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Survivor's float in Ind. parade a tribute to lost sailors

MISHAWAKA, Ind. — This Memorial Day marks nearly 45 years since the sinking of the USS Frank E. Evans and death of 74 of her crew members.

It was June 3, 1969 -- the Vietnam War era -- when the Navy destroyer collided with and was split in two by the Royal Australian Navy's HMAS Melbourne.

Robert Mason, of Mishawaka, a machinist mate/ third class, was at the stern of the Evans, and survived the collision. The early morning impact awoke him, and he rushed to his station in the engine room.

"Before I got to my duty station, there was no more ship; there was just water," Mason said.

"I was very fortunate in that respect. All my friends survived the accident, but the destroyer was a small vessel so I knew everybody," Mason said.

The 1967 Mishawaka High School graduate, who had enlisted in the Navy Reserves, was among 198 survivors.

As a tribute to those who died, known as the "Lost 74," Mason annually enters a float -- a replica of the destroyer -- in the Mishawaka Memorial Day Parade.

Mason and his wife, Dixie, completed work on the float this past week in preparation for the parade, which begins at 9:30 a.m. Monday at Third and Main streets in Mishawaka.

The names of the Lost 74 are not inscribed upon the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C.

But Mason and his wife are trying to change that.

Their float includes the names and pictures of the 74 lost shipmen, and notes their exclusion from the Veterans Wall.

The Department of Defense adheres to a strict "combat zone" rule to establish fatalities resulting from the Vietnam conflict.

The Evans collision occurred in the South China Sea, 110 nautical miles outside of the designated combat zone. Mason said the Evans was within the zone a few days prior, but was called off the gun line to run maneuvers with collaborating vessels like the Melbourne.

Mason said the U.S. government was never inclined to bring the Evans incident to light.

"We received Vietnam medals and the accident which indicates that we had to have still been inside the military zone. They gave us the awards but they wouldn't put the names up," Mason pointed out.

Mason said that the Department of Defense has made exceptions to its combat zone rule in the past, but has yet to acknowledge those lost in the Evans sinking.

But the Masons continue their fight for the inscription of those 74 names upon the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. And they're not alone.

The USS Frank E. Evans Association, formed in 1992, holds annual reunions in different U.S. locations to remember the Lost 74 and discuss the campaign to gain recognition of their service. The Masons said they try to attend a reunion every year.

"We talk about whatever has transpired as far as getting these names on the wall," Mason said.

For their part, the Masons have contacted Indiana members of Congress repeatedly within the past few years.

"We bombard them with phone calls and letters," Dixie Mason said.

The Masons believe that inscription of the names will honor the Lost 74 and comfort their friends and relatives.

"They're still trying to find closure, and I think it would really help if these names were placed where they rightfully belong," Dixie said.

"We'll do whatever's necessary," Robert Mason agreed.
 

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