Best Defense

Why won’t we honor 74 dead sailors?

By Louise Esola Best Defense guest columnist A few months ago this blog asked: why not add the names of the 74 young men killed on the USS Frank E. Evans on June 3, 1969 to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial? The reasons for the omission of those names are fast disappearing as new information shows this ...

By Louise Esola

Best Defense guest columnist

A few months ago this blog asked: why not add the names of the 74 young men killed on the USS Frank E. Evans on June 3, 1969 to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial? The reasons for the omission of those names are fast disappearing as new information shows this oversight is long overdue for change, a reversal that will finally provide closure to the families and survivors of the only ship that sank in the Vietnam War, literally and figuratively. And change may be in store as early as this fall.

A small but significant issue that the Senate and President Barack Obama will soon consider is an amendment that will help further the cause of adding to the Vietnam Wall the names of the 74 fallen sailors. In May, the House of Representatives passed this amendment, attached to the 2015 Defense Authorization Act, urging that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel order that the names be added. It is a “sense of Congress” motion that can’t force Hagel to act.

And now I ask, why wouldn’t he? Or, why hasn’t he?

In 2010, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus supported the cause. The issue has been set before lawmakers on the Hill at least five times between 2000 and 2005, each time getting lost in the Beltway bureaucracy of committees, recesses, and more-pressing issues. Over the summer at least two major veterans organizations — the National Veterans of Foreign Wars and AMVETS — passed resolutions. Indeed, Hagel himself has supported the issue. When he was a Nebraska senator he befriended Eunice Sage, a mother who lost three sons on that ship. A few years into his first term, in 1999, he spoke at a memorial service in Sage’s hometown of Niobrara, Nebraska, and indicated his support for adding the names to the Vietnam Wall to a cadre of Evans survivors who attended that service. They have video.

I document this ordeal, enmeshed in the decades-long struggle to have the 74 included on the Vietnam Wall, in American Boys: The True Story of the Lost 74 of the Vietnam War.

The cover of American Boys says much about what happened to those young fighting men. It’s a snapshot of 19-year-old Danny Clute, an Evans casualty, standing in front of a stockpile of ammunition in May 1969 on a warship that was a small blip in the middle of an unpopular war. There were scores of young men just like Danny on board the Evans that spring and in the Navy as a whole: pressured to enlist by the threat of an Army draft, willing to do their part as their fathers had done, and proud to serve in an unpopular era to do so.

American Boys is the story of how those young men, those shells, and that ship were there, all to fight the war in Vietnam. We can say that now. But, perhaps, back then, some couldn’t. In 1969 Vietnam was a dirty word. And it was everywhere. It was on the college campuses, where protest seized the day. It was at the dinner table. On the television. At a funeral. In the newspaper. And right on Dick Nixon’s double-pedestaled mahogany desk. Vietnam was that damned place.

It’s why when the Evans met her fate barely a month after Danny’s last photograph was taken — in an accident at sea some 200 miles from Saigon, an embarrassing international incident that took the lives of Clute and 73 other young men, the sea swallowing whole a full war load of ammunition and men — that some authority told a seething mostly-antiwar press it all took place, officially and for the record, “650 miles from Manila.”

Accurate, yes. Yet misleading.

American Boys documents the odyssey that is a tale of two sinkings: the ship and for decades, its place in the Vietnam War and hence, the Vietnam Wall. This bureaucratic omission on the Vietnam Wall exists today because the warship sank, a map does in fact show, outside of the official combat zone for Vietnam — a requirement that has been waived several times in the past, to the tune of 68 Marines killed in a plane crash in Hong Kong Bay. Those names were added in 1983, as American Boys documents and the House of Representatives amendment acknowledges.

The combat zone’s perimeters were drawn, truth be told, for tax purposes and meant little to the U.S. Navy’s fighting Seventh Fleet, which cruised in and out of it almost daily. Ditto for ill-fated airplanes packed with dozens of fighters who were there in that time and place to fight the war. The erroneous combat zone requirement is not the only problem with this rigid, check-on-the-box decision that keeps the 74 fallen Evans sailors’ names off the Vietnam Wall.

This criteria for inclusion on the wall nearly mirrors criteria for the Vietnam Service Medal, which, as American Boys shows, was awarded to the Evans and every American warship in the vicinity of her sinking on that very terrible day in naval history.

Louise Esola’s work has been featured in numerous publications including UT San Diego, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Associated Press. A proud native of Philadelphia, she lives in Southern California with her husband and children. American Boys is her first book.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. @tomricks1

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