New York Naval Shipyard in February 1945, the destroyer was named after a decorated World War I Marine general.
In the early hours of 3 June 1969, the destroyer was one of 40 ships taking part in a massive exercise dubbed “Operation Sea Spirit,” operating in darkened conditions. She had just completed her most recent tour off the Vietnam coast less than three weeks earlier.
But on this fateful morning, the Evans, serving as an escort, cut in front of the Australian carrier Melbourne and was struck amidships around 4:15 a.m.
“Just why remained a mystery,” the Associated Press reported at the time. “Weather was clear, the seas calm, and both ships were equipped with modern radar.”
The bow section of the American destroyer sank almost immediately. Most of the more than 70 crew members who perished in the sea were sleeping in their quarters at the time.
The nearly 200 surviving sailors were evacuated from the Evans onto the Melbourne, but the damaged ship’s stern remained afloat. The severed destroyer was then towed back to Subic Bay in the Philippines.
Ultimately investigators determined there had been miscommunication between the ships regarding their positions. Three of the destroyer’s officers, including the commanding officer, were court-martialed as a result of the incident.
One of the surviving Evans crewmen, Steve Kraus, now serves as president of the USS Frank E. Evans Association, which is heading the drive to add their fallen shipmates to the Vietnam memorial.
“The 74 enlisted, trained and went to war in defense of our freedom and to fight against communist aggression,” Kraus said. “An arbitrary line in the water should not be the criteria to deter them from being honored and included with their fellow soldiers.”
In a tragic irony, the Melbourne had been involved in a similar incident just five years before with another Australian ship, the destroyer HMAS Voyager. This collision killed 81 crewmen and a civilian dockworker.
In his high school yearbook, Gary Vigue’s ambition was listed as draftsman, and his acknowledged chief failing in the classroom was History. His fondest dream, he wrote, was “to be a test-car driver.”
Vigue attended Portsmouth Vocational Institute after graduating from Dover High, but enlisted in the Navy at Portland, Maine, in October 1966. He went to boot camp at the Great Lakes training center. He had already served aboard the destroyer escort USS Savage and destroyer USS Leonard F. Mason before his assignment to the Evans.
He married Sarah Guay, a Farmington High graduate, in July 1968 and then reported for duty aboard his new ship two weeks later, according to the Evans Association website. The wedding announcement appearing in the local Farmington News declared the couple planned to live in Long Beach, California.
Vigue was a third-class petty officer and quartermaster who was standing watch in the pilot house when the collision occurred, according to the Evans Association website. Kraus says it was Vigue who told him when they went on watch at a quarter-to-midnight the ship would be sailing in darkened conditions.
Kraus, a signalman, remembers the Dover native as being quiet and focused. “Since the majority of the time we were at sea, I would only get to talk with him when I was coming on for watch,” he said.
Vigue’s son Shawn was only 5 months old when the tragedy occurred. A page-one Foster’s Daily Democrat headline on 4 June 1969 declared, “Navy Lists Farmington Youth as Lost at Sea,” alongside a boyhood photo of Vigue.
Another New Hampshire native, 23-year-old Ronald Arthur Thibodeau, also perished that morning. Thibodeau was born in Manchester but later moved to California, where he attended high school in Whittier. He left behind a wife and a young son, Timothy.
Three of the other Evans sailors killed during the tragedy were brothers from little Niobrara, Nebraska – Gary, Gregory and Kelly Sage, ranging in age from 22 to 19 years old. Following the loss of the famous five Sullivan brothers aboard the USS Juneau during World War II, it was unusual for siblings to serve aboard the same vessel.
The Sage boys, however, requested waivers to be assigned to the same command. The brothers were shipmates for only 75 days before they all perished in the collision.
In another unusual family connection, 20-year-old Lawrence J. Reilly Jr. was serving aboard the Evans with his father, Lawrence Sr., a chief petty officer and the ship’s master-at-arms. The younger Reilly was killed standing watch in the forward fire room during the collision, while his father survived.
William Brown II, a 23-year-old petty officer second class, got married to wife Vicky just three days before the Evans departed on its doomed final cruise. He died in the fire room with Reilly; both were boiler tenders.
Devere Grissom Jr., a seaman apprentice, died on his 19th birthday. Thirty-two-year old radarman Eugene Lehman left behind five children.
Seaman Francis Garcia served aboard the USS Gridley with a young Navy ensign named John F. Kerry before being assigned to the Evans. Garcia died just four days before his 22nd birthday.
Another of the sailors lost that morning was 18-year-old James William Kerr of Los Angeles, but to the best of this writer’s knowledge we are not related.
Senate Bill S.849, introduced this past March by Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, had its first hearing in June before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks.
A similar bill introduced by California Rep. Adam Schiff is already included in the U.S. House of Representatives version of the National Defense Authorization Act.
The Senate and the House will have to conference together on the NDAA for final passage.
A recent letter from Shaheen and the other 15 bipartisan co-sponsors of what’s known as the USS Frank E. Evans Act urged the Senate and House Armed Services Committees to adopt it into this final law. The 9 September letter emphasizes how fitting it would be for the Evans seamen to finally gain this recognition the year of the tragedy’s 50th anniversary.
“While the incident occurred about 100 miles outside of the official combat zone, the ship and a majority of the deceased sailors had previously provided naval gunfire off the coast of Vietnam,” the senators wrote. Other ships in the naval group returned to these waters afterward, they added.
Shaheen, a senior member of the Armed Services Committee, told the Herald in a separate statement:
“I’ll keep fighting to see Ronald Arthur Thibodeau, Gary Joseph Vigue and the other 72 Americans of the ‘Lost 74’ etched upon the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall so every visitor sees their names and remembers their sacrifice.”
(Oct. 23, 2019)
He can also be found on www.seacoastonline.com