Honor the 'Lost 74' sailors on Vietnam Memorial Wall

"It's the names," remarked Maya Lin, the designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (The Wall) in Washington, D.C., when asked why it had such a deep emotional impact on people.  "The names are the memorial.  No edifice or structure can bring people to mind as powerfully as their names," Lin said.

Sadly, for this Memorial Day, there are still 74 names of sailors (Lost 74) from the USS Frank E. Evans missing from the 58,000+ names on The Wall.

The Lost 74 died in the worst naval disaster of the Vietnam War, when the Evans was cut in half from a collision with an Australian aircraft carrier on June 3, 1969.  The destroyer was participating in a 40-ship armada "show of force" war exercise to intimidate the North Vietnamese. 

The Evans crew was deployed to the Vietnam War, and the destroyer had served in several naval bombardment missions to support ground troops in Vietnam, including the Tet offensive, and would have returned after the war exercise.

They are not on The Wall that is a sacred pilgrimage site for Vietnam veterans and relatives who had lost loved ones — a place of healing that is visited by an estimated 5.6 million people annually and where more than 400,000 items have been left in remembrance.  Medals, flags, dog tags, crosses, uniforms, letters, and helmets — to name just a few, all have been left there.

Pictures of these 74 men are not found on the  "Wall of Faces" — a heartbreaking massive virtual photo album of the thousands of men and women whose names are on The Wall.  The Lost 74 are not on The Wall because they died outside the arbitrarily described "combat zone."  This "imaginary line" in the ocean was described with coordinates in President Johnson's Executive Order 11216 issued for combat pay purposes.

The USS Frank E. Evans Association has been fighting for years to get its shipmates honored on The Wall and have been denied again and again by Congress and the Pentagon.  Steve Kraus, a survivor and president of the Evans Association, remarked, "They deserve to be on that wall, so anything else other than that is just a slap in the face."

There is legislation in the Senate (S.849), "The USS Frank E. Evans Act," that would authorize the names of the Lost 74 to be inscribed on The Wall.  The bill now has 20 cosponsors.  Last week, Senators Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) spoke in favor of passage of the bill.  But it took only Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) to block unanimous consent passage.  Murkowski claimed: "There remain practical, legal and technical considerations that we have to resolve."  Murkowski chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which oversees the National Park Service (NPS) that maintains the memorial.  The NPS believes there is not enough room on The Wall for a large addition of names.

Senator Cramer, who is the sponsor of S.849, said, "The idea that we should continue to turn a blind eye to forgotten veterans because the work would be 'substantial' is ludicrous."

But how were these names chosen to be on The Wall in the first place?

The answer is complicated, with many exceptions made.

For example, according to Johnson's Jan. 1, 1964 executive order, there was "the commencing date of combatant activities" Jan.1, 1964.  But The Wall has names dating back to 1959, when there was no official combat zone established.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund was the nonprofit group that built The Wall from private donations.  It was an incredible undertaking that was led by Jan Scruggs, a Vietnam veteran.  Robert Doubek, another Vietnam veteran, and a founder of the VVMF, "was tasked with identifying all of the names to be included on the Wall."

There is no official listing of casualties from the Vietnam War, but Doubek "tried to make the best call he could when adding names to the list." Doubek has written a book on his experience building the Vietnam Memorial and determined that a multitude of deserving men had died outside the official "combat zone"  In his own words, he says: "I added those names" to the Wall.

This included:

1. Deaths from an Air Force bomber from Guam exploding over the Pacific.
2. Deaths from the SS Mayaguez incident in Cambodia
3. Deaths that occurred in Thailand and Laos

Doubek confirms that these deaths were technically "outside the war zone."  

The coastal waters combat zone was approximately 100 miles off the Vietnam shoreline. I want to emphasize that this was an arbitrary zone that could have been placed at 200 miles off of Vietnam, which would have put the Evans disaster in the combat zone.  Tim Tetz from VVMF said, "We have room for about two more long names, about two dozen medium sized names and several hundred short names."

Since the mid-1980s, Tetz says the DOD was given the authority to determine if a veteran meets a specific criteria to have their name on The Wall.

There have been 375 names added to The Wall since it was dedicated in 1982.  The additional names are placed in the margins between the wall slabs.

A few years ago, Hannah Ackerman, a high school student from Cedar Falls, Iowa, won an essay contest writing about the plight of the Lost 74.  "So a difference of about 100 miles keeps them from being honored," Ackerman said.  "And there are no boundary lines for heroes, I say."

Amen.  There are no boundary lines for heroes.  Our country needs to honor these 74 forgotten sailors.

It's the names.  Their names deserve to be on The Wall.

The writer is a USAF veteran and the son of a decorated WWII air combat veteran who was listed as MIA in March 1945.

Image credit: Pixabay public domain.