It was 4 a.m. and sleep was a kind lady to Del Francis. He was in his bunk two decks below the main deck of the United States destroyer Frank E. Evans snoozing away. It was June 3, 1969 and the Evans was just taking part in SEATO (South East Asia Treaty Organization) exercises in the South China Sea which was nothing more than a show of force to dissuade China from trying to take over some of the small islands in the area.
An exercise like this was much less dangerous and hectic as the duty had been just a couple of weeks before when the Evans was just off the coast of Vietnam firing groundfire in support of Marine operations in South Vietnam.
That early June morning in 1969 the Evans was escorting the Australian aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne during the SEATO exercise. Ships were all running dark, with no lights, and the Melbourne was about to launch aircraft, which meant that the Evans had to change positions from in front of the carrier to behind the carrier. Somehow in all that darkness the course of the Evans was changed incorrectly and unknowingly the destroyer was right in the path of the Melbourne.
In the darkness, nobody could see what was happening, but suddenly the Melbourne hit the Evans broadside, right in the middle and split the U.S. destroyer into two pieces. Francis was bounced out of his bunk as the ship was struck and the front half rolled over on its side. It only took about four minutes for the front half of the ship to sink to the bottom of the South China Sea, which is some 1,100 fathoms, or about 6,600 feet, deep at that point. That left little time for those crewmen in the front portion of the ship to make their way out of the ship to save their lives.
“With the ship on its side, we had to walk on the edges of tables through the mess deck to get to a ladder that led to the first deck below the main deck. When we got there, we found a hatch that led out of the ship, but we could only get it open a tiny bit.
“Bob Petty was standing watch and got thrown clear of the ship when the collision occurred. He swam back to the sinking front half of the ship, crawled up on it and pulled that hatch open from the outside and 17 of us got out through it,” Francis remembers.
“The captain had been thrown off the ship into the water also and he too swam back and crawled up on the sinking front half of the ship where we were. When it became obvious that the ship was going down quickly we had to get off it and as far away from it as possible to keep from being sucked down into the water with it when it sank.
“I am a non-swimmer, but I ran right off the end of that ship and jumped into the water and started dog paddling, floating on my back, and doing all I could to get away from that ship. I got maybe 100 feet away before it went down. It pulled on my legs a little, but it didn’t pull me down,” Evans continued with his recollection of that tragic morning.
While all this had been going on with the sinking front half of the ship, Australian sailors had jumped from the flight deck to the back half of the Evans some 40 to 50 below and lashed it to the carrier, thus saving the back half from sinking and allowing it to be towed to port for salvage.
All the sailors from the back half of the ship survived the tragic events of June 3, 1969, but the lives of 74 sailors from the front half of the ship were lost. And the loss of those lives and the failure of those sailors to be recognized as casualties of the Vietnam War is the driving force which has led Francis on a year-long campaign that brought him to Mineola this past Saturday to make a 26-mile bike ride which was part of the Mineola Metric 100 event, benefitting the East Texas Food Bank and the American Diabetes Association.
Evans began his Ride for Recognition on June 3, 2016, when he launched a 74-day bike ride to Washington, D.C. to draw attention to the fact that the 74 sailors who had given their lives in that accident were not recognized as casualties of the Vietnam War because the accident occurred some 100 miles away from the combat zone. The exercise it was participating in was a show of force to bolster the position of SEATO in the Vietnam area of the world and just two weeks before the accident the Evans had been delivering ground fire into Vietnam in support of Marines.
“There are the names of 68 Marines who died in Hong Kong while on R and R that can be found on the Vietnam Memorial wall, but the names of those sailors who lost their lives on the Evans have not been allowed on the wall. I don’t know what the politics behind this is. It is up to the U.S. Department of Defense to decide what names go on the monument. A month ago, it looked like we were finally going to get our sailors remembered on that wall, but something has happened and it may not get done again,” Francis said.
Besides his 74-day ride to Washington, Francis has made five rides like the Mineola Metric 100 to call attention to his Ride for Recognition effort and in June he will ride 300 miles in the Great Cycle Challenge as another big effort for his campaign.
Francis began this effort because he turned 74 on May 22, 2016, and at 74 it was time he did something to aid the cause of his 74 shipmates lost at sea when the Evans was destroyed in the South China Sea. Francis has peddled his bicycle lots of miles for a 74-year-old and that 300-mile effort he will undertake in June will be as a 75-year-old, not a challenge too many cyclers just half his age is willing to undertake.
While Francis was making his 74-day trek to Washington, he made daily posts on Facebook, remembering a different one of his 74 shipmates that perished each day. Frank Jablonski, the ship’s historian for the US Destroyer Frank E. Evans Association, collected all those posts by Francis and compiled them into a book.