NIOBRARA, Neb. — Nearly a half-century ago, in the dead of night, 74 American sailors perished when their destroyer accidentally turned into the path of an Australian aircraft carrier off the coast of Vietnam.
The collision sliced the USS Frank E. Evans in half.
“The carrier came through the wall just ahead of us. You could hear screeching metal and steam lines rupturing,” said Pete Peters, who was in the engine room. “It was horrible.”
The 74 who died were from all corners of the country, including three brothers from Niobrara, a farm town at the confluence of the Missouri and Niobrara Rivers.
Survivors like Peters say the tragedy is continuing for his fallen comrades. Despite repeated efforts by survivors and supporters, the 74 sailors have not been listed on the Wall, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., as casualties of the war.
On Memorial Day, the townspeople of Niobrara intend to help right that wrong.
On Monday, a pair of black granite monuments, listing all 74 victims of the naval tragedy, will be unveiled. The “Lost 74” twin stones will flank a state historical marker that memorializes the sacrifice of three brothers from Niobrara — Gary, Greg and Kelly Sage — who died in the June 3, 1969, accident.
“We wanted to make sure their names were on a wall somewhere,” said Jim Scott, commander of American Legion Post 224 in Niobrara.
“The community got together. They wanted to do something for those boys,” said Ron Kotrous, a childhood friend of the Sage brothers who now lives near Springfield.
The deaths of the Sage brothers was one of the nation’s worst wartime family tragedies, according to the Navy. It was said to be second only to the deaths of five Sullivan brothers from Waterloo, Iowa, during World War II.
The sacrifice of the Sage family has always held a special place in the hearts of Niobrara residents.
Although the Navy prohibited brothers from serving together, the younger brothers, Greg, 21, and Kelly, 19, had requested a waiver so they could serve with 22-year-old Gary aboard the Frank E. Evans, a destroyer that carried a crew of 273.
Kotrous, who fished and hunted with the Sage boys as a kid, said he was told by survivors that Gary jumped from the stern section of the ship, which miraculously didn’t sink, into the forward section in an ill-fated attempt to save his brothers. All the dead were in the bow portion.
In Niobrara, the town’s football field was named after the Sage brothers, and a historical marker was erected beneath an American flag at the field.
In 1999, the 30th anniversary of the tragedy, the marker was moved to a more prominent location along Nebraska Highway 12.
Townspeople donated $7,000 for the move back in 1999 and quickly raised $6,000 to purchase the two monuments for the 74 sailors this year.
“I put the word out that we were doing this, and (the donations) came in really fast,” Scott said.
He and others wish action would come as quickly from Washington to honor the casualties of the Frank E. Evans.
Because the collision with the carrier HMAS Melbourne occurred about 100 miles off the coast of Vietnam, it was considered outside the war zone, so the victims were not considered casualties of the war and thus were ineligible for listing on Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
“The government would have you believe we were on a joy cruise,” said Peters, 69, of Redondo Beach, California. “But there’s not one of the guys who would have been on that ship if it had not been for the Vietnam War.
“They need to give proper recognition to our 74 guys.”
Peters and other survivors of the accident from California, along with other members of the USS Frank E. Evans DD 754 Association, have been lobbying for years to make an exception for the fallen crew members.
But the Pentagon has repeatedly turned down their requests.
Even Chuck Hagel, a Vietnam veteran who served as a U.S. senator and later U.S. secretary of defense was unsuccessful.
Hopes rose in 2014 when a California congressman, U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, got an amendment approved by the House to include the names. But his provision wasn’t included in the final defense bill.
Schiff, who said last week that he’s still working on the issue, said that the men deserve recognition even though they were outside of the formal war zone.
The USS Frank E. Evans, according to Peters, had been on the “gun line” for 10 days, shelling targets on the Vietnamese coast just days before the collision. At the time of the accident, the ship was involved in a huge naval exercise designed to impress the enemy, he said.
But Scott, the Niobrara VFW commander, said the 74 have always been disqualified because they were too far off the coast.
“How could a sailor ever qualify?” he asked. “They’re always off the coast.”
So, he said, Niobrara residents decided to take matters into their own hands.
The monuments arrived Friday. They were installed and then covered.
Townspeople will gather for their traditional Memorial Day program at 11 a.m. at the town cemetery, then dedicate the new monuments at 2 p.m.
At least three survivors of the tragedy will participate in the events, Terry Vejr, Steve Kraus and Del Francis. Greg Sage’s now remarried wife, Linda Vaa, is also expected to attend. Peters said he is participating in a Memorial Day tribute at the home port of the USS Frank E. Evans in California.
The Sage brothers’ parents, Eunice and Ernest, are both deceased. It is unclear whether a younger brother, Doug Sage, will attend.
Kotrous, a retired Kellogg’s worker, said he still recalls the day in 1969. He was working in Omaha when his own brother, who was living with him at the time, asked whether he’d heard the news about the Sages.
“I couldn’t believe it. It was horrible,” he said. “They paid an ultimate price. That whole family did.”
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