Wednesday, June 10, 2020

The Evans-Melbourne Tragedy: Another View

This illustration depicts the collision between USS Frank E. Evans (DD 754) and HMAS Melbourne (R.21) on June 3, 1969, after a navigational error on Evans' part inadvertently put the ships on a collision course.  (M.C. Farrington from elements furnished by Don Darcy and Kev Curtis)
By Thomas Grubbs
Contributing Writer


We have all seen this. You’re on the highway, plenty of traffic and plenty of trucks, when a car comes weaving in and out of traffic at a high rate of speed. He dodges in and out, missing other vehicles by inches, not a turn signal to be seen. Then, darting across three lanes of traffic, he exits with inches to spare, leaving a line of outraged drivers in his wake. Most of the time, the perpetrator escapes without a scrape. But on occasion, he misjudges how much space there is and causes a major accident and backs up traffic for miles.

It is bad enough when only private property is at stake, but when ships collide, the consequences, both material and personal, can be catastrophic. Such was the case in the early morning hours of June 3, 1969, when the Australian aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne (R.21) collided with the escorting destroyer USS Frank E. Evans (DD 754).

HMAS Melbourne steams between flight operations during SEATO Exercise Sea Imp in May 1966, with a weather balloon apparently lifting off near her stern.  Note the Westland Wessex helicopters on deck as well as a Grumman S-2 Tracker near her bow. (Photograph by Bob Westthorp, RAN 1964-1988, via Horatio J. Kookaburra/ Flickr)
HMAS Melbourne (R.21)

Laid down as HMS Majestic at Barrow-in-Furness in Northwest England, the light carrier that would become known as HMAS Melbourne was intended to bolster the Royal Navy’s flagging carrier force during the Second World War.  Changing wartime priorities and the difficulty of securing the necessary equipment during wartime would push back the completion date of the carrier to 1955. By this time, a new buyer for the carrier had emerged: Australia.

Wartime experience had proved beyond doubt the value of the aircraft carrier to navies and the Royal Australian Navy was no exception. Ambitious plans to acquire three small carriers had to be pared back to just two vessels on grounds of economy. Majestic and sister ship HMS Terrible (renamed HMAS Sydney) were acquired in June of 1947. As neither ship was truly ready for sea, the Royal Navy loaned HMS Vengeance to cover for Melbourne’s absence until the latter was ready for delivery on August 12, 1955. On the bright side, the lengthy construction of the ship allowed for the incorporation of the latest in naval technology (angled flight deck, steam catapults) before her completion. Interestingly, she would be the third aircraft carrier (after HMS Ark Royal and USS Forrestal) to incorporate an angled flight deck while her advanced landing systems made her the only military airfield in Southeast Asia capable of operating aircraft at night or in poor weather. With an air group between 22 and 27 fighters, anti-submarine planes and helicopters, she was small by American standards but massive by global ones with a length of 702 feet and a displacement at full load of 22,000 tons. As the largest ship in the Royal Australian Navy, she was both the physical and psychological centerpiece of the fleet and a potent display of Australian naval power. As the flagship of the fleet, she deployed 35 times, visited 22 separate nations and many of her captains would go on to admiral’s rank.

Such a vessel would ordinarily be expected to be a paragon of naval etiquette and power. But fickle fate would have other plans. HMAS Melbourne’s career would be tarnished by not one, but two separate collisions. The first, on the night of February 10, 1964, would see the destroyer HMAS Voyager sliced in half by the carrier as the two maneuvered during night flight operations. Tragically, 82 of Voyager’s men including her captain and the majority of the bridge crew would go down with their ship. Two subsequent Royal Commissions into the collision, the first time that such a thing had occurred, absolved the carrier’s command crew of responsibility for the destroyer’s sinking. The second collision would involve a ship belonging to the fleet of one of Australia’s closest allies: the United States of America.

USS Frank E. Evans (DD 754) takes on fuel from the carrier USS Princeton (CVA 37) somewhere in the Pacific in 1953.  (Photographer unknown.  Courtesy of Douglas Price/ m20wc51/ Flickr)

USS Frank E. Evans (DD 754), a member of the 58-strong Allen M. Sumner class, was commissioned at Staten Island, New York where she was commissioned on February 3, 1945. Named for Marine Corps Brigadier General Frank Evans, who had led part of the American Expeditionary Force to France in the First World War, this hard fighting destroyer would see action in the Second World War, Korea and Vietnam, earning no less than six battle stars along the way. Like most destroyers, she was a jack of all trades, doing everything from escorting carriers to shore bombardment and controlling air strikes along the Korean coast. After finishing her final shore bombardment in support of the 101st Airborne Division near Phan Thiet, South Vietnam, the destroyer turned her bow southeast towards Australia and upcoming exercises, code named Sea Spirit, with over 40 Southeast Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO) ships, most belonging to the naval forces of the British Commonwealth.

The Collision

Melbourne, under the command of Captain John Philip Stevenson and embarking Flag Officer Commanding Australian Fleet, Rear Admiral John Crabb, met up in the Philippines with Evans, two other American destroyers, the New Zealand frigate HMNZS Blackpool and the British frigate HMS Cleopatra at the end of May, 1969, for Sea Spirit. This entailed a journey southwest consisting of convoy and anti-submarine warfare operations through the South China Sea halfway between Vietnam and the island of Borneo before reaching their ultimate destination in Thailand. Captain Stevenson, during a welcome dinner onboard the carrier in Manila Bay, recounted the story of the HMAS Voyager collision and emphasized that caution on the part of the smaller ships would be necessary when operating near the considerably larger aircraft carrier, while also distributing written instructions on how to avoid a similar situation during the upcoming exercise. Admiral Crabb further instructed that any repositioning maneuvers by the escorts had to begin with a turn away from the carrier.  Despite these precautions, on the night of May 31, the destroyer USS Larson, while moving to take up the plane guard station astern of Melbourne, narrowly avoided a collision with the latter vessel. Worse was to follow just three days later.

In the early morning hours of June 3, 1969, the combined battle group began an anti-submarine warfare exercise. HMAS Melbourne, preparing to launch a Grumman S2 Tracker patrol aircraft, ordered USS Frank E. Evans to take up the plane guard (also called the rescue destroyer) position astern. This was to be the fourth time that the destroyer had assumed such a role during the exercise and had completed the three previous assignments without incident. The destroyer, positioned to the port side of the carrier, turned towards the larger ship to begin the maneuver in violation of standing orders regarding change of position by escort vessels. Following protocol, a radio message was broadcast to the destroyer warning her that she was on a collision course with the carrier. This message was acknowledged but the destroyer remained on course for HMAS Melbourne. A desperate dodge hard to port by Melbourne failed as USS Frank E. Evans turned hard astarboard in an attempt to avoid the approaching aircraft carrier only to find herself directly in the path of the onrushing Australian warship. Each bridge crew claimed that they only learned of the other vessel’s turn after they had started their own.

At 3:15 am on June 3, 1969, HMAS Melbourne cut USS Frank E. Evans in half amidships. The bow section sank almost immediately, taking with it the majority of the 74 men lost in the collision. Quick work by the crew of the carrier located all 199 survivors within 12 minutes of the collision and rescued them all within 30 minutes of the accident. Many of HMAS Melbourne’s crew entered the water to rescue survivors as the ship’s boats and Wessex helicopters recovered those further away. The American sailors, after being provided with clothing, blankets and beer from the ship’s stores, were entertained by the ship’s band on the flight deck in an effort to distract them from recent events. Rescue operations would continue another 15 hours to ensure that all survivors had been located. Initial reports, later confirmed by the board of inquiry, indicated that Commander Albert S McLemore, captain of the destroyer, had been asleep in his cabin at the time of the collision, having left the ship in the hands of two junior lieutenants, James Hopkins and Ronald Ramsey. The former was at sea for the first time while the later had failed the watch officer’s qualification exam before recently earning his officer of the deck qualification. All three were rescued.

The stern section of USS Frank E. Evans rests in the auxiliary repair drydock USS Windsor (ADR 22) at Naval Station Subic Bay, Philippines, three days after colliding with the Australian aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne in the South China Sea on June 3, 1969.  Note that a temporary jackstaff has been installed as Evans remained a commissioned naval vessel.  After her decommissioning on July 1, 1969, the destroyer's remains were sunk that October. (Photograph by Personnelman 2nd Class Ralph Tresser/ Naval History and Heritage Command image


The still-floating stern of the USS Frank E. Evans, after being evacuated of all survivors, was towed to Subic Bay in the Philippines, arriving there on June 9. The stripped and decommissioned hulk was subsequently used for target practice and sunk. The carrier, badly mangled bow and all, arrived in Singapore on June 6 for a temporary bow to be fitted. She returned to Sydney’s Cockatoo Island Naval Yard on July 9 where she remained until November of that year while being fitted with a permanent bow. The efforts of 817 Squadron’s Wessex helicopters in plucking survivors out of the water earned them a U.S. Navy Meritorious Unit Commendation while HMAS Melbourne’s crew received a further five medals for their own efforts.

A joint USN-RAN board of inquiry met at Subic Bay naval station in the Philippines from June 9 to July 14 to hear 100 hours of testimony from 79 separate witnesses. Despite the preponderance of evidence assigning blame to the Evans, only partial blame was assigned to the destroyer, this despite the fact that international law required that the smaller ship had to maneuver out of the way of the larger vessel in the event of an impending collision. Furthermore, great irregularities in the conduct of the American officers on the board (improper questioning of witnesses, barring of an RAN lawyer by an American officer, separation of sinking and rescue testimony, favoritism shown to American witnesses and unnecessary focus on the brightness of the carrier’s anti-collision lights) cast doubt on the fairness and impartiality of the proceedings.

Captain Stevenson was court-martialed for allegedly failing to order USS Frank E. Evans to steer clear of his ship and failing to order full astern on the engines prior to the collision. He was honorably acquitted of any wrongdoing but was posted as chief of staff to a minor flag officer. Stevenson subsequently requested to retire in protest and was allowed to do so. Commander McLemore was also court-martialed for dereliction and unnecessarily hazarding his ship. He pleaded not guilty and was issued a formal written reprimand. This effectively ended his naval career. In 1999, he publicly claimed responsibly for the collision, having left two unqualified junior officers in command of his vessel. Lieutenants Hopson and Ramsey pled guilty to negligence and dereliction and had their positions on the promotion board moved down. Sadly, the 74 men killed in the collision are not listed on the Vietnam War Memorial: it was determined that the ship was outside of the defined combat zone and engaged in activities not linked to American operations in that country. Attempts to introduce legislation to add their names to the memorial, have as of this date, been unsuccessful. A memorial to the ship stands in Neobrara, Nebraska. Reunions of Evans’ survivors and HMAS Melbourne crewmen are held annually.


Every job on a warship is of importance. From the captain responsible for dozens of lives and millions of dollars of equipment to lowly seaman apprentices still trying to figure out who to salute and how to get from their berthing to their battle stations, each has a job to accomplish. Only by working together as a team can the crew of a warship hope to make full use of the immense capabilities of a modern warship while remaining safe. The job of the watch officers are amongst the most important: on their shoulders rests the responsibility for the entire vessel and its crew during their watch. Their training and qualifications must be of the highest standards and they must be held responsible when things go wrong. When they fail to discharge their duties in a competent fashion, a catastrophic collision can result. Just like driving, situational awareness and following the rules of the road are crucial to avoid an accident.

Editor's Note: Thomas Grubbs earned a master's degree in military history from Southern New Hampshire University and is currently a park ranger interpreter at Vicksburg National Military Park, Mississippi. His research interest is in the history of the dreadnought battleship. 

This and every HRNM blog post by a contributing writer reflects the opinions of the writer and should not be construed as representing the official policies or opinions of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum, the Naval History and Heritage Command, Department of the Navy, or the United States Government.

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