Seventy-four sailors who died during the Vietnam War might have been forgotten if not for the small Nebraska town of Niobrara, where an impressive memorial has been created.
The 74 men were aboard the USS Frank Evans when it collided with an Australian ship in the early morning hours of June 3, 1969.
A program will be held at Niobrara beginning at 3 p.m. on Sunday, June 2, to honor the sacrifices of the sailors who lost their lives that night in the South China Sea. The start time coincides with 3 a.m. in Vietnam, the hour in which the ship was sunk.
“We welcome anyone and everyone who wants to come,” says Jim Scott, the commander of the Niobrara American Legion. “The tragedy of the USS Evans should always be remembered.”
However, the Evans story is especially poignant in Niobrara because three of the town’s young men were on the ship that night. Gary, Greg and Kelly Sage were brothers who grew up on a farm near town 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 the 376-foot ship was split in two by the collision with an Australian aircraft carried called the Melbourne. All three perished in the black night at sea. The 199 sailors on the stern survived.
Scott says the June 2 remembrance will include a prayer, music and a reading of the names. Darwin Sietsema, a Navy veteran from Ruthton, Minn., will also speak. He was serving that summer on the James E. Kyes, which was only a few miles from the collision.
His ship was sent to assist with rescue efforts. “Right away we launched our small boats, but we felt helpless,” he says. “There was nothing you could do. It was over with.”
Once Sietsema learned about the Niobrara memorial, he began to make an annual pilgrimage to Nebraska to pay respects on June 2. This year, the 50th anniversary, he agreed to offer his somber memories of the event and its aftermath.
The public is welcome to attend the services, which will be held at the memorial site along U.S. Highway 12 in the middle of town. The town’s museum, which is just west of the memorial, will be open after the program. The museum has a special exhibit of photographs, artifacts and stories about the Evans and the Sage brothers.
Scott says the tragedy became even more pronounced for survivors when 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. That omission led to the Niobrara memorial, which includes the names, photographs and a history of the tragedy.
“There are still efforts to add the names to the wall,” he says. “I don’t know if that will ever happen. But these men will not be forgotten here in Nebraska.”