There was so much of the arbitrary
about the Vietnam War, such as death and survival. The
difference between standing in one place or another, getting
one assignment or another, holding onto some possession, doing
a certain thing before leaving for a patrolall were familiar
to infantrymen. Too often they presumed these irrationalities
applied only to them. But Vietnam did the same kinds of things
to airmen and sailors as it did to the troops on the ground.
The biggest single loss of life in the Navy during the war,
the hangar deck fire aboard the aircraft carrier Forrestal
in August 1967, was a sudden event in which survival was quite
arbitrary. The second biggest naval loss has had no books
written about it; no commentators conjuring what-ifs. Its
victims are not inscribed on The Wall.
In this case, not only survival but even remembrance was
arbitrary. The politics of the Nixon administration required
keeping the incident as low key as possible, while the
vagaries of Vietnam's "areas of operations'' afforded an
opportunity to do so, with the result that this tragedy has
been all but forgotten.
Let us now remember the 74 sailors of the U.S.S. Frank E.
Evans (DD-754), who died at sea on June 3, 1969, their
injured shipmates, and the healthy survivors for whom being on
duty or off watch guaranteed their survival that night. And
let us also ask: What did it mean to be "in'' the Vietnam War?
Those 74 sailors' names are not inscribed on The Wall,
because, according to the Department of Defense, they were not
The Evans was among a class of heavily armed destroyers
very popular with the U.S. Navy for gunfire support operations
off the Vietnamese coast. Nicknamed "The Fighter,'' she had
been commissioned in February 1945 in time to see the end of
the Japanese kamikaze attacks in the Pacific. Evans had
also fought in the Korean War and was with the Seventh Fleet
off the China coast for the Quemoy-Matsu crises of the late
1950s. When America almost came to blows with Mao's China over
those offshore islands, the Evans was among the
warships detailed to convoy Nationalist Chinese supply vessels
into the harbors of the islands, with a strong presumption to
shoot back if fired upon. During the Vietnam War ships such as
the Evans, once scheduled for retirement, were recalled
The American Navy had two main roles in Vietnam. The Evans
contributed to both of them. One was the conduct of amphibious
operations, landing Marines and other troops on the coast in
strikes on North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces. The
destroyers escorted the amphibious vessels to their landing
beaches, then provided heavy artillery support for fighting on
the ground. Naval gunfire support was widely used along the
Vietnamese coastso much so that operating on such missions
was known as being on the gun line. The Navy's other main
mission was air operations from Yankee Station. There, too,
the destroyers were key in protecting the big, lumbering
carriers from adversary threats. The Evans spent most
of her time in the first of these roles.
In December 1967 the Frank E. Evans was cited for her
work on the gun line off Danang and Quang Ngai in I Corps.
After more work along the coast and with the Pacific Fleet,
she returned home for refitting. Due to pressures of the war,
she left Long Beach for the war zone in early 1969 with an
incomplete crew, picking up extra sailors at Pearl Harbor. The
ship's barber, who had been given a medical transfer for
surgery, was recalled to the Evans before she sailed.
Under Commander Albert S. McLemore, the destroyer almost
immediately went on the gun line.
McLemore's vessel and three other destroyers were the primary
gunfire support for Operation Daring Rebel, a sweep of the
barrier island southeast of Danang in May 1969. That operation
was punctuated by an over-the-beach landing of the 1st
Battalion, 26th Marines, under Col. William C. Doty, Jr. The
unit was distinguished for its defense of Khe Sanh during
1967-68. In Daring Rebel, the Army's Americal Division
screened off the coast with armored cavalry, two South
Vietnamese battalions cleared a nearby island, and four
companies of South Korean Marines landed and joined up with
The Evans took turns with the other destroyers firing
at North Vietnamese bunkers and other fortifications spotted
by the Marines. The naval gunnery ships amounted to one-fifth
of the entire U.S. Navy force on the gun line at that time.
Doty outfoxed the enemy twice, loading Marines aboard
helicopters for assault landings into areas his main forces
had already passed, on the theory that the North Vietnamese
would emerge from their hideaways. The Marines claimed 105
enemy killed among a total of 303 dead, versus American losses
of two killed and 59 wounded. Daring Rebel was considered a
highlight of Navy-Marine action for May 1969.
At the end of the operation, her munitions expended, the
Frank E. Evans received orders to sail to Subic Bay in the
Philippines to re-arm, after which she would participate in a
naval maneuver. The exercise was a multilateral one, one of
the largest in the history of the Southeast Asia Treaty
Organization (SEATO), called Sea Spirit. It brought together
warships from the United States, Great Britain, Australia, New
Zealand, the Philippines, and Thailand. Among SEATO members
only France and Pakistan did not participate. Forty-six
vessels took part in a dozen days of maneuvers. Most of the
ships gathered in Manila on May 26. Flotilla commander U.S.
Navy Adm. William T. Rapp assembled the captains for a
luncheon and pre-mission briefing. Commander McLemore attended
and received general instructions.
The Evans was assigned to Exercise Task Group 472.1
under Australian Adm. G.J.B. Crabb of the Australian aircraft
carrier Melbourne. Screening ships included two other
U.S. destroyers, James E. Kyes and Everett F. Larson,
the British Cleopatra, and the New Zealand ship
Blackpool. The screen commander was the American destroyer
division commander aboard the Kyes. Adm. Crabb held a
pre-sailing conference for ship commanders. The task group
sailed into the South China Sea on May 29. The ships were
arrayed in several task groups. The plan was to rehearse
surface actions, antisubmarine warfare, and carrier air
actions in several different configurations under wartime
conditions. Crabb's force was a unit with an antisubmarine
This brings us to the night of June 2/3 and a story about
routines and standard operating procedures. The task group had
a two-layer screen, with two escorts as outer pickets, and the
Evans was one of three ships on the inner arc,
generally 3,000 to 5,000 yards ahead of the Melbourne.
On that arc the escorts had assigned sectors in relation to
each other and to the flagship. There were standard maneuvers
for various changes in formation when warships steamed in
concert. Adm. Crabb established a schedule that set a daily
rotation for the designated plane guard ship. On June 2, the
appointed ship was the New Zealand escort craft Blackpool.
That afternoon the task group took part in an exercise aimed
at fending off a surface attack group, perhaps somehow
affecting the Blackpool. That evening, Crabb asked his
escort leader to select a plane guard. The assignment went to
the Evans. Three times that evening and into the night
the Evans was the rescue ship as the carrier continued
The task group followed a zig-zag course along a base line as
an antisubmarine precaution. In addition, it was in a
buttoned-down combat mode, called "Condition Yoke,'' with
darkened ships and all openings to the interior shut. Several
of these routines had a direct impact on what happened that
Before midnight the Melbourne called on Evans
for plane guard once again. A few moments later the order was
cancelled, and the destroyer returned to the screen. Commander
McLemore gave his night orders at about 9:00 p.m. and retired
to his cabin shortly after the watch changed at midnight. On
the bridge for the mid-watch, midnight to 4:00 a.m., were two
junior lieutenants, Ronald C. Ramsey and James A. Hopson IV.
Ramsey was the officer-of-the-deck (OOD). He had been
certified for this duty just ten days earlier but had been
doing this work under the most challenging conditions (with
the ship underway) for about four months. Hopson, the junior
officer-of-the-deck, had served aboard the Evans for 19
months. He had stood watch in the ship's combat information
center and as JOOD, though he had yet to attain the OOD
That night the young officers should have been all right. The
sea was glassy calm, with practically no wind, bright
moonlight, and unrestricted visibility. McLemore's standing
orders called for him to be summoned whenever there was doubt
as to a safe speed or course, when course or speed were
changed for any reason, when higher command ordered any
formation change, or when in any doubt about whether to summon
the captain. The Melbourne anticipated landing an
antisub aircraft at about 3:30, which the task group was aware
of. She also had two helicopters airborne at the time.
The skipper of the Melbourne, Capt. John P. Stevenson,
was in tactical command, since the admiral had gone to bed for
the night. Stevenson stopped the force's zig-zagging a little
after 2:00 and went to his own cabin, leaving Lt. Russell D.
Lamb of Australian Navy with the con of the carrier. The ship
launched a helicopter at 3:04, just as Stevenson returned to
the bridge. About 3:10 the captain ordered the destroyer
Evans to assume position as rescue ship once more.
The order to change formation triggered a series of errors
that led directly to the tragedy. Apparently the Evans
had drifted into the patrol sector covered by the Blackpool.
When she received the order to shift place, her reckoning
began with a mistaken notion of relative position. Lt. Ramsey
on the destroyer's bridge did not take a visual sighting of
the aircraft carrier, nor did he summon Commander McLemore,
although both course and speed changes were contemplated in
order to execute this maneuver. He did not check with the JOOD,
Lt. Hopson, on their respective understandings of the
positions of the ships. Hopson had a different notion of both
the speed and course of the Melbourne, a critical
factor since he was controlling the helm of the Evans
under Ramsey's direction.
The basic choice was whether to turn to port (right) or
starboard (left). Observers have suggested that in Manila the
exercise commander had indicated to his assembled captains
that starboard turns should be used routinely when forming
columns for plane guard duty. But this is impossible to
verify. In any case, it was unknown to the junior officers on
Evans' bridge that night. That was a preferred
evolution in the U.S. Navy, according to one flag officer
familiar with this incident. An investigating board later
concluded that a starboard turn would have eliminated any
chance of a collision. Instead, the Evans turned to
The ships were roughly 3,700 yards apart when the destroyer
began her maneuver. Almost immediately it became apparent
aboard the Melbourne that something was wrong.
Capt. Stevenson sent a message on the task group's primary
tactical radio circuit giving his correct course, and ordered
the aircraft carrier's running lights turned on. Aboard the
Evans, the carrier's course was erroneously decoded by Lt.
Ramsey; he evidently interpreted it to mean that the Melbourne
was turning to starboard. By that time, the ships were within
Ramsey ordered a turn to starboard. On the bridge of the
carrier, Australian sailors realized the destroyer was on a
collision course with the Melbourne, Stevenson ordered
a signal sent: "You are on a collision course.'' It was 3:12
and the ships were 2,200 yards apart. Lt. Ramsey, when he
received that message, ordered right full rudder and sent the
Australian ship notice of his action. By then the distance
between the ships was a mere 1,200 yards.
Capt. Stevenson ordered a hard starboard turn. Shortly
thereafter his officer of the watch, Lt. Lamb, ordered the
Melbourne's engines stopped. Neither measure had any
effect. Aboard the Evans, Lt. Hopson ordered all engines back
full. That too had no effect: At 3:15 the bow of the carrier
Melbourne sliced through the destroyer at a point
between her funnels and her bridge. The Evans was cut
in two in less than a minute. The Melbourne sustained a
gash in her bow but no other damage. She suffered no
The forward part of the Frank E. Evans was pushed over
by the force of the collision and lay on her beam ends,
settling fast, filling quickly toward the back end of the
section. This part of the ship capsized, then the bow rose
above water and the ship slid into the sea. The entire section
of the ship sank in just nine minutes.
Suddenly survival became the issue. Most of the 111 sailors in
the forward section were asleep. The bridge crew were
luckiest. Lt. Hopson had run out onto the bridge wing to see
the oncoming mass of the Melbourne, then ran through
the bridge toward the opposite wing as the impact occurred. He
was thrown into the water. Ramsey also survived. Seaman Robert
S. Petty, boatswain's mate of the watch inside the pilot
house, was thrown clear of the ship and landed in the water.
He climbed back aboard the hulk, pulled open and held a hatch
just behind the Wardroom, through which 16 sailors escaped.
Seaman Apprentice Marcus Rodriguez, one of two sailors atop
the Signal Shelter on the destroyer's signal bridge, was
thrown directly onto the flight deck of the Melbourne.
He was badly injured. Two others on watch, among the 13
sailors on the Bridge and adjoining stations, also survived.
Two of the three radiomen escaped. Seaman Apprentice Kenneth
W. Glines, a forward lookout, apparently became entangled in
the wires of his communications gear, drowning before he could
get free. Nobody from the Evans' Combat Information
Center survived. Two officers and 13 sailors had been on watch
at the time.
Below decks there was no warning. An off-watch seaman in the
Messroom rushed to the main deck and got into the water, and
two chief petty officers whose quarters were just forward of
the Wardroom had relatively easy escapes. Commander McLemore
was shocked out of sleep in his sea cabin, scrambled to the
deck, saw his ship sinking fast, and, unable to communicate
with the crew, shouted to abandon ship before he went over the
side. The same thing happened to the ship's executive officer,
Lt. Commander George L. McMichael.
Sailors were tossed from their bunks. Most awoke on the
starboard wall, which became the floor as the Evans
rolled over. The 11 chief petty officers in their quarters
were saved in good part due to the actions of Chief Hospital
Corpsman Charles W. Cannington, who grabbed a penlight and
took the last place in line, directing the light for his
comrades to see where they were going. Disorientation was a
big problem when the ship turned on her side. Cannington did
not make it out.
There were 32 sailors in the main crew bunkroom, the First
Division compartment. Only six survived. In the 01 Division
compartment, where there were 20 sailors, Radarman First Class
George J. Laliberte got the men going by calling out, "Let's
get out of here!'' Ten men succeeded. Laliberte was not among
them. All these sailors escaped up the hatch held open by Bob
Petty. In all, 37 officers and men survived from the forward
section of the Frank E. Evans.
Australian sailors played a crucial role in rescuing the
Americans and limiting further loss of life. Capt. Stevenson
instantly ordered Emergency Stations when the collision
occurred, sending his crew to where they could help. He then
ordered away all boats. A motor cutter was afloat and moving
toward the forward section of Evans in four to five minutes.
That boat picked up 29 survivors and the body of Seaman Glines.
On a second trip, the cutter brought back five more survivors
on life rafts. The carrier's barge rescued eight Americans.
Lt. R.J. Burns jumped into the water to help the seamen who
had escaped the sinking forward section of Evans.
Adm. Crabb canceled exercise Sea Spirit at 3:23 a.m. Two
minutes later he ordered the launch of rescue helicopters and
asked the U.S.S. Kearsarge of Antisubmarine Warfare Group 1 to
provide assistance. The Kearsarge participated in a
wider daylight search on June 3. Two Australian helicopters
were airborne at the moment of the collision. Helicopter 831
rescued the destroyer's exec, Lt. Commander McMichael. Another
helicopter without winch equipment used its floodlight to
illuminate the scene. Two more helicopters were quickly
launched to participate in the search. One of them, No. 830,
put a diver into the ocean to help Larry I. Malilay, who at
3:40 became the last American sailor rescued from the sea.
The two sections of the American destroyer had remarkably
different experiences. The rear portion did not sink. Water
entered the rear section through several hatch doors that had
been open and through the break in the ship, leaving her in
critical condition. The hulk settled with a list, but for the
eight officers and 154 enlisted sailors on this section of the
Evans that made all the difference. Water poured into
the engineering spaces open to the sea. Ruptured boiler steam
lines scalded all but one of the six sailors in the forward
engine room. One man drowned elsewhere.
Lt. (junior grade) Robert M. Hiltz heard a shouted General
Quarters alarm and tried to reach his post. Hiltz saw the
front end of the ship sinking and realized the aft section was
open to the sea where the vessel had been cut in two. He
ordered sailors to the stern. Lt. (junior grade) R.T.E.
Bowler, who had had the previous Bridge watch as OOD, was
thrown from his bed. He dressed and rushed forward, only to
find his passage blocked by the towering side of the
Melbourne. Lt. G.W. Dunne, the destroyer's operations
officer and senior man aboard the after section, was the one
who shouted the General Quarters alarm. He then went to the
fantail and began a muster of the survivors. After that he
surveyed the condition of the ship.
Aboard the Melbourne, the Australians reacted quickly,
both on the rescue mission and on the problem of the remaining
hulk of the Frank E. Evans. Capt. Stevenson used the
ship's engines to maneuver the aircraft carrier so that her
starboard quarter lay alongside the destroyer's stern. Petty
Officer Scott passed the first of several lines to the
Evans, where Lt. Hiltz organized the American sailors to
secure the hulk to the carrier. Chief Aircraft Handler Stanley
R. Heares rigged helicopter cargo nets to connect the ships.
Then executive officer Colin J. Patterson led a party of
Australian sailors to the destroyer's deck, where they
organized an evacuation of the surviving Americans to the
Patterson and Lt. Dunne clambered throughout the wreck to
search for additional survivors and determine the destroyer's
damage. They decided the Evans hulk was in danger of
sinking and recommended to Capt. Stevenson that she be cast
off to prevent the Melbourne's being damaged. That was
done. By dawn, the hulk had settled another foot or so but
remained afloat. A party of three American sailors returned to
the Evans to assess the damage. They were supplemented
by additional sailors who made emergency repairs and rigged a
The American carrier Kearsarge arrived on the scene
after daybreak. All the 199 Evans survivors were ferried to
the U.S. carrier, except for the badly injured who were
transferred by helicopter. The Kearsarge and
Melbourne engaged in a wide area search by helicopter
throughout the day without finding additional survivors.
Fleet tug Tawasa was summoned to move the hulk.
Tawasa returned the Evans to Subic Bay, arriving an hour
after dawn on June 9. A week later, the Chief of Naval
Operations struck the destroyer from the Navy List and the
Secretary of the Navy ordered she be decommissioned and used
as a target for live fire. Lts. Ramsey and Hopson and
Lieutenant Commander McLemore were reprimanded Navy judicial
proceedings. Australian Capt. John Stevenson was acquitted
with honor by a Royal Australian Navy court martial.
This ended the Evans incident. But the survivors and
families of the lost sailors, bereaved in the short term, were
short-changed in the long one. Desperate to reduce casualty
reports from the Vietnam War Zone, the Nixon administration
minimized any connection between the conflict and the Frank
E. Evans loss. Family members were told nothing of the
circumstances of the event. When the Navy announced the
collision, it placed the incident at a location some 650
nautical miles southwest of Manila in Indonesian waters,
perhaps off the northern coast of Borneo.
The truth was different. Exercise Sea Spirit, aside from its
function of enhancing SEATO naval readiness, was designed to
send a message to Moscowand through it, to Hanoithat naval
power could be employed at will against North Vietnam. This
came at a moment when the Nixon administration wanted to
coerce Hanoi into softening its intransigent position at the
Paris peace talks. The disaster actually took place in the
South China Sea, less than a hundred miles from the
Vietnamese-claimed Spratly Islands and roughly 250 miles from
the entrance to the Saigon River. Most importantly, the
Frank E. Evans and the other ships that took part in Sea
Spirit had been pulled off the gun line off the Vietnamese
coast, and sent to the maneuvers as part of their regular
rotation of participating in the war and then rearming.
These facts assumed greater importance with the creation of
the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1982. Sailors from the
Frank E. Evans soon discovered their comrades' names were
not inscribed on The Wall because the tragedy took
place outside the combat theater, defined as the territory of
Vietnam. Its seaward component was the arbitrary boundary of
the Operation Market Time blockade about a hundred miles off
the Vietnamese coast.
Evans veterans argue that eligibility for The Wall
should be defined functionally, not geographically, and that
criterion includes the collision victims. The precedent
already exists with Americans killed outside of Vietnam, in
Laotian operations, air crashes, and other incidents.
Under present circumstances the inclusion of Evans sailors'
names requires an act of Congress since The Wall is
under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Such legislation has been introduced in several sessions of
Congress but has yet to be passed. In the 2003 session, family
members and their allies tried hard to secure passage of
S.296, a Senate bill that would have provided relief for
Evans veterans and families. It was co-sponsored by three
senators. Similar legislation in the House of Representatives
had 35 co-sponsors. Preoccupied with other business, however,
Congress failed to act for the Evans' sailors.