WASHINGTON — The ship’s bow sank in a few minutes.
The battle to add its deceased crew members’ names to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial has lasted more than a decade.
But it could soon be coming to an end. A House-approved bill could clear the way for the names of 74 sailors to be added to the memorial more than four decades after their Long Beach, Calif.-based ship was cut in half in a collision with an aircraft carrier in the South China Sea.
The legislation is among a spate of measures in Congress aimed at healing lingering wounds from the Vietnam War era. In this case, family members of sailors who died aboard the Navy destroyer Frank E. Evans on June 3, 1969, call it painful to visit the black granite wall and not see the names of their loved ones on it.
“We’re just trying to get recognition for our brothers. It’s long overdue,” said Roy “Pete” Peters, who was a 22-year-old machinist’s mate in the ship’s engine room when the vessels collided.
The names of the “Lost 74” have never been etched into one of Washington’s most visited memorials because their ship was outside the official war zone.
“That’s an arbitrary line that was drawn in the water,” Peters said. The sailors’ families and surviving shipmates say the destroyer provided gunfire for U.S. troops in Vietnam before it was dispatched to the South China Sea for a training exercise and would have returned to the combat zone afterward.
“If it wasn’t for Vietnam, we wouldn’t have been there,” said 90-year-old Larry Reilly, a master chief gunner’s mate who survived the collision. His 20-year-old son, Larry Jr., did not. The family, then living in Orange County, Calif., was featured in a 1969 Los Angeles Times article headlined: “Tragedy at Sea: Joy, Sorrow of Two Wives Who Waited.”
Much of the crew was asleep when the Evans and the Australian aircraft carrier Melbourne collided in the predawn darkness about 650 miles southwest of Manila.
“As soon as it got hit, it rolled over on its side,” recalled Reilly, who lives in Syracuse, N.Y.
Peters added, “I’ve never been so close to death.” Peters, 67, and living in Redondo Beach, Calif., still has nightmares about the accident.
Three brothers from a small Nebraska town were among the dead. Nearly 200 crew members on the Evans survived. No lives were lost on the Melbourne.
A 1969 memorial service at the Long Beach Naval Shipyard drew nearly 1,000 people. A joint Australian-U.S. naval board of inquiry found the Evans primarily responsible for the collision but said that the Melbourne shared some of the blame.
Buried in a thick defense bill are a few lines that would call on Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to add the sailors’ names to the wall, something his two predecessors declined to do.
Efforts to add the names began after families traveled to Washington and were surprised, confused and ultimately disappointed not to see the names of their family members on the memorial.
“We searched and ended up not finding it anywhere,” said Frances Box, 91, of Athens, Ala., of her only son Tom’s name. Tom’s sister, Julie Lea, said that since her brother’s death, “Our family has not been the same.” Adding the names to the wall is “the least our country could do” to honor the sailors’ sacrifice, she said.
“Our ship was very much a part of the Vietnam War,” Peters said. “We fired over 5,000 rounds of 5-inch 38s on various targets over a 10-day barrage shortly before we were called off the gunline.”
He added: “The reason that this is so important to me is that our country looks at the wall as verification that a person was involved in the war. ... My brothers’ names belong up there with all the others.”
The wall bears the names of 58,300 men and women killed or missing in action. Since 1982, when the memorial was dedicated, 361 names have been added.
Legislation to recognize the sailors has been introduced at least since 2001, but it never got far. During a 2003 hearing, a National Park Service representative expressed concern that “adding a large number of new names to the memorial wall would detract from the power and beauty of the simple black granite wall that evokes such a strong emotional response in visitors.”
Those seeking to add the sailors’ names point out that the Pentagon has expanded eligibility for the memorial before.
The names of 58 Marines killed when their C-130 transport plane crashed outside Hong Kong were added to the wall in 1983. Though they were outside the war zone, their plane was returning them to Da Nang after three days of rest and relaxation.
Although Hagel’s two predecessors declined to add the sailors’ names to the wall, Rep. Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., who sought the language in the defense bill, could fare better. Hagel is a Vietnam veteran and former senator from Nebraska, home of the three Sage brothers who died in the accident.
Schiff has spoken with Hagel and is working on winning Senate support for adding the sailors’ names to the wall, figuring it will be hard for the Defense secretary to refuse if both chambers of Congress ask.
Schiff took up the cause after he was contacted by Pasadena, Calif., constituent Tim Wendler, who was a few days from his second birthday when his father, Radarman 2nd Class Ron Thibodeau, died in the collision.
Wendler recalled that his grandfather visited the wall in the late 1980s and was shocked to find that his son’s name was not on it.
Although the legislation isn’t a done deal, Wendler, president of the USS Frank E. Evans Association, is hopeful.
“We’re about as close as we’ve ever been,” he said.
Said Peters: “All we’re asking for is give recognition where it is deserved, so the families can go to the Vietnam wall, see their son’s name, and take a deep breath and say, now the recognition is there.”
It will be too late, however, for Wendler’s grandfather. He died in 1989.