By the time the warning came, it was too late.
In the early morning hours of June 3, 1969, during a training exercise in the South China Sea, an Australian aircraft carrier collided with the USS Frank E. Evans, an American destroyer, and cut the smaller ship in half.
Where you were stationed on the Evans that day largely dictated whether you lived or died. The bow section sank in minutes, taking 74 sailors down with it, including two New Hampshire men. One sailor’s body was recovered from the water, but the rest were forever lost at sea.
There were 199 sailors who survived the disaster. Ronald Perkins of Manchester was one of them.
Now Perkins is telling his story, as support grows for honoring his lost shipmates’ sacrifice by adding their names to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C.
Two New Hampshire men were among the 74 American sailors who died in a collision between the USS Frank E. Evans and an Australian aircraft car…
Perkins, who just turned 76, grew up in upstate New York. His brothers went into the Air Force, but he joined the Navy. “I told them I could swim further than I could fly,” he said.
He trained in repairing nuclear submarines, serving first in a fast-attack squadron and then aboard an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean and North Atlantic. He got orders to join the crew of the USS Frank E. Evans as a mechanic’s mate first class in April 1968. By August, they were on their way to Vietnam.
Perkins has a surreal memory of stopping en route at Pearl Harbor and making his way to a bar where, he said, “Like a good sailor, I’m drinking a lot of beers.” As he gazed out the window, he saw vintage Japanese planes circling, dropping bombs, and explosions erupting below. It felt like a hallucination, he said.
Turned out “they were making the movie ‘Tora! Tora! Tora!,’ ” he said with a rueful chuckle.
The USS Frank E. Evans patrolled off the coast of Vietnam, firing its twin guns at targets miles inland. The daily routine consisted of battle stations, watches and brief periods of sleep, Perkins said.
The day of the disaster
Then came word they were going to participate in an international exercise with allied ships. The HMAS Melbourne was “the mother ship,” Perkins said, and “the destroyers are around the carrier and you’re all zig-zagging.”
He had just woken up and was lying in his berth, preparing to go up on watch when the impact came. “It sounded like we had run aground,” Perkins said. “Everything was upside down.”
“And then it was silent.”
Barefoot and wearing only his undershorts, Perkins raced for the engine room, borrowing a pair of shoes from another sailor to head down the ladder. “I look at the throttle board and I can see the pressure; everything’s all out of whack.” He tried calling up the forward engine room, but no one answered so he sent his second mate to check.
“He comes back and said there’s nothing forward of the number one engine room. It’s all open sea,” Perkins recalled.
If the collision had come 15 minutes later, Perkins would have been on watch in that section.
After the accident, Perkins said, he and the other surviving Evans crew members donned life jackets, preparing to abandon ship. “The Melbourne came back around and threw nets over what was left of the ship, and we climbed up those nets onto the flight deck.”
There was no panic among the crew, Perkins recalled. “They were really doing their jobs, what they were trained to do.”
One sailor who had been on watch on the bridge was tossed into the air when the collision occurred and was thrown onto the deck of the Melbourne, breaking both legs. He survived, Perkins said.
Perkins remembers seeing Chief Petty Officer Lawrence Reilly Sr. crying on the flight deck; the man’s son and namesake, Lawrence Jr., had had the watch in the forward boiler room and had gone down with the ship.
It wasn’t the only family tragedy; three brothers from Nebraska were serving on the Evans and all three died in the tragedy.
Crew members from the Melbourne released life buoys and rafts; some went into the water to rescue American sailors. Helicopters flew over the wreckage to look for survivors, and other ships in the training exercise arrived to help.
The Melbourne crew produced cases of Foster’s beer for the grieving American sailors, and the ship’s band played, Perkins recalled. “They felt bad, I know. And I don’t believe anybody on our ship blamed them.”
The sight that greeted them when the sun rose that morning, Perkins recalled, “was eerie.”
“We were on the fantail of the Melbourne, and we’re looking out there and we can see what’s left of the ship, just bobbing around out there.”
Later, the Evans survivors transferred onto the Kearsarge (named for the New Hampshire mountain), where they took turns sending telegrams to tell their families they were alive.
They held a brief memorial service on board the Kearsarge for those lost at sea. “They rang a bell,” Perkins said, and then paused to compose himself. “They read the names off of all of them.”
The Kearsarge docked in the Philippines and what remained of the Evans was towed in. The Evans survivors were to be flown home in a 707, Perkins said, but before they left, they were allowed to board the Evans to retrieve their personal belongings.
Perkins took the clock from the #2 engine room as a memento. It hangs on the wall of his Manchester apartment.
He also still has the telegram he sent home, dated June 4, 1969, at 7:38 a.m.: “I am safe aboard USS Kearsarge letter follows Love=Ron”
But that telegram arrived days later, after his parents had learned from the nightly news that their son’s ship had gone down. His father suffered a heart attack.
After Perkins arrived stateside, he drove three straight days across the country to visit his father in the hospital. The Navy released him early so he could help run his dad’s tavern, which became his after his father suffered a second, fatal attack.
Perkins wound up in New Hampshire in the late 1970s after he went to work for a company selling wood splitters. He liked the scenery here, and the tax-free climate.
His crippled ship met a sad fate; the stern of the USS Frank E. Evans was used for target practice. “They took it out and sunk it,” Perkins said. “I thought it was sad.”
Human error blamed
The Evans’ captain and other officers in charge were court-martialed. A joint investigation by U.S. and Australian military authorities concluded that “the tragic event that transpired can be ascribed to error in individual human judgment rather than to faulty planning or to errors in the command and control organization devised for the multi-national force,” according to declassified military records.
Investigators found that Evans personnel had misinterpreted a signal from the Melbourne and turned into the path of the carrier, which attempted to avoid the collision but could not. The report listed the names of those lost at sea, attributing their deaths to “traumatic injuries or drowning.”
Perkins said his speedy ship’s nickname had always been “the grey ghost,” because “she was there one minute and gone the next.”
Only recently, it occurred to him that the nickname took on a different resonance after the ship became a tomb for 73 of his shipmates. “Now it has another meaning to it,” he said.
A push to recognize the 74
Perkins is happy about efforts to add the names of the “Lost 74” to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. “It means a lot to me and everybody that was aboard that ship,” he said.
He urged anyone who supports the idea to contact their senators and congressmen — or perhaps even the President.
But time is of the essence, he said. “It’s been 50 years,” he said. “Let’s face it, some of this history doesn’t mean anything to anybody later on. But the people that are still around? Yes.”
Perkins isn’t comfortable getting recognition for his own part in history even now. “I was just lucky,” he said. “I’m just a survivor.”
“The heroes are all the ones that went down.”