ALBANY, N.Y. — The Pentagon has refused a long-standing request to add the names of 74 U.S. sailors who died in a 1969 ship collision to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
The USS Frank E. Evans was participating in a nighttime training exercise in the South China Sea when it turned into the path of an Australian aircraft carrier and was split in half. The World War II-era destroyer's stern section stayed afloat while the bow section sank.
Survivors and relatives of those killed have been pushing the Department of Defense for years to add the 74 names to the wall because the ship had supported ground operations in Vietnam just weeks earlier and likely would've been sent back to the war zone after the exercise. But Pentagon officials in a decision this month stuck to their position that the Evans victims are precluded from being added to the wall because the accident occurred outside the Vietnam combat zone.
It was a decision that angered retired Navy Master Chief Lawrence Reilly Sr., an Evans survivor whose 20-year-old son, also named Lawrence, was among those killed.
"I'm not happy with the whole thing," the 92-year-old WWII and Vietnam veteran said from his Syracuse home. "It's a bad deal."
Instead of granting an exemption to the war zone rule, the Pentagon has offered to pay tribute to the fallen sailors by listing their names on a memorial plaque to be placed inside the education center to be built near the wall. But with less than half of the $130 million cost of the center raised so far, the offer is being dismissed by some Evans survivors.
"They're throwing us a bone," said Steve Kraus, a survivor and vice president of the USS Frank E. Evans Association. "They're thinking, 'OK, maybe this will all go away now.'"
Kraus, a 70-year-old retired utility supervisor from Carlsbad, California, said some in the Evans association reluctantly accepted the Pentagon's offer of a separate memorial, while others advocate continuing the fight for inclusion on the wall. Randy Henderson, of Mayville, New York, is among the latter faction. He was 13 when his older brother Randy died on the Evans.
"We're still steadfast and moving ahead," he said.
The Pentagon's latest rejection came after the Evans survivors pinned their hopes on Navy records that the group said showed the ship had been awarded a Vietnam Service Medal for June 2, 1969, a day before the accident. The medal was only given to ships and sailors who served in the Vietnam combat zone.
But the Navy's review of its records last fall determined there was no documentation to support such a claim.
The Evans sailors "do not meet the established criteria for the inscription of their names on the wall," Navy Lt. Cmdr. Courtney Hillson, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said. "The deputy secretary of defense extensively reviewed information and records to make an informed decision."
The Evans veterans say the Pentagon has previously granted exceptions to the eligibility criteria for adding names to the memorial, including for dozens of Marines who were killed when the plane carrying them back to Vietnam from leave in Hong Kong crashed during takeoff.
The Evans group's effort has the backing of U.S. Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, the New York Democrat who got involved two years ago on behalf of the four sailors from his state who died in the collision.
Also killed in the accident were the three Sage brothers — Gary, Gregory and Kelly — of Niobrara, Nebraska. Their mother, Eunice Sage, wanted to see her sons' names placed on the memorial, Kraus said. She died in 2010.
"She wanted this so bad," Kraus said. "That's all she would talk about."