The immense grinding of metal on metal awoke Bill Thibeault from a sound sleep.
“I remember a loud screeching noise. I got thrown out of my bunk,” said Thibeault, recalling that awful night near Vietnam, 50 years ago.
His first thought was of crashing into a mountain. But that couldn’t be. He was aboard a ship, the Navy destroyer USS Frank E. Evans, and they were steaming in the South China Sea — part of a training exercise with ships from Australia and New Zealand, in a brief respite from combat.
He and his shipmates in the aft berthing area scrambled up to the deck. He craned his neck in the darkness to look forward.
“I saw nothing but twisted metal and steam up there,” he said.
An Australian aircraft carrier, HMAS Melbourne, had sliced the much smaller destroyer in two up near the bow. The front part of the ship sank within minutes, taking with it 74 sailors. Only one body was recovered.
“It was like a semitruck running over a Volkswagen,” survivor Steve Kraus told the Green Bay Press-Gazette last month.
Four of the victims had Nebraska roots. Three of them were brothers: Gary, Greg and Kelly Sage of Niobrara. The fourth, Garry Hodgson, was born in Beatrice but grew up in the Pacific Northwest, Thibeault said.
Within days, the grief-stricken faces of the Sages’ parents, Ernest and Eunice Sage — and their 6-year-old brother, Douglas — would grace the front pages of newspapers across the country. Their loss would evoke memories of the five Sullivan brothers of Waterloo, Iowa, who died together a quarter-century earlier when the light cruiser USS Juneau was sunk in combat.
After the deaths of the Sullivans, the Navy adopted a rule to prevent siblings from serving on the same ship. Gary, 22; Greg, 21; and Kelly, 19, had gotten a waiver so they could be together.
American Legion Post 224 in Niobrara will hold a public ceremony honoring the memory of the Frank E. Evans crew at 3 p.m. Sunday, matching the hour, half a century ago (3 a.m. June 3 in Vietnam) when the ships collided. The event will be a memorial to the ship and the three brothers and include a prayer, music and reading of the names of the 74 victims, said Jim Scott, the Niobrara post’s commander.
The guest speaker will be Darwin Sietsema of Rushton, Minnesota, who was serving aboard a destroyer operating near the Frank E. Evans at the time of the collision. His crew rushed to help.
“Right away we launched our small boats, but we felt helpless,” he said in a press release. “There was nothing you could do. It was over with.”
The memorial event is also intended to offer quiet support for a long-running battle by surviving veterans of the Frank E. Evans to add the names of their 74 fallen shipmates to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Almost 200 sailors survived the accident.
“The Department of Defense doesn’t want to put their names on the wall,” Scott said.
The wall, dedicated in 1982, bears the names of 58,300 men and women who died in the war. Since the dedication, 361 names have been added.
Efforts to add the names of the Frank E. Evans sailors date to at least 2001.
Pentagon officials have argued that they don’t qualify because they were not in the combat zone when the ships collided.
Thibeault and other veterans argue that the Defense Department is splitting hairs. The Evans had been involved in combat operations, and the exercise with the Melbourne was specifically in support of the Vietnam War.
Survivors also note that exceptions have been made before. The names of 58 Marines who died in a plane crash near Hong Kong and were en route to Vietnam were added in 1983.
“They may not have been in the combat zone at the time,” Thibeault said. “But these guys fought in Vietnam.”
Thibeault, who lives in Connecticut and is a professional singer, was in Omaha on May 24 as part of a national tour to bring attention to the Evans victims and the effort to add their names to the wall. One of the songs he performed at his local concert, at an American Legion post, is called “Recognition” and was written about the lost sailors.
Greg Sage’s widow, Linda Vaa, traveled from South Dakota to hear Thibeault.
“I’m using music as a tool, because that’s a way to touch people,” Thibeault said. “As a survivor, we made a pledge that they would never be forgotten.”
He said Congress has come close to passing legislation to add the Evans sailors to the wall as recently as last year. In both 2014 and 2018, measures passed the House but not the Senate.
This year, an effort has started in the Senate. The USS Frank E. Evans Act was introduced by Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. Ten other senators have since signed on as co-sponsors. None are from Nebraska or Iowa.
Thibeault said this 50th anniversary may represent the last chance to push the measure through.
“We might not get their names on the wall, but we’re going to try,” he said. “Life goes on. But you don’t forget.”