The destroyer Frank E. Evans, after it was cut in half in a 1969 collision with an Australian aircraft carrier in the South China Sea. The names of the 74 sailors killed in the incident do not appear on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. (Navy)
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The crew of the destroyer Frank E. Evans is fighting once again, 45 years after their ship sank in the South China Sea after a terrifying collision.
This fight is on behalf of 74 shipmates who died that day in 1969 — and whose names are absent from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial because of what survivors and family members call a technicality.
The Allen M. Sumner-class destroyer was ordered from combat operations off Vietnam in 1969 to participate in an international exercise called Sea Spirit that involved more than 40 ships. But that exercise turned tragic on June 3, 1969, when the Australian aircraft carrier Melbourne cut the destroyer in half.
Among the lost were three brothers: Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class Gary Sage, Radarman 3rd Class Gregory Sage and Seaman Apprentice Kelly Jo Sage. Master Chief Gunner’s Mate Lawrence Reilly survived while his 20-year-old son, Boiler Technician 3rd Class Lawrence Reilly Jr., perished. And Tim Wendler, who now serves as president of the USS Frank E. Evans Association, lost his father days before his own second birthday.
Survivors and family members, many of whom donated to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, were incensed to learn in 1982 that the names of their loved ones were not etched into it. The crew had been deemed ineligible because the collision happened 110 miles outside the geographical combat zone defined by an executive order.
Survivors and families called the ruling inconsiderate and have been working to overturn it for decades. They recently made headway, when House lawmakers passed a defense bill May 22 that included an amendment urging Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to add the names to the Vietnam Memorial, a move supported by Navy Secretary Ray Mabus.
“There is no reason to cling to this rigid definition of the combat zone,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., who proposed the amendment. “This is a ship that was providing support in Vietnam. It was called away on a training exercise. It was going to return to combat duty. These are sailors who would not have been there but for their duty in Vietnam.”
Schiff said he is hopeful the names will be added after meetings with Hagel, who is the first Vietnam vet to lead the Pentagon.
The crew provided supporting fire for combat operations days before the collision and would have returned after the exercise. The survivors also point to exceptions made in the past, such as inclusion of those who died in transit to or from Vietnam. For example, President Ronald Reagan in 1983 ordered that 68 Marines who died on a flight outside the combat zone be added to the wall. In all, more than 300 names have been added to the wall since its unveiling — the most recent 14 were added May 11.
Even if the defense bill is signed into law, the amendment cannot force Hagel to make the change. But Hagel can order the names added without legislation.
Spokesmen for Hagel’s office did not respond to questions by July 18 about whether Hagel intended to add the names under his own authority or after the bill’s passage.
To grant their inclusion on the wall “would be enormously meaningful to the families,” Schiff said. “It would really provide great solace to them to see their loved ones memorialized this way, and it doesn’t detract at all from the more than 58,000 other people who are on the wall. None of them, I think, would begrudge the sailors their place.”