Picture an 18-wheeler running over a Volkswagen Beetle.
Now digest the fact that the 74 sailors killed in this mismatch 50 years ago have been left off the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the solemn, shiny black wall constructed to honor veterans of this war. To the survivors of this little-known accident, this is an insult, a punch to the gut, a government that has turned its back on them.
That’s how the survivors see this. Their ship, the U.S.S. Frank E. Evans, was the Beetle, cut in half on June 3, 1969, in the South China Sea, about 200 miles off the coast of Vietnam. An Australian aircraft carrier was the semi-truck.
The bow of the Evans sank in two minutes. Maybe three. Most of the men in that section died, and that included 1965 Dover High School graduate Gary Vigue, whose son, Shawn Vigue, lives in Concord and was 5 months old when his dad perished. Ronald Perkins of Manchester survived.
The stern stayed afloat, saving the lives of the nearly 200 men who were lucky enough to be in that section at the time of the collision.
The sailors had already supported combat troops just days before the incident, and they were scheduled to return to the war zone shortly after the crash. Had they been killed during one of those missions, their names would be on The Wall, waiting for loving fingers to move across the smooth finish.
So, survivors wonder, what’s the holdup? There’s no place for these names on The Wall? Among the 58,000-plus already on it?
They’ve been told The Wall is reserved for those killed within 100 miles of the war zone, meaning the Lost 74, as they’re known, missed inclusion because their deaths happened 100 miles beyond that. They’ve also been told there’s not enough room.
The monument is commonly called The Wall, and that’s exactly what the survivors feel they’re facing.
Not The Wall.
“If you can put a man on the Moon, you can figure out how to put names on a wall, believe me,” said survivor Stephen Kraus, who lives in California and is leading a national movement to add the Lost 74.
Kraus, the president of the U.S.S. Frank E. Evans Association, created to push for the recognition these men deserve, worked with Gary Vigue, their shifts sometimes overlapping.
Shawn Vigue declined to comment about his father, saying he was just a baby when it happened and therefore didn’t know much. His mother, Gary’s widow, also declined to speak to me, and my sense was the topic was simply too painful for either to come forward.
Meanwhile, Perkins agreed to an interview, but only for a short while before shutting down, worried about drawing attention away from the Lost 74 and toward himself.
So our local connection, for the most part, comes through Kraus. He slept in the same berthing compartment as Gary Vigue, near the stern, tucked under a pair of huge gun barrels. He didn’t know Vigue well, despite their close quarters.
“He was kind of a real quiet person,” Kraus told me. “It seemed like we were on the same watch pattern. I was new on the ship and so was he, and the only time I saw him was when we were coming onto our watch, ‘how you doing?’ kind of thing. He’s the one who told me we would be a darkened ship that night.”
Dark because the Evans was part of a huge operation, an exercise of escorts and destroyers and aircraft carriers, practicing clandestine maneuvers in the South China Sea.
Kraus was a signalman, working in the Signal Shack during the wee hours that day. Vigue was on the nearby bridge. Both areas were part of the section that went down.
Kraus saw the Australian carrier once it got within 200 to 300 yards. He didn’t need binoculars.
“I thought they were going to be somewhere and they were not,” Kraus said, “so I came around (the Shack) to the front and that is when I spotted them coming right at us. I knew they were going to hit us.”
Kraus ran into the Shack and banged on the ceiling, trying to alert the other watch guy on duty. When the HMAS Melbourne smashed into the Evans’s midsection, T-boning it, Kraus said the guy above him was catapulted onto the Melbourne’s flight deck.
With the ship lying on its side, Kraus kicked out a door and swam clear before he was picked up by a motor whaleboat and the bow disappeared beneath the waves. Vigue and 73 others died, killed either by the force of the impact or from drowning. Only one body was recovered.
Perkins, waking up in the relative safety of the stern, remembered the day this way: “We went right in front of the aircraft carrier, which was doing 25 knots and we were doing 21 knots. It ran right through the engine room. I would have been there in 15 minutes. I had the 4 to 8 shift.”
Perkins played an interesting role here, connected to the story through a Portsmouth optometrist named John Meinhold.
Perkins went to Meinhold’s office in Manchester for a routine eye exam. The doctor noticed Perkins’s hat. The one that read “USS Frank E. Evans.”
Meinhold’s father was a POW during World War II. He wanted more information.
“(Perkins) said he was one of the survivors,” Meinhold told me. “I was surprised when he mentioned what happened. He told me the whole story, and I never heard anything about it. He told me I should look into this.”
So he did. Meinhold began sending op-eds to newspapers, calling politicians, stirring things up.
“It’s a sad chapter from the Vietnam War,” he said, “and the fact that these names are not on the wall is like someone rubbing salt in a wound that was already there.”
Nothing made sense to the people lobbying to add these names to The Wall. Kraus cited 1983, when President Ronald Reagan ordered that the names of 68 Marines, killed in a plane crash outside the war zone, be added to the memorial.
“The reality is, the Department of Defense seems to pick and choose who they want and who they don’t want on The Wall,” Kraus said. “I’ve seen these inconsistencies of them not following their own criteria. To me, it continues to be a slap in the face to relatives who lost someone.”
Is there hope? Perhaps.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen helped build a foundation of awareness eight months ago, joining 15 co-sponsors who believe the Lost 74 belong on The Wall. Sen. Maggie Hassan added her support to Senate Bill S.849 this month.
Said Shaheen in an emailed statement to me: “Boundary lines drawn in the water shouldn’t determine the respect we pay our servicemen and women killed in the line of duty.”
Seems like a no-brainer. Seems long overdue. Talk of war zones and Wall space simply make no sense.
Especially to those who were there that day, 50 years ago.
“All of this is just crap,” Kraus said. “The only reason we were there was to fight in the Vietnam War. This was not an exotic Polynesian cruise. We want the names on that Wall.”