Survival was a matter of luck and location. When the Australian carrier HMAS Melbourne (R 21) collided with and cut in two the USS Frank E. Evans (DD 754) nearly 44 years ago in the dead-calm, moonlit waters of the South China Sea, Dean Wyse survived. Lima native Larry Allan Gracely did not.
Wyse, then a 24-year-old fire control technician from West Unity, was in the aft portion of the Evans. Gracely, a sonar technician, and the 73 other sailors who perished were forward. The aft section of the destroyer remained afloat after the collision; the forward section sank within minutes. Of the five Ohio natives on the Evans, only Wyse survived. In all, 199 members of the ship’s crew survived.
Now 69 and semi-retired in Maricopa, Ariz., Wyse and the members of the USS Frank E. Evans Association believe the names of the “Lost 74” should be on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. The association’s requests for inclusion of the names have been denied by the Department of Defense because, when the collision occurred at 3:15 a.m. June 3, 1969, the Evans was not within the geographically designated war zone.
The Evans, which departed Long Beach, Calif., for Vietnam on March 29, 1969, had been in the combat zone before being detached to take part in Operation Sea Spirit, an exercise with allied ships including the Melbourne. The Evans association believes it was probably headed back to Vietnam after Sea Spirit to again provide naval gunfire support. The collision occurred about 200 miles off the coast of Vietnam.
“Our guys were eligible for the Vietnam Service Medal at the time of the collision,” Wyse said, adding the criteria for the medal are the same as those for inclusion on the memorial.
Wyse said he was not a “real close friend” of Gracely, a 1965 graduate of Shawnee High School, but “on a smaller ship, people from each state find each other.” Gracely had attended Bowling Green State University before enlisting in the Navy. According to the association’s biography of Gracely, the 22-year-old was engaged and planned to marry when he returned to the United States.
Wyse said the morning of the collision he was scheduled to stand mid-watch (midnight to 4 a.m.) in the forward portion of the ship but the watch was canceled when the ship’s state of readiness was eased. Wyse was asleep when the collision occurred.
The Melbourne struck the Evans with such force that a sailor standing watch on the Evans was thrown onto the flight deck of the carrier. Wyse said the impact threw him out of his bunk. “I landed 25 or 30 feet away. Our ship had taken a roll of nearly 90 degrees,” he said.
“Lucky for me, when the ship split in half, the aft section came back up,” Wyse said. “We ended up touching the Melbourne.” Wyse said he climbed to a deck even with the catch net around the Melbourne’s flight deck and scrambled onto the carrier.
When the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated 31 years ago, Wyse said he assumed the names of the “Lost 74” were among the more than 58,000 inscribed on it but found out otherwise when the father of one of the lost sailors went looking for his son’s name. “He’s the one who really got it started,” Wyse said.
On April 29, Wyse wrote Ohio Congressman Brad Wenstrup, a Republican member of the House Armed Services Committee, seeking support.
“Put simply,” Wyse wrote, “the 74 names are not on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall because the collision occurred outside the ‘Combat Zone’ as interpreted by the Department of Defense. Through the years, many additions to the Vietnam Memorial Wall have been made ‘by exception.’ We strongly believe the Department of Defense should provide an exception in our case.”
Wyse said he has not yet heard from Wenstrup.