Navy ship survivors, families want dead to be honored
VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — When Del Francis was jolted awake at 3:10 a.m. on June 3, 1969, the Frank E. Evans was listing 60 degrees. Before he could get up, he felt the ship lurch and roll on her side. A locker slid across the deck and slammed into his rack.
An Australian aircraft carrier, the Melbourne, had plowed into the Evans' portside and broken its keel. The Navy destroyer was split in two, and the bow sank into the South China Sea within three minutes.
As crewmen scrambled for their pants and shoes, Francis, a radarman, climbed onto the locker, then found a ladder to escape. On the mess deck, men jumped from table to table to avoid the rising water. The smell of melting metal was getting stronger.
As Francis scrambled up a ladder, the severity of the ship's demise sunk in and he wondered: How would he get word to his mother, who already had buried two sons, that he was OK?
Then Francis and two others moved through a passageway and came to a hatch that would open only about a foot. After struggling with it, the door suddenly opened from the outside.
"It was the most beautiful night I've ever seen," Francis said Friday.
He was among about 40 former sailors and family members at the Holiday Inn on Greenwich Road for an annual gathering of survivors of the Evans.
On that night 44 years ago, he recalled, there was a full moon and a sea like glass, except where the warm water was rushing into the ship as air bubbled out.
Francis was one of 204 survivors from the collision that claimed the lives of 74 sailors, 110 miles from the Vietnam War combat zone.
That distinction has kept the dead from being considered casualties of war. And it's blocking their names from being etched into the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.
Today, sailors that served aboard the Evans and families of those who were lost reunite annually. They remember, heal and plan.
On Friday, they shared stories of the warship's sinking and discussed how they hope this is the year when their lost friends and family will be honored.
Linda Vaa, whose husband, Greg Sage, died on the Evans, finds solace in the gatherings.
After learning that Sage had been lost at sea, Vaa clutched his picture and sobbed.
Her high school sweetheart and husband of less than two years also left behind a 13-month-old son. His boy's dad never would watch him grow up.
Vaa remarried seven years later and, in 1999, she went to her first Evans reunion.
"Until I heard their stories, I didn't want to believe he had died. His body was never found," she said. "Once they told me where he was on the ship and where it was hit, I knew he was dead. I could start accepting it."
After the Vietnam memorial wall was built, family members of the lost sailors of the Evans would search it for the names of their loved ones, to no avail.
About 12 years ago, they forged an alliance to have their men recognized as Vietnam War casualties.
With the help of Southern California congressman Adam Schiff, a bill to create the Fairness to All Vietnam Veterans Act has been introduced three times.
Each time, it has failed.
In 1969, the Evans had traveled from its homeport in Long Beach, Calif., to provide gunfire support off the coast of Vietnam. It was in the South China Sea on a training exercise linked to the war.
The destroyer received a Vietnam Service Medal for the night it sank.
To be included on the wall, a service member had to be killed in combat, or coming to or from a mission, as a result of wounds sustained in a combat zone on or after Jan. 1, 1961.
The Department of Defense stands by the combat zone designation, though exceptions have been made, Steve Kraus, a signalman aboard the Evans, said. When 58 Marines were killed in a helicopter crash on their way back to Vietnam from Hong Kong, their names were added to the memorial.
The Evans group is now asking Schiff to approach Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel about adding the victims of the Evans to the wall.
"We're not giving up. No matter what," Kraus said.
"We're not going to say, 'Oh, just forget it.' That's not going to happen."