Ron Kaye: Getting their names on the wall

A year after graduating from Hoover High School, where he was a star pitcher who attracted attention from major league scouts, Seaman Apprentice James Kerr found himself sitting on a dock at Subic Bay, near Manila, chatting with Signalman Stephen Kraus as they waited to go out to their ship, the destroyer USS Frank E. Evans.

This was Kerr's first assignment after boot camp. It would also be his last.

Days later, at 3:15 a.m. on June 3, 1969, the Evans was cut in half by the Australian aircraft carrier, the HMAS Melbourne, during a multi-national training exercise called "Sea Spirit." The bow half of the Evans, where Kraus was on watch and where Kerr was asleep below, sank in less than three minutes, while the aft half stayed afloat.

It was a freak accident that led to formal military inquiries and court-martials.

For 74 of the 278 crew members — including 18-year-old James William Kerr — it was the ultimate sacrifice, a tragic end to their lives. Kraus was among the lucky 40 or so who were rescued, although he was fighting for his life in the South China Sea for more than 30 minutes.

"I can't imagine the grief my parents went through to lose a child, especially in such a horrific, by-chance accident," said Fred Kerr, 15 months younger than his brother and now a San Luis Obispo-area resident.

"For up to a week after he dies, we're getting letters to me or my sister and he says, "Hey, say hi to Mom and Dad.' For my mother, who is 94, it's like he left and never came back. There's no headstone. There's no closure," Fred Kerr added.

They are called the Lost 74 and the grieving has never ended for the loved ones, the parents, the siblings, and in some cases, the children. They all want closure and over the last 44 years, that has come to mean getting the names of the Lost 74 on the Vietnam War Memorial.

They have a great claim that until now has fallen on deaf ears of U.S. presidents — Democratic and Republican — and a string of defense secretaries.

The USS Evans was providing artillery support for troops on the ground in Vietnam when it was ordered to join several dozen other naval vessels for the training exercise off the coast of the Philippines. It was scheduled to return to the combat zone after this show of force, put on for China, Russia and anyone else who might be tempted to take advantage of America's fading support for the war.

When the ship sank, it was 110 miles outside the "designated combat zone," which Kraus, vice president of the USS Frank E. Evans Assn., describes as "initially drawn up arbitrarily for administrative purposes so the IRS could determine which pay to tax and which pay to not tax in war areas."

The association grew out of a reunion event in 1992 that has become an annual affair bringing together veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam who had served on the ship, as well as the families of those who died. It pushed to pass the Fairness to Veterans Act that would revise the combat zone rules, but the bills died in congressional committees.

Then they got thousands of signed petitions pleading for an exception to the rule, as quite a few others who died on R & R or in other situations had gotten, but to no avail.

"It's not a popular issue," laments Kraus. "They say it will open the floodgates."

Along the way, they found a champion in local Congressman Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), who got support from the Secretary of the Navy, among others, only to be rebuffed by then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and his successor, Leon Panetta.

"I met with some constituents and it seemed like an awfully compelling case and should certainly bring some solace to the families," Schiff said in a telephone interview Wednesday just minutes before the House voted to end the deadlock over federal funding and the debit limit.

"It seemed awfully arbitrary that a line in the water should decide who should be commemorated on the memorial and who should not," Schiff said. "Having met these families, I can see what this would mean to them. It doesn't detract from anybody else's sacrifice. If others have a compelling case, they should be recognized too."

One of those constituents was Tim Wendler, a Pasadena environmental engineer who was seven days shy of his second birthday when word came that his father, Radarman Ronald Thibodeau, then 23, was among those lost at sea.

"I never really had the chance to know my father," said Wendler, liaison to the families for the USS Evans Assn. "My mother was devastated for a long time."

Like most of those who have gotten involved, it was the Vietnam War Memorial — the wall designed by Maya Lin — that inspired hope for closure.

"My grandfather went to visit the wall and expected to see his son's name on the wall. It wasn't there," Wendler said, adding that "because only one body from the Lost 74 was recovered, it's so much harder to get closure. To be able to have their names on the wall will help my family and the other 73 families to get closure, finally."

A lot of people have tried other ways without finding the closure they are looking for. James Kerr's name is on the Glendale War Memorial and the Sage family, of tiny Niobrara, Neb., who lost three sons that fateful day — Gary, Gregory and Kelly, none older than 22 — have a memorial to them in their hometown.

Then-Sen. Chuck Hagel attended the rededication ceremony in 1999 and praised them for their sacrifice. A Vietnam veteran himself and now Secretary of Defense, Hagel holds the hopes of the USS Evans families and survivors in his hands and has promised to meet with Schiff to talk about an exception.

A lot of people will be watching, including Stephen Kraus, who says that Eunice Sage, the three young men's mother, only wanted their names on the wall "to see that they were recognized as part of the brotherhood of that conflict. If we can do this and get it done, we can at least get some of those fathers and mothers, if they're still alive, and their brothers and sisters, to say this definitely is closure."

If there's a takeaway for me from talking to the USS Evans community, it's this: In this 21st-century America that seems to be perpetually at war with somebody or other, old soldiers — or sailors — never die. They just fade away — and not enough of us even notice or care.


RON KAYE can be reached at Share your thoughts and stories with him.

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