— By TODD GLASSCOCK | Lone Star News Group
Sometime around 3 a.m. on June 3, 1969, in the South China Sea just off mainland Vietnam, the USS Frank E. Evans initiated turns for what should have been a routine maneuver to change formations during a training exercise.
Instead, those turns, ordered by a junior officer, set the destroyer on a collision course with the Australian aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne.
“I knew the carrier was going to hit us,” said Steve Kraus of Oceanside, Calif., who was the signalman on watch aboard the Evans that morning. When he saw the carrier, he ran to the signal shack to issue a warning, but would not have time to get the warning out before the two ships collided.
The destroyer was split in two, he said. The ship rolled starboard, then righted momentarily before going bow up, sinking beneath the calm sea within three minutes.
Once water reached the signal shack, Kraus began swimming until he was safely away from the wreckage, and was able to grab a deck board and cling to it before being rescued. “It was pitch black but I kept swimming. I saw the bow go under.”
The collision resulted in the lives of 74 U.S. sailors lost, he said. Two hundred-four men survived.
Kraus, vice president of the USS Frank E. Evans (DD 754) Association Inc., on Monday visited the National Vietnam War Museum, located in Parker County just outside Mineral Wells, where those sailors as well as all sailors who served in the Vietnam War will be honored at a memorial service on June 7. Also visiting was the association’s president, J.C. Campbell, of Granbury, who served on the Evans during the Korean War.
The sailors who lost their lives aboard the destroyer will be honored that day with the establishment of a memorial garden and a tree planting. A granite memorial will eventually be installed, said Jim Messinger, the museum’s treasurer. He said he was honored to add a U.S. Navy memorial garden that will honor those who served in Vietnam and sees placing a tree and granite memorial to those lost on the Evans as a very appropriate way to honor those men.
The memorial will highlight a national effort by the association to get the names of the sailors placed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., Kraus said.
The 74 men who lost their lives have been denied placement on the memorial wall because their deaths do not meet official criteria for those killed in the Vietnam War, because the sailors were killed outside of the Department of Defense’s designated combat zone, he said.
At the time of the collision, the Frank E. Evans was 110 nautical miles from mainland Vietnam and was beginning Southeast Asian Treaty Organization training, just shortly after completing artillery fire support missions for troops on the mainland, he said.
Over the years, exceptions have been made to get servicemen placed on the wall, he said. President Ronald Reagan, for instance, issued an edict for 66 Marines killed in a plane crash returning to duty from rest and recreation in Hong Kong.
Currently the Vietnam memorial has 333 slots open for names, he said. He hopes the Department of Defense will see that the sailors on the Evans did indeed sacrifice their lives while serving in a combat zone.
He and other veterans will present a resolution to the State of California on April 8 to encourage legislators there to push to get the sailors’ names etched on the wall. Resolutions will also be made in Iowa and Pennsylvania.
Getting the names on the wall will honor those who died, as well as all who served on the Frank E. Evans, Campbell said. The destroyer was commissioned in World War II and also saw service in Korea. It was decommissioned on July 1, 1969, and stricken from the Naval Vessel Register.
The association was formed in 1992 and its first meeting was in Fort Worth, he said. It has more than 200 members and a portion of dues are used to fund the Cal Rankin Memorial Fund, honoring Rankin, who served aboard the ship, and wished to have memorials built in each of the home states of the “Lost 74.”
The first memorial was placed in Independence, Mo., home of Kenneth Glines, whose body was the only one recovered after the collision with the Melbourne.