Skip to comments.COLLISION AT SEA (33 years ago today-USS Frank E. Evans )
Posted on 06/03/2002 7:57:37 AM PDT by SJackson
On the morning of June 3, 1969, 74 American sailors died when the destroyer USS Frank E. Evans was cut in two by an Australian aircraft carrier in the South China Sea.
By Phil Smith and Mal Lancaster
Niobrara is a very small town in Nebraska--so small it doesn't have a cinema, and the locals could not have flocked to see Saving Private Ryan. But Niobrara has a memorial outside its library dedicated to the three Sage brothers, who were the first family group allowed to serve together on a U.S. warship after World War II. Radarman 3rd Class Gregory Sage and Seaman Recruits Gary Sage and Kelly Sage died together, along with 71 shipmates, on USS Frank E. Evans when the Australian aircraft carrier Melbourne literally cut their destroyer in two at 3 o'clock on the morning of June 3, 1969, in the South China Sea. Most of Evans' 272-man crew were asleep at the time of the collision. Jolted awake by the impact, the Americans began a struggle to save their lives, if not their ship. The Australians soon joined in the desperate struggle.
Few Australians are aware of the collision that claimed 74 American lives during Operation Sea Spirit exercises at the height of the Vietnam War and led--in the face of tragedy--to a bond between sailors on either side of the Pacific. Now living in the United States, the retired skipper of the Australian carrier recalled the few awful minutes that changed the lives of hundreds of men. "It's still very vivid, still bad memories, still a very traumatic occasion," said John Stevenson.
A court-martial and the inquiry that followed found Captain Stevenson not at fault, yet his career was doomed from the moment his crew readied Evans to take up plane guard/rescue position, as Melbourne prepared for night-flying operations. Earlier in the exercise, Melbourne had had a near miss that was fresh in Stevenson's memory on June 3. "A couple of nights before one of the other [American] destroyers took a run at us," Stevenson recalled, but that time Melbourne had managed to get out of the destroyer's path.
Melbourne had signaled Evans, one of five U.S., British and New Zealand destroyers on the inner screen, to prepare to take up the position of plane guard, 1,000 yards behind the carrier. It was the fifth time that night that Evans had carried out the maneuver. The sea was dead calm, the water moonlit. As an extra precaution, Melbourne had her navigation lights at full brilliance. Procedures had been clearly established for the smaller vessel to turn away from the carrier before falling into a position well behind. But instead, the American destroyer turned into the huge carrier's path.
The June 3 collision is something former Sub-Lieutenant Graham Winterflood, a Westland Wessex helicopter pilot serving aboard Melbourne, won't ever forget. "We were anti-submarine screen forward of the ship...." he said. "We took off and were sent out on a heading ahead of Melbourne, and funnily enough, on the way there, I was the co-pilot and I could see a masthead light up ahead of us, so we had to dodge around that. Little did I know at the time that that was the USS Evans."
Petty Officer Ron Baker was in Melbourne's radio room. "It was like riding over a piece of corrugated iron on a bicycle," he recalled. "There was a shuddering as we went over something and the initial reaction was, 'We've run aground!' Of course this was all split-second thinking, and then we realized we were in 1,100 fathoms of water so the chances of running aground were pretty slim. Another thought that went through our heads was that we'd hit a submarine," Baker added, "because we knew there was a Russian submarine in the area monitoring the exercise."
At that moment, Lieutenant Winterflood was hunting that submarine. "We were just about to lower our sonar ball, when the ship recalled us, saying they'd had a collision," he remembered. "We flew back to the Melbourne, and tied alongside was half a destroyer. It was an unbelievable sight."
Melbourne had ridden over the destroyer with such an impact that one of Evans' lookouts, Seaman Marcus Rodriguez, was thrown into the air, landing on the flight deck of the carrier and suffering horrible injuries. In the less than three minutes it took Winterflood's helicopter to return, the front section of the American ship had disappeared.
Aircrew and aircraft handlers were preparing to launch S-2E Tracker aircraft. Their engines were shut down immediately, and the crews rushed to help. Some dangled fire hoses over the carrier's side as makeshift ladders, while others secured Evans' stern alongside Melbourne with wire cable.
"It was all very quick," recalled Stevenson. "Very chaotic, but organized as far as the Melbourne was concerned. They all knew what they were doing. The stern half of the Evans was secured to the ship, and people hopped over the edge to help survivors back onto Melbourne."
Ron Baker remembered: "Some of the [Melbourne] officers dropped cargo nets over the side and scrambled down. Four of them actually went through the aft section of the Evans to make sure no one was left on there after the Americans had climbed on board."
Stevenson recalled that "Bob Burns, who's now dead, was one of the stars of the side. He dived over the stern, and a lot of guys did that."
"He went over twice," recounted Baker. "He pulled in one guy who'd been crushed, got him in and was no sooner back on board than he spotted another bloke in the water, jumped over again and towed him to a lifeboat. He got the George Medal [the British Commonwealth's second highest award for noncombat heroism]." In the end, Melbourne crewmen received 15 Naval Board commendations, with two Queen's commendations, two British Empire Medals, a Member of the British Empire and one [British Commonwealth] Air Force Cross.
It was a bright, moonlit night, but down in the shadow of Melbourne was blackness. Jock Donnelly used the 10-inch signal lamp as spotlight, calling to the rescuers, "There's another one!"
Winterflood's Wessex helicopter arrived overhead. "There were two or three helicopters airborne at the time," he recalled, "and while ours didn't have a winch, we used our landing light to spotlight survivors, while the other two Wessexes used their winches."
The unit citation awarded to Winterflood's No. 817 Squadron by the U.S. secretary of the Navy gave this account: "Thirty-eight of the 111 men in the forward section of USS Frank E. Evans were able to escape or were thrown into the water. Within 25 minutes of the collision all these men had been returned to the Melbourne. The helicopters and men of 817 Squadron were called upon for maximum effort, not only during these first critical minutes when survivors were being illuminated in the water, but also during the more than 15 hours during which search operations continued."
Overhead the helicopter crews were tired and stunned. Lieutenant Winterflood looked down on a scene alarmingly similar to the site of an accident five years earlier. "There was a lot of stuff in the water," he recalled. "There were life rafts, motor cutters getting around and helicopters with lights. But the actual sight of half a ship was very hard to come to grips with because, having seen it once before, it was hard to imagine the same thing could happen again."
Back in 1964 HMAS Voyager had collided with Melbourne, killing 82. Captain Stevenson had that earlier tragedy in mind on the occasion of the near-collision with an American destroyer in the spring of 1969. "I now know what my friend Robbie [Captain John Robertson] went through," he wrote his wife. "He didn't have a chance of dodging Voyager. This destroyer was much farther away from me, and I didn't have much chance of avoiding her, but I just managed to get away." Little did Stevenson know that a few days later, when Evans crossed Melbourne's path, he would have an even better idea of the horror Captain Robertson had experienced.
The helicopters flew all day on June 3, 1969, landing for hot refueling and then returning to the search area. Petty Officer Baker spent the long hours sending hundreds of messages. He described that morning as something like a dream sequence. Baker reckoned the last of the 198 sailors saved from the South China Sea was Chief Petty Officer Larry Malilay.
"Larry thought he was gone," Baker said. "He just drifted off, and for a while he could see and hear the choppers, but he was drifting away, and when he was finally rescued the pilot said, 'Hang on, I think I can see someone swimming for the Philippines,' and they winched him aboard."
On board Melbourne the strangest scene was being played out. Captain Stevenson ordered the band onto the deck, and the beer vault was opened for the American survivors. Australian sailors recall their mates giving away the clothes from their backs. One sailor went below and brought up his entire kit, while the clothing store was opened and blankets were passed out. Eventually the survivors were lifted off and taken to USS Kearsarge. At that point, Baker heard a sound he'll never forget: "As they were about to leave our ship, they stood on the quarterdeck and gave us three cheers. We had just cut their ship in half and here they were giving us three cheers."
The end of USS Frank E. Evans was the beginning of an enduring bond between the two crews. Those who served aboard Melbourne have certainly suffered, but the survivors of the battered crew of Evans had it worse.
"I think a lot of the crew suffered trauma," said Stevenson. "More so in the Evans than the Melbourne....A lot of them have lost wives and families, can't work and are still having a bad time of it."
Serving in her third conflict, the aging destroyer was on the gun line off the coast of Vietnam when she was moved out of the combat zone for Operation Sea Spirit. Like the two crews who'd served aboard Evans before them, the U.S. sailors had seen combat service. Yet the names of those who died in the collision have never been added to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. "It's a cause of great hurt to the American survivors," said Stevenson. "Their shipmates were lost, but their names are not on the Wall, and they're working hard to get that done, but they're not making much progress."
A few members of the Melbourne Association made a point of seeking out members of the Evans Association and getting together. In Ipswich, Australia, Ron Baker struck upon the idea of a reunion to mark the 25th anniversary. "When I broached the subject of a reunion 24 years after it happened, a lot of people said, 'Forget it, let it rest,' and I wondered if perhaps I was opening old wounds," Baker said.
Like Stevenson, Baker was well aware of how much former crewmen had suffered. Some had been in mental institutions, while others had become alcoholics. Nonetheless, a reunion was organized, and word came from the United States that members of the Evans Association would attend.
Shortly after that, Baker received a phone call from a woman in Alice Springs, Australia. "She said her husband was on the Melbourne when it happened," he recalled. "It was his first voyage, he was 18, and this was his introduction to the navy, and he'd been carrying the ghost of this thing for all those years. She put him on a plane and flew him over, and I reckon he went away a different man."
The following year, Australians attended a memorial service at Arlington National Cemetery, and a commitment was made that representatives of the two crews would meet each year. Although cleared of any blame, Captain Stevenson, the former skipper of Australia's last aircraft carrier, had his own burden to bear. "At that point I had a wife and two kids and a mortgage and all the rest of that stuff," he recalled. "I went out and lost everything. I had no future, no career, no pension, no nothing. It was a very big bang."
Stevenson believes the bond that has grown is easing the trauma. In 1999 he was in Sydney, along with many others from the United States, for a 30th anniversary memorial service. The retired captain said, "It was such a pleasure to see the Melbourne team again, and I have an expectation that they'll bring great warmth and humanity to the survivors of the Evans, and that together, they can ease their own pain."
While the battle to get recognition for the American sailors lost in the 1969 accident continues in the States, those fallen seamen have been honored in Australia. According to Ron Baker, "They were killed doing their duty for their country, and it doesn't matter if you're killed by an enemy bullet or a friendly ship."
Broadcast journalist Phil Smith is a former ABC-TV correspondent. Mal Lancaster is a Nikon Award-winning photographer. Both served in the Australian Defence Forces. Smith participated in numerous peacekeeping missions, and Lancaster is a Vietnam veteran. For additional reading, see: In the Wake: The True Story of the Melbourne-Evans Collision, Conspiracy and Cover-up, by Jo Stevenson; and Where Fate Calls: The HMAS Voyager Tragedy, by Tom Frame.
Always All the Best....
These sailors names do not appear on the Vietnam Memorial since they were removed from the combat zone to participate in this exercise.
Sadly, I understand the Melbourne ending up being sold to the Chinese, supposedly for scrap. There is some speculation it was used to help the Chinese program to build an aircraft carrier, which would be a sad end for an Australian ship.
I was in Chu Lai at the time, but guess this somehow got by me.
Nasty business. RIP. Thinking, Eternal Father Strong To Save.
Good pix, TB.
SJackson, thanks for posting.
If I remember, of the OOD and JOOD on watch, one was killed and the other tried at GCM.
I am told that The Citadel uses this incident as a case study in command decision making. The officers on the bridge of the USS Evans made some mistakes.
Thanks Poohbah for a reality check.I didn't then, and I don't know now too much about the naval fighting capabilties of the Melbourne (I was a 'Black Ganger',considered by 'Fish Heads'to be a lower form of animal life than themselves),however,I served on the Melbourne when it tragically collided with the Evans. Prior to the event, I hadn't slept for about a week due to a combination of action watches and British designed air conditioning which didn't work in the tropics. Like most Pommie ships, its showering and laundry facilities were a definite after thought. I also served on HMAS Vendetta, a Daring class British built destroyer. Once again, personal hygiene facilities were not a priority. I visited the old Victor Class Russian sub in Sydney a few years ago and it got me thinking that maybe there is a doctoral thesis here about the development of heads and bathing facilities on naval vessels. The thesis could end with a summary of which navies provide the most heads and showers per crew member and rank them in order from best to worst. There will be no prizes for guessing which navies end at the bottom of the list.
I arrived in Subic shortly after the collision and the following is based on information I received through several sources at the time. I must emphasize that this is NOT an official account of the accident. The scenario leading up to the collision as relayed to me follows:
The Evans was on night sub screen detail off the port quarter (approx. 10-11 o'clock position) of the Melbourne with a Lt. J.G. as OOD (The skipper was asleep at the time). The OOD was operating under orders to wake the captain if there was any change to the ship's standing orders. The Melbourne radioed the Evans to take up plane guard detail approx. 1,000 yards to the stern of the Melbourne. We'll never know for sure what happened next but the OOD apparently decided it was a simple maneuver and without notifying the captain, ordered a sharp turn to starboard. By itself, this did not cause the accident as the Evans was far enough away from the Melbourne to safely complete the turn without crossing the carrier's path. However, the OOD neglected to notify the Melbourne of this maneuver and the OOD of the carrier assumed (incorrectly) that the Evans was about to cross the bow, possibly causing a collision. The Melbourne OOD then made the fateful decision to order a left full rudder to turn the carrier behind the apparent track of the Evans. Unfortunately, the Evans probably would have completed the turn except now the Melbourne was turning into the Evans, striking it on the port side just aft of the bridge. The skipper of the Evans survived, as the captain's cabin is located aft of the bridge. Since the skipper was asleep at the time and the OOD violated orders, the skipper was vindicated but his career was essentially over. Most of the crew lost on the Evans were asleep at the time. They were from the operations department which had it's berthing in the forward section which sank. It was mainly due the quick actions of the remaining crew closing watertight hatches that the stern was kept afloat preventing additional loss of life.
As I stated earlier, this is strictly non-official information but it was the best I was able to obtain at the time.
Thanks for the commentary and pinging the thread.
I have read your article with interest, as I was serving onboard HMS Cleopatra at the time, I remember being woken up at 3am with the ships broadcast telling of the emergency.For a few days the weather had been a bit rough, but in the morning the weather was flat calm, the sky and sea a dirty grey colour, and in the middle of the ring of rescue ships was the stern part of the Frank E Evans, still afloat, a picture that remains in my mind to this day, and my heart went out to those that perished. I heard later that the stern section was towed to Subic Bay to be decommisioned. Thank you for filling in some of the details that i never had
I remember the night well. I was stationed at U.S. Naval Communications Station San Antonio PI. As a Radioman 1st class technical control operator I was assigned to maintaining quality (multiplex) communications with various ships in the South China Sea. The HMAS Melbourne was typing some instructions to me and suddenly stopped in mid-sentence. A minute or two went by and I saw the rephase light come on and the Melbourne typed... "Blimey Mate, I think we just ran over one of your tin cans" .. The rest is history. Al Jensen
I remember the night very well. I was on the USS Kearsarge watching from the port side catwalk as helos serched the water for survivors. I remember the survivors being brought to the hangar bay where a temporary triage was set up to treat the wounded. Another area was cordoned off for body bags until the dead could be transferred below to refrigeration units.
What I remember most was the surealistic conditions that night. The sea was glass smooth with flying fish from the wake providing the only disturbance to an otherwise mirror surface. The colored navigation lights and bright searchlights added reflections to a scene that I never saw repeated in my four years of shipboard service on the Kearsarge and later USS Coral Sea.
I find it appalling that the 74 sailors lost have not been recognized by the US military as Vietnam casualties. These men deserve to be listed on the wall. We owe them that...
US Navy 1968-1972
Thanks for the pings. Worth remembering.
Four and counting :>)
Geez... I hope the airbags deployed!
We need another Wall, one where there would be no question of whether or not these men's names belonged. I'd like to see a Cold War Wall.
Hope he's successful. How is he going about this?
I still think the idea of a Cold War Wall is appropriate.
Missing from the accounts of this accident was the fact that ships in this task group that night were refueling from the USS Taluga (AO-62). I was aboard the Taluga when the accident occured, and still have a color Polaroid photo of the Evans after sunrise. It was my impression at the time, that the additional manuvering and repositioning of ships as they took turns refueling, contributed greatly to the confusion that lead to this accident.
A bad day for both Navies....
Paul D. Owens
I was a Radioman onboard the USS Schofield DEG-3 we were in the exercise also, and I also remember the melborn being on TTY and telling us that she had just cut our can in half. Our CO was real close with the Evans CO and we ran to there location, it was real erie arriving there at the brake of dawn, seeing the stern section floating in a clear calm sea, it was so smooth, I have never seen it like that before. I was talking to the Radioman on the Evans when all of a sudden there was nothing there.
I am a resident of Niobrara, NE where there is a Memorial for the 3 Sage Brothers that were killed on the USS Frank E. Evans. I am trying to locate magazines on or around June 13, 1969 about the ship and the brothers for the Museum. Recently, we had the Time Magazine taken from the museum and I am trying to recover some of these artifacts. If you have any items or know of any magazine articles about the ship, can you please send them my way. Thanks and God Bless.
MY NAME IS JIM NELSON I WAS AN EN3 ON THE USS TAWASA ATF-92 AT THE TIME WE TOWED THE USS FRANK E. EVANS TO SUBIC. I AM SENDING THIS REPLY TO SAY HELLO AND MAY BE YOU COULD EMAIL ME? JLNELSON@AK.NET
THE TRAGEDY THAT THE USS EVANS AND IT’S CREW WENT THROUGH IS SOMETHING THAT MYSELF AND THE ENTIRE CREW OF THE TAWASA WILL NEVER FORGET.”MY THEY REST IN PEACE”.
I was a QM3 (soon to be Qm2) on board that night. I would have had the next QM watch. We were hit at 3am local time. The carrier went thru the forward fire room/radio central/CIC/chart room, just forward of the mast. One signalman (I heard) landed on the flight deck. Nobody from the fireroom survived more than a few minutes. Forward engine room also flooded.
QM, Sm, etc. bunk area was the compartment forward of after steering, under mount 53. When we hit the ship rolled completely on her stbd side. Most crew compartments spanned the ship (side to side), 30 some feet. That meant some of those sleeping on the port side fell 3o feet. I remember waking to a concussion like noise similar to an incoming round. Then as the ship rolled, lots of metal noises, scraping banging, etc. Then there were screams, some of pain and some of surprise. We had some broken arms and legs. I have to call a bs on the Melbourne having running lights on. NEVER at night did any ships have lights, It was simulated wartime. I remember NO lights, No radar. We used a stadimeter for ranges and position. Depending on our station, the Melbourne silhouette was just a black blob at night. All ships were on a common zig-zag course. OD would order course changes from a time chart. We got out of time and OD didn’t realize we were on a different course...
I was one of the last to go on deck. A DC1 went through and shut doors, etc, but there were solid bulkheads (aft fire room, aft boiler room, etc.) With a calm sea there was no real danger of sinking soon. The sea was as calm as I ever saw it. It was strange to go topside and see no ship forward. I think the ship broke at the forward end of the torpedo deck. Only one boat davit was left. I think I saw the boat hanging.
Calm seas probably saved many lives. Also, Melbourne crew was impressive in their seamanship skills. I was told the boats had engines running and dropped the last several feet from the davits. They took off at full speed for our survivors.
Several people on the forward section were at their end of endurance when the boats pulled up. The Aussies kept the death toll down.
I have Stars & Stripes covering the collision and the Sage bros. I knew all three. As a Qm, I stood bridge watches with the Bms and worked with the radarman.
We had 3 days in Subic before we flew back to Long Beach. Those lightly injured or uninjured were sent to a just completed barracks. We had no duty and so swapped info during the day and got drunk at night. The barracks was worse for wear when we left.
About dawn we went up on the Melbourne’s stern under the flight deck. After a couple hours, the Aussies broke out a pallet of beer cases. The can was twice as big as USA beer cans and twice the alcohol content. I don’t remember if it was Fosters, but my sex life got better a few days later. Very thoughtful of them.
When the Kearsarge arrived we were transfered to her in Melbourne boats. We all took several more cans of beer and drank them on the trip over. Needless to say, many were drunk. The Kearsarge rigged a ladder, but they started moving us before the railing was in place. I remember someone falling into the sea. Some a’hole wouldn’t allow the beer on board so we drank up on the ladder on in the boats.
Riding a carrier after a tin can was amazing. We were on board 3 days and I only felt movement once. We watched a destroyed come alongside and were surprised how much she moved.
I served on a couple more WWII cans for short times and then was sent to a DLG (now called a cruiser). I spent the rest of my navy time trying to get off it.
I later was a commercial fisherman on the US west coast (salmon and albacore). I soon will be 60 and was about to be 21 when this happened. 40 years ago now.
I understand the Melbourne holds the peace time tonnage record.
Anyway, I have a lot of info/stories if anybody wants more.
I was a NAAH on HMAS Melbourne in 1969,21years old.
I finished my watch on the flight deck at 0200hrs, went below,showered and got a camp stretcher to sleep on the foc’sle port side (under the catapult). No sooner got to sleep and heard “hands to collision stations” but it was dream like. Next thing I was thrown out off the stretcher amongst noise sparks fumes etc, I then looked out of the opening port side and saw the bow of Evans conpletely on its side with the ships numbers clearly seen in the moonlight. I guess I was like a stunned mullet, as I witnessed the bow sink in no time flat. Someone was calling out for mother/wife or ?.
I then raced up to the flight deck to my station (ACR) and we just got to work arranging for the Wessex to be brought up from the hanger. At first light I took photos and then when we stopped for a service (church) sometime later in the morning, I got all emotional. Later I was required to help bring a body from sick bay up to the flight deck to be flown back to the Kearsage.
These memories still haunt me to some extent.
During this time my father was serving in Vietnam at Nui Dat in the Australian Army.
HMAS Melbourne limped into Singapore and got a temporary patch up job to cover up the bow so we could return to Sydney. 2 weeks after the collision while we were in Singapore, my first son was born 17th June.
I’m now 60 and my oldest son will be 40 next year, so here’s hoping the will be a 40th reunion somewhere next year. We are shipmates always.
Glen email: email@example.com
May God bless those of us who are still going and for those who have not survived RIP
If anyone reading this knows where I can find a complete list of those on the Evans who died as a result of the collision, please post the information. A friend from NAVOCS was one of the Officers who died.
I was BT3 on board the USS O’Brien DD725 and we never heard and were not aware the collison at that time. I was assigned to forward fire room. We alternated between gunfire support and plane guarding missions. That is when this incident occured. Several months after the incident to the best of my memory a BT3 was transferred to our ship and into my division. He told us what had happened. He had got off a watch, sacked out and heard a bunch of shuttering of the ship. When they realized something happened and went on the main deck, the front of the ship had already sunk. This was the first we heard of the incident, when he came aboard our ship and told us what happened. We became very good friends. I justed wanted to share my experience. My thoughts are with the families and friends that lost a loved one.
They only recovered one body. The rest went down with the ship.
I was working the Graveyard shift at Naval Comm Sta Philippines in San Miguel as a Tech control supervisor. I was maintaining a full period multiplex communication with the HMAS Melbourne and several other ships. The operator on the Melbourne was typing and sending me new frequencies when all of a sudden he quit typing. I noticed the crypto light come on a couple minutes later and he typed “Blimey mate, I think we just ran over one of your Tin Can’s” .. Rest is history.
Four and counting :>)
Eight and counting. 8<)
I had no idea when I wrote that that it would actually happen. Amazing.
Having just seen 11-11-11 go by, I was 18 years old at the time serving as Corpsman on the USS Bronstein, if I recall GQ sounded at 3:15 AM, full moon, calm sea, very little was reported on this. I’m glad there were a few survivors, at the time we had heard everyone in the forward compartment had been lost.
The US Servicemen lost at Sea should be on the Vietnam War Memorial!
2002, amazing how the Internet will be a repository of history...no matter who the victor.
My great uncle was James Wilburn Davis. He was one of the men lost on the USS Frank E Evans. Does anyone remember him?
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