In March 2015, Post 1921 Color Guard was honored to participate in the annual “Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans” event at the Vietnam Memorial near the California State Capital building in Sacramento. This year, as a result of action taken by the California State Legislature, the names of the 22 crewmembers of the USS Frank E. Evans DD-754 who were killed when the HMAS Melbourne cut the destroyer in half, were added to the California memorial. In all 74 men were killed. The Evans Foundation has been unsuccessful in getting any of the names added to the Vietnam Wall in D.C. Although the Evans had been in the war for some time, the loss happened during an exercise - not as a direct result of enemy action.
I would like to share the story of that tragic incident of the wee hours of 3 June 1969. I am very familiar with it because at the time it happened I was an Ensign close to getting my Navy wings and headed for Vietnam myself. Even though we were aviators, our instructors used this as a case study of this surface Navy incident of how terribly wrong things can go if an officer looses situational awareness, becomes confused, or is less than prepared for his responsibilities. I think it was a wakeup call for us to pay even closer attention to our training and to be absolutely sure of key decisions we would be making. I believe that there was a lot of follow-up in other areas of the Navy at the time making the tragedy a “teaching moment.” Perhaps our instructors thought it appropriate to go over it in detail with us even though by that late point in our training it was already known which aircraft we would be flying, what squadron, and where. Most of us were going to be P-3 Orion Tactical Coordinators, many going to Vietnam - that meant performing as On-Scene Commander directing Destroyers in the destruction of enemy troop trawlers.
After the ceremony, I was speaking with a member of the Evans Foundation whose twin brother was killed aboard Evans. I said to him that the families might take some additional solace in knowing that probably many lives were saved by so many of us junior officers making renewed commitments to training and decision making.
The U.S. and Australian crews have remained in close contact all these years with many close friendships. Sadly a great many members of both crews have suffered having their lives go poorly. If you look at some of those individual cases, they are classic signs of PTSD. No wonder.
Three brothers named Sage, one Third Class and two Seaman Apprentices, from the small town of Niobrara, Nebraska were killed. Ironically, they were the
first brothers to be allowed to serve on the same ship since WWII the five Sullivan brothers were lost in one sinking.
But let’s go back to the story.
USS Frank E. Evans had been shelling the coast of Vietnam in the war effort. It was pulled off the combat line to participate in an exercise called ‘Operation Sea Spirit’. Captain John Stevenson was in command of the Australian aircraft carrier, HMAS Melbourne. There were several U.S. and Australian Destroyers surrounding the carrier as would be expected. These included five U.S., British, and New Zealand destroyers on inner screen. They were all being as covert as possible. However, as a result of a near collision two nights before, Capt. Stevenson had all the running lights on his carrier burning brightly. The South China Sea was calm and it was a bright clear night.
At 0300, Melbourne signaled Evans to prepare to shift to take the position of “plane guard,” requiring Evans to move from ahead of Melbourne to 1,000 yards behind as they were commencing increased night flight operations. Standard procedure would be for Evans to turn away from the carrier, drop back as the carrier passed, and fall in half a mile behind to rescue any aircrew that might have to eject on takeoff. Most of 272 on board Evans were asleep in there bunks. Water depth was 1100 fathoms.
Instead of turning away, the young Officer of the Deck on Evans became confused and the American destroyer turned directly into Melbourne’s path.
Melbourne struck Evans nearly broadside and nearly amidships. The impact was so severe that the sailor on lookout watch on Evans was thrown into the air so high that he landed on the flight deck of Melbourne. He was very badly injured. I do not recall if he survived.
Evans was cut in half, with the bow sinking in three minutes. Melbourne was able to lash the stern section to its’ side and keep it there but that in some ways further complicated its’ rescue attempts. Thirty-eight of the 111 men in the forward section of Evans were thrown into the water or were able to escape and were saved by Melbourne within 25 minutes. Some of Melbourne’s crew members actually jumped into the water, some from the flight deck, to help the Americans. Some of Melbourne’s officers climbed down cargo nets to remain on the stern portion of Evans until they could determine that no one else was still aboard.
Many medals were awarded to Melbourne crew members as well as those of 817 Squadron embarked in Melbourne for their heroics during in the rescue. Several individuals received some significant honors.
In the several Courts Marshall that were convened, Captain Stevenson was found “Not At Fault.” However, his career was still over. He lost his pension,