CARTHAGE, Mo. — A Carthage resident is among those U.S. Navy veterans seeking to add 74 names to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Rick Warden was in the South China Sea on June 3, 1969, when those 74 sailors died on the Sumner-class destroyer USS Frank E. Evans. Warden was serving on the USS James E. Kyes in the same destroyer squadron when the Evans was involved in a nighttime crash with the Australian aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne during an exercise with ships from several other navies.
Even though the Evans, Kyes and other ships in their squadron had been off the coast of Vietnam for weeks immediately before the accident, the exercise took place outside the geographic area defined when the Vietnam memorial was built, so the men of the Evans have never been included on the wall.
Warden and other veterans have called for that to be changed, and bills have been introduced in Congress to add their names to the memorial.
“If it wasn’t for the Vietnam War, we wouldn’t have been there,” Warden said. “We would have been somewhere else instead of in the South China Sea. That’s the main reason they should be on the wall.
“The problem they’re having is that some of the men who died on the Evans hadn’t been to Vietnam yet. They came aboard at the Philippines just before this operation. We were all in Manila, and we were all leaving when some new crew members came on board. They say some of the guys who didn’t make it never went to Vietnam. Well, some of them did — put them on (the wall).”
An act of Congress will be needed to add the 74 names to the wall. Congress has considered bills in the past, but none passed.
Senate Bill 849, known as the USS Frank E. Evans Act, was introduced in March by U.S. Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-North Dakota, and has 15 co-sponsors. The bill was heard in one committee in June, but no action has been taken since.
“This year marks the 50 years since we lost these 74 sailors,” Cramer wrote last month in a letter to Senate and House leaders. “Honoring their service is already long overdue, but what better way to commemorate their sacrifice than to see their names added. Now is the time. Just like the nearly 60,000 people who died in Vietnam, these 74 heroes left home to give their country their all, and they did not return.”
Warden said the Kyes, the Evans and other ships left the U.S. mainland in February 1969 and crossed the Pacific in about a month before taking their place on the “gunline” off the coast of Vietnam. The gunline was composed of warships supporting troops on shore with naval artillery fire.
In late May, the Kyes, the Evans and the rest of the squadron joined 50 other ships from various navies in Manila Bay in the Philippines to prepare for Exercise Sea Sprite in the South China Sea.
The destroyer squadron was assigned to escort the Australian aircraft carrier Melbourne during the exercise, and the ships were practicing anti-submarine operations and sailing in formation.
“The Evans was signaled by the Melbourne to take up plane guard duty off the stern (rear) of the carrier,” Warden said. “We were, at the time, doing plane guard behind the carrier, and they were getting ready to launch aircraft. They decided to send the Evans back there to do plane guard and have us come up and do submarine screening on the port (left) side to replace the Evans. The officer of the deck of the Evans, instead of making a port turn away from the carrier to get behind her, he made a starboard (right) turn across the bow of the carrier.”
The captain of the Evans was sleeping in his sea cabin when the collision happened. A board of inquiry held after the accident determined the two men left in charge of the ship while the captain slept were not qualified to serve as officers of the deck and made mistakes in reading the signals from the carrier.
The 20,000-ton carrier hit the 3,200-ton destroyer amidships, cutting her in half and sending the forward half of the Evans to the bottom in three minutes. Warden and other sailors on the Kyes, along with other ships, including the Melbourne, started rescue efforts immediately, soon to be joined by the American carrier USS Kearsarge and other ships.
Many of the survivors were on the stern of the Evans, which remained afloat thanks to quick damage control efforts by the survivors.
Warden said he knew one of the 74 men who died on the Evans, Gunner’s Mate 3rd Class Steven Frank Espinosa, from San Jose, California.
He said the accident left him dealing with the realization that it could have been his ship and he could have been one of the sailors dying or struggling in the water.
“I still have nightmares about this incident,” Warden said. “The strangest things you think about at times — you never forget it.”