May 20, 2020 In the News

Fight to honor ‘Lost 74’ intensifies as Memorial Day nears

Seacoast Online
By D. Allan Kerr
May 20, 2020

With Memorial Day approaching, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and other lawmakers are making a renewed push to honor 74 sailors – including a Seacoast man – lost during a tragic accident at the height of the Vietnam War.

But last week the effort hit another wall, and not the one intended.

Shaheen, D-N.H., took to the floor of the U.S. Senate May 14 to again make the case for the sailors who perished aboard the destroyer USS Frank E. Evans in June 1969. One of the “Lost 74” was Petty Officer Third Class Gary J. Vigue, who was a 21-year-old Farmington native and Dover High School graduate.

“Gary had married his high school sweetheart a few weeks before he reported to the Frank Evans in 1968,” Shaheen said last week. “Gary also left behind a young son, and his two brothers who still live in New Hampshire.”

Vigue and Manchester-born, 23-year-old radarman Ronald Arthur Thibodeau were among the sailors on watch during a massive nighttime training exercise when the Evans collided with an Australian aircraft carrier. The HMAS Melbourne literally sliced through the Evans during the early-morning hours of June 3, 1969, in the South China Sea.

The ship’s entire bow section sank within just a few minutes, resulting in the loss of the 74 crewmen.

In the years since, family members and surviving shipmates have fought to add the names of the “Lost 74” to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. The Pentagon has declined to do so, as the tragic incident took place outside the designated combat zone established at the time.

Shaheen, a senior member of the Armed Services Committee, had hoped to obtain unanimous consent in the chamber. However, Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, who chairs the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee, objected to the measure.

Shaheen emphasized during her remarks last week the Evans had provided gunfire support for military operations in Vietnam before its fatal training exercise, and was slated to return to those waters upon completion.

“Just like all those other people who were lost in Vietnam, they gave their lives for this country,” Shaheen said. “And just because they were outside some artificially designated combat zone, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be recognized in the same way that the others who were lost in Vietnam have been recognized.”

It would be appropriate to approve the addition of their names to the famous wall now, with the sacrifice of America’s military heroes being recognized on Memorial Day later this month, she said.

Her office released a statement Monday saying the senator “will continue to work across the aisle” to push for the bill, and intends to include it in consideration of this year’s defense bill.

“She’s also continuing to urge the Department of Defense to independently heed the bipartisan calls in Congress,” the release said.

Shaheen is a co-sponsor of the bill introduced by North Dakota Republican Sen. Kevin Cramer, as are the other senators representing New Hampshire and Maine – Maggie Hassan, Susan Collins and Angus King. Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer has also signed onto the bill, and joined Shaheen and Cramer in speaking in its favor last week.

Murkowski told her colleagues she believes the Lost 74 deserve some form of recognition, but while her panel has oversight over the National Park Service it is the Defense Department that decides the criteria for inclusion on the Vietnam wall.

“And as has been raised here on the floor, the criteria do not allow or accommodate the timing,” the Alaska Republican said.

“The Department of Defense, as much respect as I have for them and particularly for the secretary, they work for us. We don’t work for them,” Cramer responded. He said he intends to work to “get things turned around where the bureaucracy begins to submit itself to the legislative branch.”

Shaheen and Cramer had also called for a meeting with Defense Secretary Mark Esper in February to discuss the issue, right before the pandemic hit. That session has not yet taken place.

The USS Frank E. Evans Association, a group of former crewmen and family members advocating for inclusion of the Lost 74 on the wall, thanked Shaheen and Cramer for their support last week. One-fifth of the Senate – 10 Republicans and 10 Democrats – are co-sponsoring this bill. Other organizations such as Veterans of Foreign Wars and Vietnam Veterans of America have endorsed the proposal, according to the association.

“Words cannot express our frustration!” the group announced in a statement after the Senate floor action.

Supporters cite precedence by pointing to President Ronald Reagan’s 1983 decision to add to the Vietnam Wall the names of 50 servicemen killed en route from Hong Kong back to the Vietnam war zone in 1965.

Vigue, a quartermaster, graduated from Dover High School in 1965 and enlisted in the Navy the following year. He served aboard the destroyer escort USS Savage and destroyer USS Leonard F. Mason before his assignment to the Evans.

He married Sarah Guay, a Farmington High graduate, in 1968, and left behind a 5-month-old son when he perished aboard the Evans.