By JOSEPH B. NADEAU
William Thibeault, a former resident of Pawtucket, has had to put a lot of things behind him in the 50 years since his U.S. Navy destroyer, the USS Frank E. Evans, was crippled in an at-sea collision, claiming the lives of 74 of his fellow crew members, among them Cumberland’s Frederic C. “Dick” Messier Jr.
But as the years and the anniversaries of the disaster passed, there was one thing about the loss of his shipmates Thibeault has never been able to understand.
Though the Evans disaster occurred on June 3, 1969, at the height of the Vietnam War, and at a South Pacific location just over 100 miles from the defined war zone, none of his lost crewmen are honored on the black granite walls of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.
It’s an omission that Thibeault and his fellow survivors of the Evans’ collision with the Australian aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne have not stopped trying to change.
The Evans survivors, who will hold a 50th anniversary commemoration of the ship’s collision at its home port in Long Beach, California, on June 3, have won some congressional support to make a change in Washington but not yet enough to see it actually happen, according to Thibeault, now a resident of Connecticut.
“We came close to it, but it didn’t happen last year,” Thibeault said of the group’s legislative efforts to see the Evans’ lost sailors added to the Vietnam Memorial.
The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill supporting the addition of the Evans crewmen to the memorial in 2014 but a similar bill filed in the Senate and considered in 2018 was only referred to committee during that session.
As one of the crew who awoke to find their ship cut nearly in half, Thibeault said the collision is something he will always carry with him.
“It’s with you every day of your life,” Thibeault said while taking a break from a cross-country trip he is currently on to visit other survivors and the families of the sailors who died. Thibeault’s trip will include a visit to Long Beach for the 50th anniversary services next month.
His active role with the USS Frank E. Evans DD 754 Association became a healing experience for Thibeault, just as the efforts he and his fellow surviving crew members put into the memorial recognition campaign have been.
“For a while, I couldn’t talk about it to anyone,” Thibeault said. “But since then, I have faced my demons and now I am determined to tell everyone about it to get them the recognition they deserve,” he said.
The Evans, a Sumner-class destroyer with three double 5-inch gun turrets originally, had its keel laid at Staten Island, NY, during World War II and was launched in October of 1944. The Evans saw action off Okinawa in June of 1945 and defended against enemy aircraft while serving picket duty with the fleet in the area.
The 376-foot-long destroyer was recalled to action during the Korean War and did service with carrier operations and pilot recovery as well as gunnery missions, according to the ship’s history. The vessel engaged in battery operations against North Korean shore positions and during one of its 11 shore engagements during 1951, sustained damage from enemy fire that wounded four members of the crew.
Thibeault, a 1967 graduate of Tolman High School and now 69, joined the Evans as was taking part in its third war – Vietnam. He joined the ship while it was in drydock at its home port of Long Beach, California, during the Vietnam War, not long after he got out of boot camp in March of 1968.
He knew Dick Messier as the only other Rhode Islander in the Evans’ crew.
“We met the day we were both sworn into the Navy and were sent to the same boot camp in Great Lakes,” he said. “Then we were both sent to the Frank E. Evans on the same day,” Thibeault recalled.
Thibeault considered Messier a friend even though the two had different duties in the crew of 278. They did have their local tie as the only two sailors from Rhode Island, he noted.
“This is why I wanted to kick off my tour around the Cumberland area on May 11,” Thibeault said of the start of his cross country trip.
In 1969, after the Evans had returned to sea and completed readiness training, Thibeault and its crew sailed to Southeast Asia where the destroyer resumed its duties operating off the coast of Vietnam with the USS Kearsage, an aircraft carrier. The Evans returned to Subic Bay in the Philippines for replenishment in May and then headed out to maneuvers with 40 other ships before its scheduled return to duty off Vietnam.
It was while serving as a screen destroyer with other ships around the HMAS Melbourne that the Evans entered a course that would find the ship in the path of the oncoming carrier.
The ship’s duty assignment had plotted a course for it to swing away from the carrier before falling in behind it to cover aircraft operations. But in the dark of night, the two ships met on a course that caused the Evans to be cleaved in two, a strike amidships causing the bow section to sink in less than 5 minutes.
Thibeault had been in his bunk in the rear of the ship when the accident occurred around 3 a.m. and he recalls hearing a screeching sound against the hull that he thought originated from running aground.
Making his way to the deck, Thibeault looked toward the forward of section the Evans.
“It wasn’t there,” he said.
All Thibeault could see was twisted metal and steam coming from broken piping. The bow section and 74 crew members who had been in it at the time of the collision were gone. Another 38 members of the crew made it out of the sinking section and had to be rescued from the water or pulled onto the still floating rear section of the ship.
The Melbourne stopped immediately to aid the survivors and Thibeault said members of the aircraft carrier’s crew lowered rope netting to the remaining section of the Evans which had come up alongside and was made fast there.
A salvage team was able to stop the flooding in the surviving section of the Evans and it was towed back to port. The survivors taken aboard the Melbourne were subsequently transferred to the Kearsage and also returned to base.
The remaining portion of the Evans was stripped of its equipment in port and then taken back out to sea in October of 1969 and sunk during naval gun practice.
In addition to Cumberland’s Frederic C. Messier Jr., the Evans’ list of those lost included three brothers, from Niobrara, Nebraska: Gary Sage, 22, Gregory Sage, 21, and Kelly Sage, 19, who all had chosen to serve together on the destroyer and were in the forward section when it was struck by the Melbourne.
Messier graduated from Cumberland High School in 1966, according to the USS Frank E. Evans Association. He had been engaged to be married to his high school sweetheart, Joyce, and the couple planned to be married when Messier returned from Vietnam in December of 1969.
Messier is believed to have been sleeping in the forward section, one deck below the mess deck, when the collision occurred. In recent years, monuments to Messier and the rest of the USS Frank E. Evans crew have been installed in the veterans section of Resurrection Cemetery on West Wrentham Road. “May we never forget the ship and crews who proudly sailed her and those who paid the ultimate price while serving their country,” the memorial to the Evans states.
The Navy has not included the Evans’ lost crewmen on the Vietnam Memorial thus far because the ship had been more than a 100 miles outside the defined war zone around Vietnam. But the ship’s surviving crew members believe the fact that the ship had been fighting in Vietnam and was returning after its exercise with the fleet should justify the inclusion of the Evans’ lost crewmen on Vietnam’s list of war dead, Thibeault said.
Thibeault himself came home to Groton, Conn., where he eventually got out of the service.
Today he is a full-time musician and has put together a song titled “Recognition” that is a tribute to the Evans 74. He plays it in the hopes it will lead to their names being added to the memorial.
“So far it’s been going terribly,” he said of the Evans Association’s work to honor the lost crewmen. “It’s been 50 years now and nothing has been done,” Thibeault said.
Follow Joseph Nadeau on Twitter @JNad75