COLUMBIA, S.C. – At the height of the Vietnam War, the USS Frank E. Evans, a Sumner-class destroyer, was participating in an exercise with allies in the South China Sea when something went horribly wrong. She was accidentally rammed and cut in half by an Australian aircraft carrier, and 74 American sailors lost their lives.
Not one of those 74 men is named on the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington. And that’s a source of additional grief for survivors of the disaster.
On Friday, July 27, documentary filmmaker Ray Smith of Blythewood will tell their story in a free program at the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum in Columbia. Regulars at the museum’s monthly Lunch & Learn sessions will remember Ray from the April program, when he presented his riveting documentary, “Voices from Vietnam: Reflecting at the Wall.” That film featured Vietnam veterans who visited a traveling version of the Vietnam Memorial when it visited Blythewood.
Actually, his film about the Evans grew out of the previous one. Among the veterans Ray interviewed at the traveling exhibit was Rolf Buchner, who had been a sailor on the Evans. Due to technical problems, that interview didn’t make the film about the Wall. But Ray and his son Andrew were so impressed by his story that they decided to tell it in a separate documentary.
The result was “The Lost 74: The Story of the USS Frank E. Evans,” which will be shown at the museum on the 27th.
The Evans had been in the Vietnam theater for some time, mainly as a floating artillery platform supporting infantry operations. On June 3, 1969, it was in the South China Sea taking a break from combat operations to participate in a joint exercise under the auspices of SEATO, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization.
It was practicing anti-submarine warfare tactics with a combined force of ships from the United States, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. They were operating without running lights, under simulated battle conditions.
At 3 a.m., the Evans, which was steaming slightly ahead of the Australian aircraft carrier Melbourne, was ordered to take up a “plane guard” position 2,000 yards astern the carrier – a position from which the destroyer would be able to rescue aviators in case they had to ditch near the carrier.
But the Evans was out of position, and the order was misunderstood. The result was that the Melbourne plowed into her, cut her in half, and 74 Americans died.
On July 27, survivor Rolf Buchner will join Ray Smith at the museum for the presentation. Buchner wants his shipmates’ names on the Wall. “I think they deserve it,” says Buchner to anyone who will listen. “The Vietnam War was our reason for being there…. Those people deserve recognition.”
About the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum
Founded in 1896, the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum is an accredited museum focusing on South Carolina’s distinguished martial tradition through the Revolutionary War, Mexican War, Civil War, Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, the War on Terror, and other American conflicts. It serves as the state’s military history museum by collecting, preserving, and exhibiting South Carolina’s military heritage from the colonial era to the present, and by providing superior educational experiences and programming. It is located at 301 Gervais St. in Columbia, sharing the Columbia Mills building with the State Museum. For more information, go to https://crr.sc.gov/.
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