Effort made to put names on
Wall; Ojai man among fallen shipmates
by Kelly Feser Eells
Del Francis has been working to get his fallen shipmates some
recognition for the better part of 20 years, ever since the 1982
unveiling of "The Wall" (formally known as the Vietnam
The Colorado resident is one of the survivors of the June 3,
1969, sinking of the USS Frank E. Evans, a Navy destroyer cut
in half during a SEATO (Southeast Asia Treaty Organization) training
exercise in the South China Sea.
Seventy-four men died, including 23-year-old Radarman 3rd Class
Christopher Carlson of Ojai.
But none of these men are listed on The Wall.
"Because the accident took place 25 miles outside the combat
zone," said Francis, "these guys aren't considered
casualties of war. The Navy, their official explanation is that
we were in Luzon, the Philippines, when we got hit. That's been
the Department of Defense's explanation, the Pentagon's "
He indicates, however, that he harbors no ill will. "They're
doing what they have to do, I guess. The Australians were our
allies and, even though they agreed we were just barely outside
the combat zone, technically, we were in the wrong."
The Australians Francis refers to were, in fact, one of several
allied navies participating in an anti-submarine warfare exercise
on June 3, 1969, when their ship, the HMAS Melbourne, collided
with the Evans. "It was really amazing that a ship could
be cut in half like that," said Francis. "The front
half sank in less than three minutes." Sighing, he goes
on to describe a catastrophe that, save for a single fishing
trip in Ireland several years ago, has sworn him off the sea
"It was quite a challenge to get off. Only 23 off the front,
where I was, survived. The ship, the back half, was on its side.
The Navy, well, common wisdom has it that you don't survive a
60 degree list; in typical lingo, it's 'forget it.' I ran off
the bottom of the ship into the water."
The irony, he adds, was that "I'd just learned how to swim.
And, even though the water was about 90 degrees and so salty
you could've walked on it, I found myself swimming between two
guys drowning. Tragic."
Francis concedes that the Evans made, in retrospect, a critical
mistake. "Basically, the 'rules of the road' for the sea
are similar to those for the highways." The Evans, after
inexplicably drifting into another ship's sector, was ordered
to get behind the Melbourne and stand guard for downed aviators.
"We were told to go astern. We got some wind coming up over
the bow and, well, a carrier, being as large as it is, can't
very well stop dead. So, we pulled an 'illegal maneuver,' a fishhook
turn. It's a shortcut maneuver, actually, only illegal if there
are any other ships on the water, including your own." The
shortcut, according to Francis, reduced a three-hour operation
to a 20-minute one. "The Australians, all they could see
was our starboard light. They assumed we were trying to cross
their bow, so they came left and that's when we collided."
Ultimately, " we took the blame," which, he asserts,
is "understandable." Yet he believes other factors,
like diplomacy ("Australia, after all, was our friend, and
the Melbourne was the flagship of their fleet") and the
Navy's tendency to "not want to share disagreeable information"
account for the explanation that three presidential administrations
have offered for his shipmates' exclusion from The Wall.
"Nixon (three administrations before The Wall) called on
the parents of three brothers who died on the Evans, and their
hometown built a monument to them. They got tremendous recognition
- as they should. But there were many wrongs that weren't righted.
That war, well, a lot of the guys serving weren't for it. They
were just doing their job." The Evans, he emphasizes, was
a warship. "We'd spend 10 days on the gun line, providing
shore bombardment, before being 'relieved' for two days or so
of training exercises. Bombing people round the clock isn't pleasant.
I went there as John Wayne and came back anti-war."
Encouraged by a bill (H.R. 3443, the "Fairness to All Vietnam
Veterans Act") introduced last December by Congressman Stephen
Horn, Long Beach, Francis has recently stepped up his efforts
to get Carlson and the other 73 servicemen who lost their lives
serving their country "the recognition they so rightly deserve."
Though he's been, in effect, a one-man campaign for such legislation
over the last 20 years, Francis is quick to point out that few,
if any, of his fellow survivors were aware of the memorial's
oversight. In addition, "it wasn't until 1996 or so that
the ship started having reunions. Now, we're making a concerted
Joe Mulitsch, another Evans' survivor, was unaware of the oversight
until March 2001, after reading an account of what some have
called "the worst naval disaster in history" (posted
on "Destroyers OnLine," www.plateau.net/usndd). "I
shed tears," said Mulitsch, "but now I'm enraged. We
were ordered to Southeast Asia; we spent quite a while on the
gun line. Those 74 souls - fathers, sons, husbands, and brothers
- gave the ultimate sacrifice following orders. Does this also
mean that those who were victims of friendly fire have been left
Yes and no. Francis mentions "a B-52 crew that crashed on
Guam," far and away from the combat zone. The tragedy has
been attributed to pilot error. "Yet they're on The Wall,
officials say, because they were 'returning from war.'"
Mike Smith was also aboard the Evans on June 3; he recounted
the accident for the first time in 1997, after finding the Destroyers
OnLine Web site. "I'd suppressed the memories all these
years," he wrote, "because I had nightmares."
Three years later, during an interview with Stars and Stripes
reporter Sandra Jondtz, the Camden, S.C., resident told the story
again - not out of a sense of anger, but rather, out of gratitude.
His son, Johnnie, then a sailor on the Yemen-based USS Cole,
had survived the Oct. 12 terrorist attack. Smith was philosophical
about the contrast between his and fellow shipmates' reception
in 1969 and the "hero's welcome" awaiting Johnnie and
other surviving Cole sailors in 2000. "It was a different
era," he said; "who would have ever guessed that friendly
fire would take them (the Evans' victims) out?"
Still, prior to hearing about the Frank E. Evans Association
and finding Destroyers OnLine, "I'd thought the Navy had
forgotten about us."
Rep. Horn, Francis notes, "introduced the bill to rectify
the situation. And it isn't just for the Evans, but to recognize
all the men and women who lost their lives in Vietnam, whether
they were in a combat zone or in a restaurant in Saigon."
To pass, H.R. 3443 needs 250 co-sponsors; to date, 25 congressmen
and senators have made firm commitments of support. "Please
urge your representatives - you can send an e-mail (Senator.Oconnell@sen.ca.gov;
www.house.gov/gallegly "Write Your Rep." link) - to
co-sponsor this bill. Chris was a friend."
Residents who may have known Carol Carlson and/or her parents,
Mr. and Mrs. Alfred Anderson, Jr., or who are in contact with
Christopher and Carol's son, Mark C. Carlson, are encouraged
to notify them as to the status of HR 3443-their voices deserve
to be heard.
© 2002 The Ojai Valley News
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