USS Evans: Dying mothers fight for dead sons' recognition

This week, survivors of a horrendous tragedy occurring during the Vietnam War are meeting in San Antonio, Texas. They meet to rekindle a previous effort, initiated years ago, seeking to memorialize those lost the morning of June 3, 1969.

In the normal progression of life, children typically live to bury their parents. But, that morning, this progression was reversed for the parents of 74 sailors lost at sea – the bodies of their sons unrecoverable. Now, more than half a century later, the remaining survivors of the tragedy, as well as a dwindling number of surviving mothers of those lost, are still committed to seeing the names of the 74 memorialized for eternity upon the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, better known as “The Wall.”

Testimony I gave the U.S. Senate in 2003 on the “Fairness to All Fallen Vietnam War Service Members Act” – an earlier initiative to have the names of the 74 lost when their ship, the USS Frank E. Evans (DD-754), suffered a fatal accident – sets the scene for June 3, 1969, and what the underlying issue is in having the “Evans 74” so recognized:

“The circumstances surrounding the loss of the Evans are straightforward. Reporting for duty at Yankee Station off the coast of Vietnam on May 5th, the ship immediately demonstrated she was a valuable asset in the war effort. The crew received several commendatory messages for their professionalism, responsiveness and accuracy in destroying enemy targets in support of our fighting forces ashore. They participated as well in what was one of the largest amphibious assaults of that war. Evans departed the combat zone, along with her two sister ships, for a brief logistics stop in Subic Bay before participating in Operation Sea Spirit in the South China Sea. Sea Spirit involved vessels from navies representing five of our six allies in Vietnam. Evans, along with the two sister ships in her squadron, became the U.S. Navy contingent of a five destroyer screen operating with the Australian aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne. At 0310 on June 3rd, as the ships were still observing darkened ship wartime conditions operating on a specified zig-zag plan, Evans was ordered to take up the preliminary position for duty rescue ship 1,000 yards aft of Melbourne prior to the Aussie conducting flight operations. …”

As the Evans attempted to get on station, the HMAS Melbourne, due to an inattentive bridge watch, sliced through the U.S. destroyer, severing the forward third (bow section) of the ship from the aft two-thirds. The bow section quickly sank, taking 74 sailors with it. Only by virtue of the heroic efforts of the surviving crew members was the aft section kept afloat, later towed to Subic Bay naval base in the Philippines.

My testimony summed up the Department of Defense’s (DOD) reasoning against inscribing the names of the Evans 74 on The Wall and my rationale opposing DOD’s decision:

“The reason given is the Evans’ victims do not meet DOD eligibility standards for such inclusion, which require that death occur within the combat zone and as a result of enemy fire. However, the eligibility standards cited as a basis for denial have been given a broad interpretation over the years to, in fact, include others now whose names are on The Wall … (despite meeting) the same criteria applied to the Evans’ 74.”

The Wall was dedicated in 1982. At that time, there were 57,939 names engraved thereon, including 1,300 names of servicemen either missing or who died in captivity. As of 2017, The Wall had 58,318 names engraved upon it. The process of adding more names began in 1983. However, because this was before centralized computer lists existed, there was often limited coordination between DOD and the various services to ensure the same standards were universally applied. This resulted in several additions involving deaths occurring outside the combat zone. For example, the 1983 additions included 53 Marines who were killed when their flight crashed in Hong Kong after completing R&R (rest and relaxation) to return to Vietnam. Another 110 names of those killed outside the combat zone or in support of combat missions were added in 1986.

Name additions are now being made annually. The changing requirements above for name inclusion clearly justify adding the Evans 74. The fights families have fought for such inclusion have been lengthy. For example, it took decades for Navy veteran Bob Brudno – his brother was long-held POW U.S. Air Force Capt. Edward Alan Brudno who, weeks after being released and suffering deep depression, committed suicide – to rightfully get his brother’s name on The Wall in 2004. While Brudno did not meet the criteria of dying in the combat zone, his death was clearly linked to the infliction of a war-related mental wound.

One of the other issues concerning name additions is space limitation. Names appear without ranks, symbolizing that all victims made the same ultimate sacrifice, and chronologically, symbolizing those who died together are remembered together. While sufficient space still remains for the Evans 74, other options – such as a separate, smaller memorial with their names – could be explored. In 2004, a group of us set a precedent for separate recognition at The Wall with an “In Memory” plaque dedicated to remembering those Vietnam veterans who died of war-related causes but not on the battlefield, such as my brother, who died of Agent Orange exposure, and others, who died of PTSD.

Also justifying the Evans name additions is the fact that just about every state with its own Vietnam war memorial honoring lost sons and daughters have included Evans crewmembers who were native sons. Why, then, should The Wall not do so?

Sadly, the decades-long fight to honor the Evans 74 has seen time claim many of the mothers who hoped and prayed to live long enough to see their sons’ names so honored. Today, their numbers have dwindled to five – all still committed to this becoming a reality. Hopefully, their dying wish is one the Senate will grant before they join their sons.

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