Wednesday, June 03, 2009

USS FRANK E EVANS - 40 Years Ago

Forty years ago today, 3 June, 1969, at a little past three in the morning seventy four lives were lost and thousands of lives were changed forever.

I first wrote about my experiences and the sinking of my ship back on October 13, 2007. I have updated a few things and corrected others. The comments from the first post were very good in that a couple of the Australian sailors involved that night commented. One said that the Capt. McLemore had a son go down. That is not true. Only Chief Riley lost his son.

This picture was made in 1963 while I was on board. You can see me. I'm the one smiling. See the white hat on top of the bridge, well that's not me. I'm standing next to him. This was just before I was transferred to Radar.
 

This is a drawing of the fighting lady and her logo (a fighting cock.) I know, I know.
 

This was just after dawn before the USS Everett F Larson, coming over on the right, lashed her to her side. There is a lot of ship missing.
 

The USS Frank E. Evans DD754 (DD is the designation for a Destroyer – the Greyhounds’ of the fleet and call a Tin Can) was launched and commissioned in 1944, and, after a shakedown cruse, set sail for the Western Pacific (WESTPAC in Navy terminology.) She arrived on station in time for the Okinawa invasion and earned her combat stars battling kamikazes, dueling with Japanese ships and doing shore bombardment in support of the ground troops. She was in combat until the end of the war. From there she did a stint in China and eventually ended up in mothballs.

When Korea broke out she was re-commissioned and sent back to WESTPAC to fight in that war. She was engaged in many shore bombardments and even received small arms and mortar fire because she was so close to the shore. Her nickname was “The Fighter,” and she earned the moniker. However, after Korea she was sent back to the mothball fleet in San Diego.

In the early 60’s she was brought back again and refitted in what was called FRAM II. Her WWII and Korea configuration was removed and she had a helicopter deck added to the same place her #3 gun mount was located. This was used, unsuccessfully, for an unmanned torpedo carrying drone. The Navy just couldn’t get it to work more than ONCE in a row. This is when I came on board, in 1962.

I was fresh out of boot camp and a leave from home, and I was looking forward to boarding a true fighting ship. I got off the pier bus and looked down the pier. There were four small ships on the left (port) side of the pier and the beautiful, huge, gray ship on the right (starboard) side. I walked down to the gangway and ask the Marine (this should have been my first hint, since Marines don’t guard the gangways of destroyers) if this was the Evans. He said that this was the USS Helena (CL 50 – C = Curser & L = Light), a light cruiser of great renown. He pointed across the pier to the four little ships and said the Evans was the one next to the pier. Man! Only a little over 300 feet long and I would be going to sea in THAT? Oh, well! I reported aboard. I was sent immediately to the deck force (boson mates who took care of all things outside – painting, chipping pain, painting, sweeping, swabbing (mopping) and painting, not to mention chipping and painting. My bunk was in the forward part of the ship two decks down from the main deck.

I spent two months there until one day while at sea, I was stuck painting a 3’ by 3’ by 3’ locker below the anchor chain locker without any ventilation, and getting sicker by the minute from the paint fumes. Just before I was about to pass out, one of the guys stuck his head in and said some lieutenant wanted to see me. I reported to his stateroom and was told that I had scored high enough on my battery of test to be considered for radar training, and did I want to give it a try. I was trying soooo damn hard to keep from puking on his shoes that I almost wasn’t able to get out my, “Hell, yeah… uh, Sir.” That night I had the mid-watch (midnight to four in the morning) as the outside lookout atop the bridge. This normally meant I would get to sleep in until eight a.m., but I was awaken at six a.m. and told to report to CIC (Combat Information Center or Combat for short.) I was then made a radar striker.

The first person I met was a gravely voiced, thick glasses wearing, lisp speaking first class petty officer by the name of Gary Hodgson RD1 (RD for Radarman and the 1 for first class.) He never combed his hair and it stuck out all over the place like a mad scientist and his laugh was as raspy as his voice – and he laughed often.

This is where I spent my tenure as a sailor in the Navy. I was able to visit the WESPAC (three ports in Japan and one in Hong Kong,) Hawaii, Midway Island, San Francisco and San Diego. Although we did operate with the USS Oriskiny (CVA 34 – C=Aircraft Carrier, V=All Weather & A=Attack,) an attack aircraft carrier with jets on board, we mostly operated with the USS Hornet (CVS 12 – the S=Anti-Submarine,) an anti-submarine aircraft carrier with propeller driven sonar equipped planes on board. We did do some early bombardment on Viet Nam in support of the advisors there at the time. But no real combat experience for me. I left the ship in 1964 and returned home to a relatively normal life. But the Evans kept on doing her thing.

After I got off she made five more trips to the WESTPACK and received another combat star for her experiences. In 1969, before she left for her next cruse to the Pacific, all the personal had to have urine test for drugs. Imagine that in the late 60’s – who would have thunk it? She set sail and during the cruse she pulled into Subic Bay, Philippines. She was immediately boarded by several government type agents and arrested several of the crew for failing the drug test. DUH!!!

The captain was furious and demanded more men to bring his crew back up to compliment. So he received around thirty new recruits fresh from boot camp – some of whom had not even had the opportunity to go home after their training. Also on board were three brothers from Niobrara, Nebraska (Gary, Gregory and Kelly Sage); Chief Larry Reilly had extended a year before retiring to serve with his son Larry Jr.; and my old friend Gary Hodgson was back on his request serving out his last year before retiring.

Anyway, there were a goodly number of untrained men on board. And she was heading to Viet Nam, this time with the USS Kearsarge CVS 33, to be on “the gun line.” This meant she would be doing close in bombardments to aide the men in the jungles.

She was there for about a two weeks when she (and when I say she I mean all four destroyers in the squadron and the Kearsarge) were ordered to head South out to the edge of the South China Sea and join up with the HMAS Melbourne and her task group of Australian and New Zeeland ships to practice a joint maneuver called Operation Sea Spirit.

One of the maneuvers that are done dozens of times when operating with a carrier is moving to the rear of the carrier. When aircraft are launching or retrieving planes there has to be a tin can 1,000 yards off the stern of the carrier in case something goes wrong. On June 3rd, just after three a.m., the Evans was order to go to plain guard. She had performed this operation three or four times that day and night. All she had to do was turn to port and circle around to fall onto station as the carrier went by. But the OD (Officer of the Deck), who had failed the qualification exam to stand sea watch and the other OD had only been at sea less than a year, got confused between our base course and the zig zag course and he turned to starboard (right) and headed on a collision course with the Melbourne.

Everything became confused then. Radar was telling them they were on a collision course. The Melbourne told him they were on a collision course, and finally, the OD ordered the rudder Hard Right. At the same time the Melbourne broke all the rules of the sea (the biggest ship has the right of way) and turned her rudder Hard Left and she rammed and cut the Evans in half at mid-ships – right between the two stacks. Everyone in the forward fire room was killed instantly by crushing metal or twelve hundred degree steam. Everyone in CIC was killed. All but five men below decks were drowned because the front half rolled over and sank in three minuets. Among the dead were all three Sage brothers, my friend Gary Hodgson and Chief Reilly watched his son go down (he was in the forward fire room – he had volunteered to help out that night because one of the regular guys was sick and, because of all the new men on duty, they need an experienced fireman blow.) In all, we lost 74 of Americas finest, and only one body was ever recovered and he was badly burnt.

There were many stories of heroics that night. Our guys were trying to keep the back half afloat while working with the wounded and burned while fighting shock. The Melbourne had helicopters in the air immediately and they saved many of your men. The group was actually hunting and chasing a real Russian sub at the time, and the Australian helicopters were ordered back to the carrier to aid in the rescue. There were men jumping OFF the Melbourne into the water to save some of our men and others were on the deck with rifles shooting at sharks. Many men on both ships earned commendations that night – especially those on the Melbourne. The other ships tried a search and rescue, but no more were found. The front half carried those inside and sucked a few in the water down to eternity. Seventy-four fine, brave young men were lost that night.

Afterward, the captain of the Melbourne’s (Capt. John Stevenson) 30+ years of service was ruined and he left the Australian Navy without his retirement. He was exonerated and was ‘Honorably Acquitted’ and offered a desk job, but it was, in effect, a demotion and he would never captain a ship again. The captain of the Evans (Commander Albert McLemore was found guilty and reprimanded for dereliction of duty and hazarding his ship – though he was asleep in his cabin at the time with orders to contact him of any changes in operation procedures.

As is the custom in the Navy, Cmdr. McLemore publicly claimed that the collision was his responsibility as he had left two inexperienced officers in command of his ship. The two Lt’s received letters of reprimand and dropped down on the promotion list assuring they would never command a naval vessel. Cmdr. McLemore retied with pretty much the same sentence. He never got over loosing his ship and so many men. He passed away a couple of years ago, but he wouldn’t attend any of our reunions. Not one survivor ever blamed him for anything, but Naval Command has is traditions, and he felt responsible.

In civilian life the two Lt’s would have been charged with 74 counts of manslaughter. But the Navy has her own rules and customs. The OD’s left the Navy and no one knows where either is – that I know of. I haven’t mentioned their names because it isn’t necessary. They have their crosses to bear and don’t need any help from others.

So now you know, or maybe you don’t because I can’t express the story in my limited vocabulary, why I feel so proud to be at the reunion with such distinguished and brave men. I don’t know how I would have reacted in their place, but being a radarman, I would have been bunking below the mess decks (three decks down) where only two radarmen made it out. In the bow, where I was first stationed, only three men made it out. So I might not have been here at all. As a radarman I have been involved in many plain guard situations and it could have happened at any time, especially at night. Not likely, but it could have.

The HMAS Melbourne had already sunk one Australian destroyer doing the same maneuver a couple of years before and had two close calls a few nights before the collision with a couple of our destroyers. I believe she was a jinxed ship, but that’s just me. If you want to read some first hand accounts Google USS FRAND E EVANS and look around. The association has a web site if you are interested. http://www.ussfrankeevansassociationdd754.org/index.html

I said that that night affected thousands. Close to a thousand men on the Melbourne were deeply affected, especially those who went into the sea to help our men. Also, and more importantly, the families of the 74 devastated. I have met many of them and they are still mourning. There are no headstones (except for the one body recovered and is buried in Missouri. We were able to get a bronze monument in Arlington but no names are on it – due to rules of internment.

I guess this is way too long for a blog, but I couldn’t stop typing. But she also deserves to have her story told. I just wish there was some wordsmith who could do her justice. I hope you remember the 74 amd their families in your prayers. I do!
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26 comments:

AirmanMom said...

This post was not too long, in fact it was not long enough!
I thank you for sharing this story, a story of tragedy and love. Hubster was on the USS Ray when it hit a mountain, so I do understand you.
Prayers to those who lost their lives, prayers to those who lost their dreams, prayers to those who love their Navy!
~AM

Christine said...

Thanks for telling the story. Today is my baby brother's 40th birthday and I had no idea that such a horrific event happened the same day he was born.

Although I guess it has a symmetry of sorts. Life ends and life begins. Sadness and joy..the essence of the human condition.

Brother Dave said...

A very moving story. Thank you for sharing.

CI-Roller Dude said...

Coffey Pot Dude: Good, but sad story. We had a lot of soldiers faill the Pee Test over the years and I was happy when they were booted or sent to re=hab (which I never saw work).
Why is it the junior officers always get people killed? I would think they'd have to take a driving test to drive a big ass boat. Do you know how much training the army requires just to drive a tracked vehicle? I'd think the Navy would have done better. But those ODs have to live with that loss the rest of their lives.
And the mention of sharks, drowning, etc...another reason I joined the Army. Never a recorded case in all of history of a soldier being eaten by a shark while fighting from his fox hole!

coffeypot said...

AM, I could tell you what it was like below decks from my own experiences and imagination plus what I have been told by the survivors. It is chilling and inspirational. Men helping others get out and lost their own lifes. Confusion and fear. More than I would ever want to experience.

Christine, HBD to your brother and a wonderful way to look at it. Endings and Beginnings!

BD, Thank you.

CI - Dude, back then the only drug most of them would have been involved with was majaurana or smoking hashish. I wonder how many are doing it now. I have a Viet Nam nurse tell me the first thing she ask was what drugs were in their system because there could be a life threatening (aside from the wounds) situation around the medication given plus any in their system. She got mixed answers, but she felt they were truthful. The two officers on watch were there during a mostly routine night and maneuvers. That is why the Captain had the order in the Captains Log to be awaken if any changes in the normal steaming occurred. I guess they felt that a normal maneuver to come around wasn’t worth waking the Captain up. But they were a Lieutenant and a Lieutenant junior grade (O3 & O2) and should have had more bridge command training before they even make their grade. They were tested and both failed. But the ship had to go to war and the qualified officers need rest, too. Fatigue can kill you as fast as a bullet. And I joined the Navy because I didn’t want to polish brass, march, sleep in tents in the rain and snow, and be shot at by someone who hates you (though I did have to face down a jealous husband with a handgun one night. He might have shot me but for the fact that I pull a gun, too, and told him she just wasn’t that good in bed to die over. He agreed, knocked the shit out of her and I got in the car and left. I had to get home to change my undies.)

Anonymous said...

FYI - from news release about a book about this tragedy -

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Book documents 40th anniversary of sea disaster

On June 3, 1969, during a training exercise in the South China Sea, the Australian aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne cut US Navy destroyer USS Frank E. Evans in half. Seventy-four sailors died.

Marking the fortieth anniversary of the sinking of USS Frank E. Evans, Colorado author Paul Sherbo has signed a contract with Patriot Media, Inc. of Niceville, Florida to publish his book titled, "Unsinkable Sailors: The fall and rise of the last crew of the USS Frank E. Evans."

This history of the 1969 collision is the first American account of the catastrophic incident in book form. The author describes in detail the actions leading up to, during and after the horrific collision as told by witnesses and survivors from both ships.

The publisher of "Unsinkable Sailors: The fall and rise of the last crew of USS Frank E. Evans" is Patriot Media, Inc. of Niceville, Florida. The book can be purchased online at www.patriotmediainc.com after its release date of June 3rd for $16.95, plus shipping and handling or by calling (850) 897-4204.

# # #

Pictures available upon request from patriotmedia@patriotmediapublishing.com.

CONTACT INFORMATION:
Contact Person: Ms Dari Bradley
Company Name: Patriot Media, Inc.
Voice Phone Number: (850) 897-4204
FAX Number: (850) 897-4204
Email Address: dari@partiotmediainc.com
Website URL: www.patriotmediainc.com

NOTES ON THE CEREMONIES -

The Long Beach, California ceremony will be 10 am Wednesday June 3 at the Long Beach Navy Memorial at Pier Point Landing, 100 Aquarium Way.

Events in Australia include a commemorative service at 10 am Wednesday, June 3, at City Hall in Ipswich, Queensland, Australia; and a Mayoral Reception at 6:30 pm on Thursday, June 3, at City Hall.

Southern (in)Sanity said...

What an amazing story, coffeypot. I greatly appreciate the time and effort you put into this post.

I can't begin to imagine what it must have been like to go through such a tragic event, but I'm glad that you have your reunions and enjoy them.

In addition to being proud of your fellow men from the ship, I hope your proud of your own accomplishments as a part of that group. All of you should be commended, and the 74 men who lost their lives that night should never be forgotten.

Rick said...

Survivor from 40 years ago!

I was one of the lucky ones to survive that night and I must say you did justice to the event with your words. Thanks so much for remembering; it’s hard to believe it’s been 40 years. To me and I’m sure many others, it seems like just yesterday. I read your words and reflect back on the many friends lost that morning. It still saddens me when I think about that morning and the Sage brothers, who I spoke with just three hours prior to the wreck down in the mess hall and in particular about one friend Ray LeBrun who never had a chance to see his newborn child. I will never ever forget those guys and the other seventy who were lost that night 40 years ago. We still pray for you and your families.
Rick RM2

coffeypot said...

Mr R., thank you but I do not deserve any thanks. All I did was serve. But I did serve with some heroes who were in WWII and Korea. They served on other ships and faced many dangers. The only danger I faced were some severe storms and a few rowdy drunks in the bars. I have met a few of the survivors and a couple I consider good friends.

Rick, thank you for stopping by and your comments. Which Rick are you and have you been to any of the reunions? If not, email me at johnjudyc@att.net if you would like to be in contact with any of your old friends. Thanks, bud.

Rick said...

Coffey Pot

I was a radioman second class and teletype repairman on board the Evans. Ray LeBrun took over my watch section when we left Manila. I was on call 24/7 for repairs on the other ships that didn't have a teletype repairman, so I was only working the day shift and on call. My name is Rick Morgan, I now live in Las Vegas, but original from Louisiana. I attended the reunion prior to 911 in CO and had the distinguished opportunity to meet Mrs. Sage and Greg's son.

when is the next reunion?

Special K said...

That was NOT too long and I enjoyed reading every word of it. I will admit I got a little sniffly towards the end. What a story! I am sorry you had to live it but thank you for sharing it but most of all thank you for your service!

coffeypot said...

Rick, I looked you up in the 2001 Reunion 'Cruse Book.' I do remember you because I though you looked too young to have been on the Evans back then. You didn't age like the rest of us old guys. I believe the next reunion will be in Granbury, TX, but I don't have the dates yet. Email me your new email and I will make sure you get the information.

Special K, thank you, but understand, I wasn't on board when all this went down. I have been out of the Navy a few years by then. I just pass on the story so that the 74 will not be forgotten.

Marni said...

Not too long, Dad. Just right and written perfectly.

coffeypot said...

Rick, I just heard from Steve Kauss that the reunion will be in San Diego, but no dates yet. September timeframe. He and the crew will be doing site visits this month. Email me and I will keep you informed.

Hope said...

You write until you're done, John and you wrote it beautifully. Thank you for your service. Southern is right:

In addition to being proud of your fellow men from the ship, I hope your proud of your own accomplishments as a part of that group. All of you should be commended, and the 74 men who lost their lives that night should never be forgotten.

I'm very proud to be in your company from time to time. You always have my six!

much love,

Hope

coffeypot said...

And a lovely 'six' it is, too. That's why I watch it.

Seriously, thank you, but I didn't do anything remotely resembling heroic. I just served like many millions before and after me. I actually joined the Navy to ride the WAVES and what did they do…stick me on a ship.

Pamela said...

I'm home & finally catching up. Sure glad I am checking older posts.

This was a story of which I'd heard bits & pieces.

Now the puzzle is complete.

Good job.

Ariel said...

This is a great post which was expertly written. My uncle was aboard the USS Evans and lost his life. The loss is still too painful for my family to discuss so until today I never had any idea about what happened that night; It fills me with sadness to read about it but I'm also glad to know.
Thank you not only for the detailed description of the accident but also, much more importantly, for your commited service to the United States of America!

Sincerely,
SSgt Ariel Sauvey
USAF

In Honor of
Seaman Recruit John Allen Sauvey

coffeypot said...

Ariel, thank you for posting a comment. My email is johnjudyc@att.net, email me and I can give you some more information and put you in contact with some men who might have know you uncle.

Thank you for serving,too. You guys and gals are my new heros.

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Anonymous said...

Sadly, Mrs. Eunice Sage passed away at age 87 this past Friday, September 24. For over 40 years she carried the burden of the sons she lost. I was there that morning on the Kearsarge, and the horrors of that day will stay with me till I die. The only positive thing, now, is that Mrs. Sage is back together with hers sons and husband. Lest we Forget.

Coffeypot said...

Anon for Mrs. Sage. I do know about her passing. I am the Director of Communications for the FEE Assoc and I spent several hours on the phone with the KS AP. We got the story out to over 10 media outlets but was unable to get the story on a Nation wide bases. Thank you for your comments and I understand your memories. Bless you and welcome home.

Papa Dennis said...

A very close High School friend of mine was lost at sea in a training exercise somewhere in the South China Sea off the Coast of Vietnam. I recently visited the wall in DC and his name was not there. I did not remember the date, the ship, and even had trouble finding his obituary since it was a very small town in West Virginia.
I think it is amazing how fate moves us.
I began searching yesterday, June 3rd for information, not knowing that it was the exact day of the collision.
My friend's name was Larry Wayne Cool and he was an Electronic Technician 3rd Class on the USS Frank E Evans.
No one is left untouched emotionally by loss of our friends and loved ones.
I am going to continue to ask that the names of those lost be added to those on the Wall.
Papa-Dennis_says thank you for your service to our country.
Dennis Lester, MSG, USAR