A calm moonlit night struck tragedy around 3 a.m. on June 3, 1969 in the South China Sea when the Melbourne collided with the USS Frank Evans.
The Evans was a destroyer that had previously served in World War II, the Korean war and the Vietnam War before a grave mistake lead it to be sunk.
According to historians, the Melbourne was a light aircraft carrier of the Royal Australian Navy and had signaled the Evans to prepare to take the position of plane guard. This was not the first time the Evans had tried to carry out this maneuver, in fact it was the fifth time that night that the Evans was asked to take plane guard.
The Evans turned the wrong way, directly into the path of the Melbourne, which sliced the Evans in two. The bow quickly began sinking taking 74 lives with it.
The small town of Niobrara felt the pain from halfway around the world. Radarman 3rd Class Gregory Sage and Seaman Recruits Gary Sage and Kelly Sage died together that night.
The Sage brothers grew up on a farm near Niobrara and joined the Navy. They wanted to serve together, and eventually obtained special permission to sail on the same ship.
Survivors of the accident said Gary, the oldest at age 21, jumped from the stern to join his brothers in the bow shortly after collision. All three perished in the black night at sea. The 199 sailors on the stern survived.
As if the brothers’ loss wasn’t enough to bear, the Department of Defense refused to consider the Evans sailors as casualties of the Vietnam War. DOD officials determined that the accident happened outside the combat zone. Consequently, the names were not included on the Vietnam Memorial Wall.
After many efforts for the last 50 years, the DOD still fails to see that none of the men on that ship would have been in the South China Sea that fateful night if they had not laid down their lives to serve their country.
Niobrara decided to dedicate their own memorial to the 74 sailors which includes all of their names, photos and the history behind the incident.
This year, a special ceremony was held at the Niobrara Sage Brothers Memorial. On June 2, at 3 p.m. friends and family gathered there to remember the incident exactly 50 years after the event occured, which would be June 3, 3 a.m. where the incident took place between Vietnam and the Spratly Islands.
A special guest, Darwin Sietsema, a Navy veteran from Ruthton, Minn. spoke at the ceremony. Sietsema remembers the tragic night vividly as he wasn’t too far from the collision serving on the James E. Kyes. In fact, the Kyes was sent to the collision to help in rescue efforts.
He recalled the event, “right away we launched our small boats, but we felt helpless,” he said. “There was nothing you could do. It was over with.”
Historians say that it took less than five minutes for the bow to sink taking 73 men with it, one body was also recovered from the water.
Sietsema asked the small crowd if they remembered where they were when JFK was shot, when the terrorists attacked the twin towers. He stated how he will never forget where he was in the South China Sea when the Melbourne struck the Evans.
He also pleaded with the crowd to keep up the efforts on getting the 74 sailors names on the Vietnam wall.
The ceremony also included the reading of the 74 sailor’s names followed by the traditional ringing of the bell.
All of the lost sailors names, photos and brief summary of each sailor can be found at www.ussfee.org/the74.html
Names of the 74 include:
ENSIGN ALAN HERBERT ARMSTRONG
SEAMAN JAMES ROBERT BAKER
YEOMAN THIRD CLASS ANDREW JAMES BOTTO
RADARMAN THIRD CLASS THOMAS BELUE BOX
ELECTRONICS TECHNICIAN THIRD CLASS JAMES FRANKLIN BRADLEY
ENSIGN ROBERT GEORGE BRANDON
SEAMAN APPRENTICE HARRIS MELVIN BROWN
BOILER TECHNICIAN SECOND CLASS WILLIAM DANIEL BROWN II
CHIEF HOSPITAL CORPSMAN CHARLES WILLIAM CANNINGTON
RADARMAN SECOND CLASS CHRISTOPHER JOHN CARLSON
SEAMAN MICHAEL KALE CLAWSON
SEAMAN DANNY VICTOR CLUTE
YEOMAN THIRD CLASS JAMES RICHARD CMEYLA
ELECTRONICS TECHNICIAN THIRD CLASS LARRY WAYNE COOL
SEAMAN PATRICK MICHAEL CORCORAN
SEAMAN APPRENTICE JOE EDDIE CRAIG
ELECTRONICS TECHNICIAN (RADAR) THIRD CLASS JAMES WILBURN DAVIS
SEAMAN APPRENTICE LEON LARRY DEAL
SEAMAN JAMES FRED DYKES III
SEAMAN APPRENTICE RAYMOND JOSEPH EARLEY
GUNNERS MATE THIRD CLASS STEVEN FRANK ESPINOSA
SEAMAN APPRENTICE STEPHEN DONALD FAGAN
SEAMAN APPRENTICE WILLIAM DONALD FIELDS
SEAMAN APPRENTICE ALAN CARL FLUMMER
SEAMAN APPRENTICE HENRY KENNETH FRYE
SEAMAN FRANCIS JOSEPH GARCIA
SONAR TECHNICIAN (SURFACE) THIRD CLASS MELVIN HOLLMAN GARDNER
SEAMAN APPRENTICE DONALD EUGENE GEARHART
BOATSWAINS MATE THIRD CLASS PATRICK GENE GLENNON
SEAMAN APPRENTICE KENNETH WAYNE GLINES
SEAMAN APPRENTICE JOE LUIS GONZALES
SONAR TECHNICIAN (SURFACE) THIRD CLASS LARRY ALLAN GRACELY
SEAMAN APPRENTICE DEVERE RAY GRISSOM, JR.
SEAMAN APPRENTICE STEVEN ALLEN GUYER
RADARMAN THIRD CLASS TERRY LEE HENDERSON
CHIEF ELECTRICIANS MATE EDWARD PHILIP HESS
RADARMAN SECOND CLASS GARRY BRADBURY HODGSON
SEAMAN APPRENTICE DENNIS RALPH JOHNSTON
SEAMAN APPRENTICE JAMES WILLIAM KERR
CHIEF BOATSWAINS MATE WILLIE LEE KING
CHIEF RADARMAN GEORGE JOSEPH LA LIBERTE'
RADIOMAN SECOND CLASS RAYMOND PATRICK LEBRUN
RADARMAN FIRST CLASS EUGENE FRANCIS LEHMAN
SEAMAN APPRENTICE ISAAC LYONS, JR.
SEAMAN APPRENTICE DOUGLAS ROY MEISTER
SEAMAN APPRENTICE ANDREW MARTIN MELENDREZ
SEAMAN FREDERIC CONRAD MESSIER
SEAMAN APPRENTICE TIMOTHY LYNN MILLER
ENSIGN JOHN TOWNSEND NORTON, JR.
ENSIGN GREGORY KOICHI OGAWA
SEAMAN APPRENTICE MICHAEL ANTHONY ORLIKOWSKI
INTERIOR COMMUNICATIONS ELECTRICIAN SECOND CLASS LINDEN RUSSELL ORPURT
LIEUTENANT JUNIOR GRADE DWIGHT SCOTT PATTEE
SEAMAN APPRENTICE CRAIG ALLEN PENNELL
SEAMAN APPRENTICE JEROME PICKETT
YEOMAN SECOND CLASS EARL FREDERICK PRESTON, JR.
BOILER TECHNICIAN THIRD CLASS LAWRENCE JOHN REILLY, JR.
RADARMAN SECOND CLASS VICTOR THOMAS RIKAL
BOATSWAINS MATE SECOND CLASS GARY LOREN SAGE
RADARMAN THIRD CLASS GREGORY ALLAN SAGE
SEAMAN APPRENTICE KELLY JO SAGE
SEAMAN APPRENTICE JOHN ALAN SAUVEY
BOILER TECHNICIAN FIREMAN APPRENTICE ROBERT JAMES SEARLE
FIREMAN APPRENTICE GERALD WAYNE SMITH
SEAMAN THURSTON PERRY SMITH, JR.
SONAR TECHNICIAN SECOND CLASS JOHN RAYMOND SPRAY
LIEUTENANT JUNIOR GRADE JON KENNETH STEVER
SEAMAN APPRENTICE THOMAS FRED TALLON
RADARMAN SECOND CLASS RONALD ARTHUR THIBODEAU
RADARMAN THIRD CLASS JON WAYNE THOMAS
SEAMAN APPRENTICE JOHN THOMAS TOLAR
QUARTERMASTER THIRD CLASS GARY JOSEPH VIGUE
RADARMAN THIRD CLASS CON WESLEY WARNOCK
SEAMAN APPRENTICE HENRY DENNIS WEST III