Friday, June 03, 2011

Lest We Forget...

Today, June 3, 1969, 42 years ago, 74 young men went on eternal patrol when the ship they were crewing was cut in half, taking the front half down in three minutes.    

The ship was the one I served aboard a few years before. 

Made right after the collision.

The morning of June 4th.
The USS Larson is coming along side to secure the back half for towing back to Subic Bay, Philippines.

The USS Frank E. Evans DD754 (see the icons on the side bar and my header?) had been on the gun line off the coast of Vietnam providing fire support for the Army and Marines when she was released to rejoin the Destroyer Squadron 23 (DESRON 23) and proceed to the South China Sea to join up with several ships form several countries in a joint training exercise called Operation Sea Spirit.

DESRON 23 was assigned to the HMAS Melbourne and her task-force of Canadian and Australian destroyers.  For several days and nights she ran screen and plane guard for the Melbourne.  At three in the morning of June 3, 1969, she was ordered to plane guard 500 yards off the stern of the carrier.  Anytime a carrier launches or receives aircraft there is a destroyer trailing her for any emergencies that may occur.

This night, the bridge of the USS Frank E Evans was commanded by two junior officers who did not have much experience.  The captain was sleeping in the sea cabin off the bridge.  The night orders were to awaken him for any major course changes.  They did not do this.

As was the outdated custom of the time, the ships would run a zig zag course across the base course.  The two officers, Officer of the Deck (OD) and the Junior OD (JOD) became confused between the base course and the zig zag course.  If they had known the difference, the command would have been to come left and circle around behind the carrier as she came by.

They had performed this maneuver three times that night already.  But the confusion caused them to come right and head on a collision course with the Melbourne.

The radarmen in CIC (Combat Information Center) behind the bridge, the carrier and the outside watches told them they were on a collision course.  At the last minute they realized what was happening and ordered hard right.  If that was all that happened, our ship would have passed down the port (left) side of the carrier.  But the carrier also gave the order, hard left, which put her on a T-bone course and she cut her in half amid ships right between the stacks.

All the men in CIC, the radarmen and sonarmen, were killed instantly.  The men in the forward fire-room died instantly, too.   Most of the men working below decks that survived were injured or burnt in some way or the other.

Of the two men standing outside watch on top of the bride, one lived; the other became entangled in sound powered phone lines and drowned but came loose and was recovered by the Australian rescue party.  His body was the only one recovered.

The two signalmen atop the bridge lived, though one was thrown in the air and landed on the flight deck of the carrier with massive injuries that kept him in the hospital for months.  The other is VP of our association now.

Only a few men off the front survived.  The front rolled over on its side and the ocean was rushing in with such force they didn’t have a chance.

Among the dead were three brothers.  One was on watch in CIC, a radarman like me, and the other two were in the forward berthing compartment.  A father watched his son go down (he was in the forward fireroom and wasn't suppose to be on watch, but he  relieved a sick mate,) and my best friend from my tour, went down.

The two officers and the captain survived. Though most on the bridge didn't make it. They pretty much lost any chance of promotion and left the Navy.  In a civilian court they would have been charged with 74 counts of manslaughter.  But that is the Navy for yah.

There were many instances of heroism that night – form our own men and those of the HMAS Melbourne.  Most of our men were clad in their underwear or jeans.  The Auzies gave them their uniforms, nursed and fed them and even had the band play for them when they were transferred to the USS Kearsarge (the aircraft carrier DESRON 23 normally operated with.)

During the 70’s the Navy developed a training film about the incident.   It is now on YouTube in a three part series called, ‘I Relieve You, Sir’ part I, II, and III.  All the men interviewed are my mates, both American and Australian.

Now we meet each year at our reunions (and almost every reunion has had an Australian in attendance) to honor the 74.  And for the last 20 years we have been in negotiations with DOD and the NAVY in getting their name on The Wall.  They were combat veterans of the Vietnam War and were only 50 miles outside the combat zone.  There is a precedence for allowing the names to be placed on the wall.  President Reagan signed a proclamation that added over 60 Marine’s names to the wall who were killed in the crash of a cargo plane returning them form R&R in Hong Kong  - outside the war zone.  Our guys were headed back to the gun-line, too.

So, if you have read this far, please take a moment in remembrance of the 74 and the families they left behind.  I think about them daily.


Mike Golch said...

a prayer is being said for tem.

Paxford said...

Prayers for them all.


Jamie said...

What a sad story. I honestly am sorry that you lost so many of your friends that night. Hugs, coffey.

Ed said...

The sacrifice of the few, for the freedoms of the many, is what makes America so great.

They shall not be forgotten.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Ed. This story gave me intense chills. I kept imagining what it must have been like to live through that!

Thanks Coffey for honoring them by keeping their story of sacrifice alive.

It's So important that events like this are not forgotten!


Suz said...

I hope their names go up on the wall. They definitely belong there.

Coffeypot said...

Thank you, guys. Watch the videos and read some of the letters on the web site. Such a great bunch of guys survived that night. I am honored to be considered their friend.

MMW, I have shed tears over them. Go here:

Suz, yes! They deserve to be there.

Sarge Charlie said...

Protecting a nation is risky business, friendly fire will always be heartbreaking.

The will always live in our memory as long as people like you tell their story.

JihadGene said...

God bless them all. Their families and shipmates too. How sad. Thanks for sharing and keeping their sacrifice in the public eye.

Anonymous said...

Wow. What a sad story. God bless all those who served and their families, too.

T. Roger Thomas said...

What a terrible tragedy made all the worse by the fact that it could have been avoided with an experienced commander at the helm.

Momma Fargo said...

Great tribute and remembrance for those that sacrificed for their country. God Bless.

CI-Roller Dude said...

I am always sad to hear about the loss of any servicemen. What always really bugged me was when people were lost just doing training.
From the cases I saw, it was usually do to poor leadership. There was no reason and if the poor leaders really understood what they were doing, the loss of life would never have happened.

Like when we had some new 2nd Lt who tried to get soldiers to go down range during a live fire...with big guns. The soldiers knew better and refused to go. The new LT wanted them brought up on charges...and when the CO found out, he explained to the New LT that he'd be the one found guilty of being stupid if it went any further.

If those troops had gone down range, they would have been killed.

Coffeypot said...

T. Roger and Dude, you are so right. Every day in the military, as mundane and mind numbing boring as it can be, it is still a very dangerous environment. Some knucklehead forgets to clear his weapon and accidently shoots someone. A switch flipped in error can cause a plane crash, and one wrong move on a ship at any time can cause the loss of life. Going to plane guard is such a common, rote activity that most can do it in their sleep – so to speak. So many dumb things happened that night and because of lack of communication, misunderstanding and concurrence of activities between the two officers on the bridge, 74 lives were lost. Anyone in uniform has to be aware at all times, and fight the boredom and repetition of activates or bad things can happen.

trav said...

Alas, I did not hear of this at the time.
I do know that the DA exploded in a 'Can next to us and killed three fellow "snipes". 15 pound steam don't sound like much, but it can do a sailor in just as bad as 600 pound steam can.

I had left the Duncan and was actually in the second part of Nuke School, the Nautilus Protype locked away in the Idaho Desert. We were pretty isolated from Navy happenings, and some weird things were going on with our crew/shift in training. Turned out that our training Chief went completely bug nuts (found out after I left and was at welding school) and took it out on us. He ended up in the Navy loony bin. I hope that he is still rotting there.

Trav said...

The Submarine Community back then was pretty small.
I knew Submariners who had rode both Thresher and Scorpion and they had difficulty coping with those losses from time to time; one left Thresher just one week before she went down. I think that he suffered a truly bad case of survivor's guilt.
Heck, I was home on leave, headed for my first boat (TAD Nautilus) then a Boomer, when my Dad came into the bedroom and plopped the front page on me-Headlines about Scorpion sinking. That was most likely the most serious moment in my life.

Coffeypot said...

I was on board my ship when the Thresher went down. The mood was somber on the whole ship. We has lost some Navy brothers, regardless that we did not know them. We knew the Navy and that was enough.

trav said...

There is a lot more to the Thresher's sinking than was/is out there. At At Sub School, we listened to all the recordings of the event. She took a long time to go down. It had to be absolute hell for the crew.
It sure scared the hell out of us as we listened to it, and when it was over, ya could have heard a pin drop.
THEN, the Chief asked how many of us had wills filled out. It turned out that families were still fighting over benefits etc. due to there being so few wills left by crew members.

heartland frugalista said...

Thank you for this post. I'm sorry for your loss and what you saw. My family has also seen war:

I honor all of you who have gone.