Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Fifty-One Years Ago: 74 Souls are Lost in Three Minutes

As seen from the aircraft carrier USS Princeton (CVA 37), USS Frank E. Evans (DD 754) takes on fuel somewhere in the Pacific in 1953.  Named for a Marine Corps general who had seen combat from the Philippines at the turn of the last century to France in World War One, the Allen M. Sumner-class destroyer was originally commissioned in February 1945, just in time to participate in some of the last battles against the Japanese during the Second World War.  Just before the tragic accident that would send this section of the destroyer to the bottom of the South China Sea during Exercise Sea Spirit in 1969, Evans had just wrapped up her fourth deployment to the gunline off the coast of South Vietnam.  (Photographer unknown. Courtesy of Douglas Price via Flickr
By M.C. Farrington
HRNM Historian

The evening of June 2, 1969, had been a quiet one for USS Frank E. Evans (DD 754). There was unrestricted visibility over the South China Sea and the nearly full moon shone down from the broken clouds silently gliding by. Despite the peaceful weather, this was no time for her crew to relax. Evans was part of a screening group that included four other vessels from three other navies, protecting the flagship of the Royal Australian Navy, the aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne (R.21).

Evans was practicing to hunt a “submarine pack” made up of American and British submarines playing a simulated undersea enemy as a part of Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) exercise Sea Spirit in preparation for a possible war in the future, yet the danger involved was real.

Before dawn, one-third of her crew, and half of the ship, would be gone

As the final hour of the evening ticked away, Evans’ captain, Commander Albert Sydney McLemore, retired to his sea cabin for the evening. After all, the captain of any U.S. Navy warship cannot be on the bridge 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, nor can a single navigator, helmsman, or any other member of the bridge team. It is for that reason that on a set schedule, usually every four hours, aboard every ship in the fleet, a new team assumes the watch to perform critical day-to-day duties that would exhaust an individual. The most important watch stander aboard any vessel is the Officer of the Deck (OOD), who is specifically responsible for the safety of the ship.

Lieutenant Junior Grade Ronald Ramsey, the ship’s communications officer, took the watch at midnight. He was the most recently qualified OOD serving aboard Frank E. Evans, having earned his qualification just a few days before the beginning of Exercise Sea Spirit.

Since 20:00 local time, Evans and the other screening vessels kept station around Melbourne while making a complicated series of course changes, or zigzags, practicing for a scenario in which they had to thwart a submarine attempting to torpedo Melbourne. The task group would frequently change course, in unison, making a zig-zag pattern. Each vessel had to maintain position in its assigned zone in relationship to the carrier as each turn was made.

In this case, the zigzag plan dictated that the base course for all vessels began at a course heading of 220 degrees. Imagining that zero degrees is north, 90 degrees is west, 180 degrees is south and 270 is west, a 220-degree heading was slightly south-southwest. Following the plan, the ships of the group would turn every 30 minutes to a new heading that could vary from the base heading by as much as 90 degrees. The zigzag pattern, however, would be suspended during flight operations, upon which time the carrier would orient itself appropriately with the wind, which could also diverge from the base heading by a large margin. The position of the screening ship selected as plane guard within the group would also change at this time, because the rescue destroyer had to post itself astern and to port (behind and slightly to the left) of the carrier.

For the first couple of hours of June 3, Evans was serving as point destroyer ahead and slightly to starboard of Melbourne, but Evans had changed position, turning further to starboard wide and around the carrier, to take the rescue destroyer position three times that evening without incident.

At a little before 02:00, Ramsey handed control of the destroyer to his Junior Officer of the Deck (JOOD) Lieutenant Junior Grade James A. Hopson, a former Navy corpsman who had earned a commission and assignment to Evans two years before as electronics officer, although by that time he was the destroyer’s assistant engineering officer.

Up to this point there does not seem to have been any confusion among the members of the bridge team, but a misunderstanding about basic heading, and a lack of communication between Evans and Melbourne would result in tragedy after Evans was ordered once again to assume plane the guard position for flight operations.

When their current operational plan took effect a few hours before, the base, or starting-off course heading was 220, five degrees south of due southwest (225 degrees).  Melbourne signaled to her screening vessels to resume the zigzag plan at 02:15 in relation to that base course. But at 02:52, the carrier signaled the formation to turn together at heading 185, which was only five degrees west of due south. One minute later, Melbourne signaled for the formation to resume the zigzag course once again, centered upon the original base course.

Aboard Evans, however, Lt. j.g. Hopson had mistaken the order of 02:15, believing that the new base course was 185 degrees. The 35-degree divergence in base course between Evans and the rest of Anti-Submarine Group 1 would result in tragedy exactly one hour later.

At 03:07, Melbourne and her screening vessels were to come to a heading of 260, 10 degrees south of due west. Evans, still proceeding under the mistaken assumption of the base course, turned to heading 225, exactly southwest, drifting to port (to the left) in relation to Melbourne and the other screening vessels from its original location ahead and slightly starboard of the carrier. At 03:15, the zigzag plan called for a turn south to 240. Lt. j.g. Ramsey, believing in error that the base course was 185, thought that Melbourne’s heading was 205, a full 35 degrees south of her actual heading.

Evans was already drifting rapidly off course about 3,800 yards ahead of Melbourne, crossing her bow and into the adjacent zone of HMNZS Blackpool, when Evans received the signal to once again assume rescue destroyer position. “When I checked to see if we were on station before I started helping Mr. Hopson,” Ramsey said later, “we had the carrier bearing approximately 044 degrees true at about 3,800 yards.” In preparation for the turn, Lt. j.g. Hopson checked the radar repeater on the bridge and found Melbourne at bearing 084 and 3,800 yards away. This was 40 degrees off a reading Ramsey had reported a short time earlier. As Evans began coming about, Hopson stepped outside the bridge and took the first and only visual reading of his watch. Looking aft, the carrier should have been drifting behind them slightly to the right. Instead, Melbourne was heading left in relation to them.

“The ships were at darken ship and all I could see of the Melbourne was a shadow,” recalled Hopson. “I could see no aspect at all. I then told Mr. Ramsey that she was drifting left and the I applied 5 degrees left rudder.”

After checking bearing and range of the carrier, Hopson testified later, “I then informed Mr. Ramsey that my intention was to come around to the right and pass down the starboard [right] side of the Melbourne and fall in astern of her at 1,000 yards… At this time I would have been on her starboard bow.”

If Evans had been off Melbourne’s starboard bow at the beginning of the maneuver, coming about to starboard and slowing down to let the carrier pass safely by before executing another starboard turn to take the rescue destroyer position would have been the appropriate course of action. Because the divergence in heading of the last half-hour had actually placed Evans ahead and to port (the carrier’s left-hand side), Evans would be turning into the path of the carrier. Despite both officers being wrong about where they were in relation to Melbourne, neither felt the need to call the Combat Information Center (CIC) watch officer or send the messenger of the watch to wake the captain.

Meanwhile, Evans came around to starboard, which from above would look like Evans was making a giant fishhook a mile in circumference. But instead of Melbourne moving past Evans at a safe distance into the middle of the fishhook’s arc (as the officers on the bridge assumed), Evans came around on a northeast heading to find Melbourne’s giant dark outline dead ahead.

Suddenly, the carrier’s flight deck lights flashed on. To the bewildered Hopson, this meant that flight operations were already commencing before he or Ramsey had confirmed that Evans had taken up the rescue destroyer position. More confusingly, although Melbourne’s flight deck lights were on, her navigation lights were not and one couldn’t be absolutely sure whether they had already reached rescue destroyer position with the carrier heading away from them, or, terrifyingly, the carrier was heading straight at them at a combined speed of 38 knots! Hopson blurted to Ramsey and the rest of the bridge crew, “I don’t get it.”

Moments later, it suddenly dawned upon Ramsey that the carrier was indeed coming right at them. Although he had not gotten a positive visual bearing, he ordered right full rudder. It was a rash but decisive move designed to take Evans out of the rapidly oncoming carrier’s way at the last second.
Ramsey couldn’t have known that at the same moment he was ordering right full rudder, Melbourne had also decided to take evasive action because of a lack of response from Evans to their warning messages.

Both ships turned simultaneously, but even more towards each other, at 03:14. If Evans had turned to post or Melbourne to starboard, there might still have been contact and damage. Possibly an international incident would have had to be smoothed over afterwards. But the collision might not have been an existential threat to Evans and her crew. As it happened, the two ships could not have set a more devastating course, exactly perpendicular to one another.

“[Melbourne’s] next and last transmission,” recalled Ramsey, “was ‘My rudder is hard left.’ I can’t understand this. I stood frozen in the center of the bridge… Mr. Hopson yelled out several times, ‘She is going to hit us. She is going to hit us.’”

Both officers stood motionless for a moment, failing to grasp what had transpired in the last ten minutes, not to mention what they should do in the next ten seconds. A collision was imminent, yet they did not sound the collision alarm. Cmdr. McLemore was still in his sea cabin asleep as was two-thirds of his crew. The last order Ramsey belted out as they presented their broadside to the Melbourne’s looming bow was “Engines, all back full!”

Evans’ machinist’s mates on duty in the engineering spaces struggled to comply with the order, but before they could do anything, Melbourne’s bow struck the center of her port side, at the location where the only other officers who might have known where Melbourne was in relation to Evans, those in her CIC, were on duty.

Melbourne’s collision alarm sounded during the last few seconds before impact at 03:15, rousting a few of Evans’ crew from their racks before the rest were violently tossed onto the deck or against the bulkheads. Evans rolled violently to starboard, almost capsizing under the carrier’s 22,000 tons of momentum. With a sound described as being like "50 automobile accidents happening at once," the 3,200-ton destroyer broke in two.
An artist's depiction of the collision between HMAS Melbourne (R.21) and USS Frank E Evans (DD 754) in the early morning hours of June 3, 1969. (Frank E. Evans Association
Evans’ forward half, which held ten officers and 101 enlisted crewmen at the moment of impact, remained with a heavy list to starboard while drifting past Melbourne’s port side, while the aft end began to right itself while drifting along the carrier’s starboard side. Lieutenant Commander George McMichael, Evans’ XO, was thrown violently from his bed and was able to escape his stateroom. “The first thing that caught my eye and I think–well, it captured my attention and I couldn’t look away for a matter of several seconds–was the sight of the mast lying flat in the water. The mast appeared to be intact and I just looked at it and said, ‘Oh, my God’”

Without thinking, Melbourne’s diving officer, Lieutenant Robert Burns, jumped from the flight deck some 45 feet above into the black water and swam over 200 yards to save three Evans survivors. Leading Seaman Peter John Varley coxswained Melbourne’s port side cutter while members of his boat crew also dived into the water, ultimately bringing 29 Evans survivors back to the carrier. Overhead, two of Melbourne’s Westland Wessex helicopters still in their anti-submarine warfare configuration used their landing lights to look for Sailors who had been thrown overboard while others equipped with rescue winches were being rushed to the flight deck.  As they took off, “Some aircrew were still wearing their pyjamas[sic] under flying overalls,” wrote a reporter for the Royal Australian Navy News.


Decisions made by Evans’ OOD and JOOD over the last hour had played themselves out to a calamitous conclusion. Manning the helm during that time was Seaman Robert Petty, standing as Boatswain’s Mate of the Watch (BMOW). He had complied with every order he had been given at the wheel and had even jumped into action during the last seconds before impact when the lee helmsman failed to react to Ramsey’s last order to place the engines into full reverse. Upon impact, the 19 year-old had been thrown starboard through the air off the bridge into the sea.

Petty smashed his head against floating debris when he landed. When he regained his senses, he thought he heard a voice. The voice said, “The hatch. There. Go.” Petty mustered the strength to clamber up upon the overturned side of Evans’ forward section, un-dogging a hatch that led down to the messdeck and pulling it upward while a group of frightened Sailors who and been in their racks below only moments before pushed upward. Sixteen disoriented and injured Sailors emerged.

For those still down below in the capsizing forward section, the overhead and decks (the celling and floors) were now the bulkheads (walls), the lights were out and the compartments were rapidly filling up with water. Chief Hospital Corpsman Charles Cannington had the presence of mind to retrieve his penlight from his locker and give it to the first man out of the chief petty officer berthing. Six men made it out and to safety using that penlight, but its owner did not.

One of the chiefs to make it out was Senior Chief Gunner’s Mate Lawrence Reilly, Evans’ master-at-arms. Although he was alive, his thoughts quickly flew towards another Lawrence Reilly—his son. Many fathers among the crew understandably thought of their children at home, but Chief Reilly and his son shared the same home: USS Frank E. Evans. The younger Reilly had joined the Navy only two years before and served as a Boiler Tender 3rd Class in the destroyer’s Engineering Division.

The forward section continued to capsize, as men scrambled out through steel hatches that had now to be pushed upwards instead of outwards, and at 03:18, just under 90 seconds after the collision, the bow section sank so suddenly that the last few men to make it clear were sucked back under the water.

By the time Senior Chief Reilly made it to Melbourne’s flight deck where survivors from Evans’ forward section were gathering, he knew the aft section of his ship had been lashed to the starboard side of the carrier to give every surviving Sailor aboard the chance to escape before it too sank. His son’s berthing area was in that section, and for a moment, he felt a hint of relief. That is, until a fellow chief broke the news that the night before, the watchbill had changed and that his son had been on watch in the forward engineering spaces below the Combat Information Center. It was exactly where Melbourne’s bow had smashed into Evans and broken her in two.

Boiler Technician 3rd Class Reilly, along with 72 other shipmates in the forward section of the Frank E. Evans, were on their way to a final resting place 1,100 fathoms below.

Three of those shipmates were also brothers: Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class Gary Sage, Radarman 3rd Class Kelly Sage, and Seaman Apprentice Kelly Sage, who had all grown up on the same farm in Niobrara, Nebraska. Also among the victims was Yeoman 3rd Class James R. Cmeyla, who was born in Norfolk, Virginia, when his father Richard was stationed there. Another American Sailor lost in the forward section that morning was Radioman 2nd Class Christopher J. Carlson, who had been born 23 years before in Queensland, Australia.

Only one dead Sailor was found in the water, Seaman Apprentice Kenneth Glines, who had been standing watch as the port bridge wing lookout.
On the morning of June 3, 1969, SH-3 helicopters from USS Kearsarge (CVS 33) perform search and rescue operations over the stern section of USS Frank E. Evans (DD 754) as USS Everett F. Larson (DD 830) stands by to offer assistance.  A British Commonwealth frigate, probably HMS Cleopatra (F.28) can be seen just behind Evans' remains, which were towed to Naval Station Subic bay, Philippines.  After her decommissioning there on July 1, 1969, the destroyer's remains were sunk that October. (Naval History and Heritage Command image NH 98649


The last major incident between a screening vessel and a carrier occurred between the carrier John F. Kennedy (CV 67) and the cruiser Belknap (CG 26) on November 22, 1975, which killed eight Sailors and injured 48. Most of Belknap’s aluminum superstructure melted in the ensuing fire, and the damage was so extensive, the cruiser was decommissioned the following month. She was finally recommissioned in May 1980, after a four-year rebuild.

Although such incidents have thankfully not occurred since then, a number of other American naval vessels, including submarines, have been involved in collisions, many of them with merchant vessels. One such incident happened to USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) on August 29, 1988, just as she was returning to Naval Station Norfolk from a routine and safe six-month deployment.  Merchant vessels such as bulk cargo vessels and oil tankers have not only proliferated in number but grown much larger during the last half-century, jamming the world’s strategic chokepoints and making navigation and watchstanding arguably more treacherous today than at any time other than wartime.

On August 12, 2012, USS Porter (DDG 78) collided with Japanese-owned oil tanker MV Otowasan in the Strait of Hormuz, ripping a 10 by 10-foot gash in the main deck and superstructure that ultimately cost $50 million to repair. Five years later and nine weeks apart, twin disasters involving the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers Fitzgerald (DDG 62) and John S. McCain (DDG 56) killed a total of 17 Sailors in the Western Pacific, grabbing the world’s headlines and depicting the U.S. Navy as being in crisis.

While combat has sporadically afforded historians some of the most dramatic chapters of the Navy’s long story, preparing for combat has also provided perilous passages. Common to them both has been the valor, bravery, and service before self practiced by the Sailors when faced with peril upon the sea. It is with this in mind that we remember the 74 lost in the collision between HMAS Melbourne and USS Frank E. Evans, as well as the American and Australian compatriots who swiftly came to the aid of those who survived.

The USS Frank E. Evans Association maintains a detailed listing of the crew members who were lost that morning 51 years ago.   There is also a tribute video segment to the lost Sailors on the Hampton Roads Naval Museum YouTube Channel.  

For decades after the accident, a training film about the Evans-Melbourne collision called I Relieve You, Sir was required watching for young surface warfare officers. 

For more on this tragic incident and its aftermath:

Unsinkable Sailors: The Fall and Rise of the Last Crew of USS Frank E. Evans by Paul Sherbo. Niceville, Florida: Patriot Media, 2007.

American Boys: The True Story of the Lost 74 of the Vietnam War by Louise Esola. Temecula, California: Pennway Books, 2014.

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