Niobrara is a very small town in Nebraska–so small it doesn’t have a cinema, and the locals could not have flocked to see Saving Private Ryan. But Niobrara has a memorial outside its library dedicated to the three Sage brothers, who were the first family group allowed to serve together on a U.S. warship after World War II. Radarman 3rd Class Gregory Sage and Seaman Recruits Gary Sage and Kelly Sage died together, along with 71 shipmates, on USS Frank E. Evans when the Australian aircraft carrier Melbourne literally cut their destroyer in two at 3 o’clock on the morning of June 3, 1969, in the South China Sea. Most of Evans’ 272-man crew were asleep at the time of the collision. Jolted awake by the impact, the Americans began a struggle to save their lives, if not their ship. The Australians soon joined in the desperate struggle.
Few Australians are aware of the collision that claimed 74 American lives during Operation Sea Spirit exercises at the height of the Vietnam War and led–in the face of tragedy–to a bond between sailors on either side of the Pacific. Now living in the United States, the retired skipper of the Australian carrier recalled the few awful minutes that changed the lives of hundreds of men. ‘It’s still very vivid, still bad memories, still a very traumatic occasion,’ said John Stevenson.
A court-martial and the inquiry that followed found Captain Stevenson not at fault, yet his career was doomed from the moment his crew readied Evans to take up plane guard/rescue position, as Melbourne prepared for night-flying operations. Earlier in the exercise, Melbourne had had a near miss that was fresh in Stevenson’s memory on June 3. ‘A couple of nights before one of the other [American] destroyers took a run at us,’ Stevenson recalled, but that time Melbourne had managed to get out of the destroyer’s path.
Melbourne had signaled Evans, one of five U.S., British and New Zealand destroyers on the inner screen, to prepare to take up the position of plane guard, 1,000 yards behind the carrier. It was the fifth time that night that Evans had carried out the maneuver. The sea was dead calm, the water moonlit. As an extra precaution, Melbourne had her navigation lights at full brilliance. Procedures had been clearly established for the smaller vessel to turn away from the carrier before falling into a position well behind. But instead, the American destroyer turned into the huge carrier’s path.
The June 3 collision is something former Sub-Lieutenant Graham Winterflood, a Westland Wessex helicopter pilot serving aboard Melbourne, won’t ever forget. ‘We were anti-submarine screen forward of the ship….’ he said. ‘We took off and were sent out on a heading ahead of Melbourne, and funnily enough, on the way there, I was the co-pilot and I could see a masthead light up ahead of us, so we had to dodge around that. Little did I know at the time that that was the USS Evans.’
Petty Officer Ron Baker was in Melbourne‘s radio room. ‘It was like riding over a piece of corrugated iron on a bicycle,’ he recalled. ‘There was a shuddering as we went over something and the initial reaction was, ‘We’ve run aground!’ Of course this was all split-second thinking, and then we realized we were in 1,100 fathoms of water so the chances of running aground were pretty slim. Another thought that went through our heads was that we’d hit a submarine,’ Baker added, ‘because we knew there was a Russian submarine in the area monitoring the exercise.’
At that moment, Lieutenant Winterflood was hunting that submarine. ‘We were just about to lower our sonar ball, when the ship recalled us, saying they’d had a collision,’ he remembered. ‘We flew back to the Melbourne, and tied alongside was half a destroyer. It was an unbelievable sight.’
Melbourne had ridden over the destroyer with such an impact that one of Evans‘ lookouts, Seaman Marcus Rodriguez, was thrown into the air, landing on the flight deck of the carrier and suffering horrible injuries. In the less than three minutes it took Winterflood’s helicopter to return, the front section of the American ship had disappeared.
Aircrew and aircraft handlers were preparing to launch S-2E Tracker aircraft. Their engines were shut down immediately, and the crews rushed to help. Some dangled fire hoses over the carrier’s side as makeshift ladders, while others secured Evans‘ stern alongside Melbourne with wire cable.
‘It was all very quick,’ recalled Stevenson. ‘Very chaotic, but organized as far as the Melbourne was concerned. They all knew what they were doing. The stern half of the Evans was secured to the ship, and people hopped over the edge to help survivors back onto Melbourne.’
Ron Baker remembered: ‘Some of the [Melbourne] officers dropped cargo nets over the side and scrambled down. Four of them actually went through the aft section of the Evans to make sure no one was left on there after the Americans had climbed on board.’
Stevenson recalled that ‘Bob Burns, who’s now dead, was one of the stars of the side. He dived over the stern, and a lot of guys did that.’
‘He went over twice,’ recounted Baker. ‘He pulled in one guy who’d been crushed, got him in and was no sooner back on board than he spotted another bloke in the water, jumped over again and towed him to a lifeboat. He got the George Medal [the British Commonwealth’s second highest award for noncombat heroism].’ In the end, Melbourne crewmen received 15 Naval Board commendations, with two Queen’s commendations, two British Empire Medals, a Member of the British Empire and one [British Commonwealth] Air Force Cross.
It was a bright, moonlit night, but down in the shadow of Melbourne was blackness. Jock Donnelly used the 10-inch signal lamp as spotlight, calling to the rescuers, ‘There’s another one!’
Winterflood’s Wessex helicopter arrived overhead. ‘There were two or three helicopters airborne at the time,’ he recalled, ‘and while ours didn’t have a winch, we used our landing light to spotlight survivors, while the other two Wessexes used their winches.’
The unit citation awarded to Winterflood’s No. 817 Squadron by the U.S. secretary of the Navy gave this account: ‘Thirty-eight of the 111 men in the forward section of USS Frank E. Evans were able to escape or were thrown into the water. Within 25 minutes of the collision all these men had been returned to the Melbourne. The helicopters and men of 817 Squadron were called upon for maximum effort, not only during these first critical minutes when survivors were being illuminated in the water, but also during the more than 15 hours during which search operations continued.’
Overhead the helicopter crews were tired and stunned. Lieutenant Winterflood looked down on a scene alarmingly similar to the site of an accident five years earlier. ‘There was a lot of stuff in the water,’ he recalled. ‘There were life rafts, motor cutters getting around and helicopters with lights. But the actual sight of half a ship was very hard to come to grips with because, having seen it once before, it was hard to imagine the same thing could happen again.’
Back in 1964 HMAS Voyager had collided with Melbourne, killing 82. Captain Stevenson had that earlier tragedy in mind on the occasion of the near-collision with an American destroyer in the spring of 1969. ‘I now know what my friend Robbie [Captain John Robertson] went through,’ he wrote his wife. ‘He didn’t have a chance of dodging Voyager. This destroyer was much farther away from me, and I didn’t have much chance of avoiding her, but I just managed to get away.’ Little did Stevenson know that a few days later, when Evans crossed Melbourne‘s path, he would have an even better idea of the horror Captain Robertson had experienced.
The helicopters flew all day on June 3, 1969, landing for hot refueling and then returning to the search area. Petty Officer Baker spent the long hours sending hundreds of messages. He described that morning as something like a dream sequence. Baker reckoned the last of the 198 sailors saved from the South China Sea was Chief Petty Officer Larry Malilay.
‘Larry thought he was gone,’ Baker said. ‘He just drifted off, and for a while he could see and hear the choppers, but he was drifting away, and when he was finally rescued the pilot said, ‘Hang on, I think I can see someone swimming for the Philippines,’ and they winched him aboard.’
On board Melbourne the strangest scene was being played out. Captain Stevenson ordered the band onto the deck, and the beer vault was opened for the American survivors. Australian sailors recall their mates giving away the clothes from their backs. One sailor went below and brought up his entire kit, while the clothing store was opened and blankets were passed out. Eventually the survivors were lifted off and taken to USS Kearsarge. At that point, Baker heard a sound he’ll never forget: ‘As they were about to leave our ship, they stood on the quarterdeck and gave us three cheers. We had just cut their ship in half and here they were giving us three cheers.’
The end of USS Frank E. Evans was the beginning of an enduring bond between the two crews. Those who served aboard Melbourne have certainly suffered, but the survivors of the battered crew of Evans had it worse.
‘I think a lot of the crew suffered trauma,’ said Stevenson. ‘More so in the Evans than the Melbourne….A lot of them have lost wives and families, can’t work and are still having a bad time of it.’
Serving in her third conflict, the aging destroyer was on the gun line off the coast of Vietnam when she was moved out of the combat zone for Operation Sea Spirit. Like the two crews who’d served aboard Evans before them, the U.S. sailors had seen combat service. Yet the names of those who died in the collision have never been added to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. ‘It’s a cause of great hurt to the American survivors,’ said Stevenson. ‘Their shipmates were lost, but their names are not on the Wall, and they’re working hard to get that done, but they’re not making much progress.’
A few members of the Melbourne Association made a point of seeking out members of the Evans Association and getting together. In Ipswich, Australia, Ron Baker struck upon the idea of a reunion to mark the 25th anniversary. ‘When I broached the subject of a reunion 24 years after it happened, a lot of people said, ‘Forget it, let it rest,’ and I wondered if perhaps I was opening old wounds,’ Baker said.
Like Stevenson, Baker was well aware of how much former crewmen had suffered. Some had been in mental institutions, while others had become alcoholics. Nonetheless, a reunion was organized, and word came from the United States that members of the Evans Association would attend.
Shortly after that, Baker received a phone call from a woman in Alice Springs, Australia. ‘She said her husband was on the Melbourne when it happened,’ he recalled. ‘It was his first voyage, he was 18, and this was his introduction to the navy, and he’d been carrying the ghost of this thing for all those years. She put him on a plane and flew him over, and I reckon he went away a different man.’
The following year, Australians attended a memorial service at Arlington National Cemetery, and a commitment was made that representatives of the two crews would meet each year. Although cleared of any blame, Captain Stevenson, the former skipper of Australia’s last aircraft carrier, had his own burden to bear. ‘At that point I had a wife and two kids and a mortgage and all the rest of that stuff,’ he recalled. ‘I went out and lost everything. I had no future, no career, no pension, no nothing. It was a very big bang.’
Stevenson believes the bond that has grown is easing the trauma. In 1999 he was in Sydney, along with many others from the United States, for a 30th anniversary memorial service. The retired captain said, ‘It was such a pleasure to see the Melbourne team again, and I have an expectation that they’ll bring great warmth and humanity to the survivors of the Evans, and that together, they can ease their own pain.’
While the battle to get recognition for the American sailors lost in the 1969 accident continues in the States, those fallen seamen have been honored in Australia. According to Ron Baker, ‘They were killed doing their duty for their country, and it doesn’t matter if you’re killed by an enemy bullet or a friendly ship.’
This article was written by Phil Smith and originally published in the August 2001 issue of Vietnam Magazine.
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