Proponents of ‘Lost 74’ honor appeal to Trump

Proponents of ‘Lost 74’ honor appeal to Trump

Bill Thibeault, a Pawtucket native, stands by the grave of his lost shipmate, Frederic Messier, during a ceremony at his grave in the Resurrection Cemetery of Cumberland three years ago. Thibeault is launching a cross-country tour with his song ‘Recognition’ in hopes of finally getting the names of Messier and others killed in the 1969 crash of the USS Frank E. Evans off Vietnam onto the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

CUMBERLAND – Advocates for the “Lost 74” are hoping the unpredictable nature of President Donald Trump will bring them the answer they’ve long desired.

They say they’ve heard through the grapevine that their petition to the president to have the names of those who died in the 1969 crash of the USS Frank E. Evans near Vietnam properly honored might be making its way up the chain of command.

Two of the sailors on the USS Frank E. Evans during its deadly crash were from Rhode Island. One, Cumberland native Frederic C. Messier Jr., died. A second, Pawtucket native Bill Thibeault, lived to tell the tale and has been seeking proper honor for Messier and his other shipmates for many years.

A year away from the 50th anniversary of that crash, none of the names of the 74 sailors killed off the coast of Vietnam on June 3, 1969, are represented on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., despite that being the worst Naval disaster of the war.

Members of the USS Frank E. Evans Association, who have long advocated for the addition of the names to the memorial, are now calling on Trump to issue an executive order forcing the U.S. Department of Defense to add the names of the victims to the memorial. The request comes after recent efforts in Congress to add the names failed again.

Survivor Thibeault, 68, a Pawtucket native who now lives in Connecticut, said advocates for getting the names added are nearing their breaking point.

“All of us are so damn frustrated it’s not funny,” he said. “It’s gone on way too long.” The group has come so close to breaking through on multiple occasions, said Thibeault, but “someone in the Senate always shoots it down.”

The most common excuse given, said Thibeault, is that there isn’t much room left on the wall and that adding the names “would open a can of worms.”

“We’re still fighting,” he said.

Messier was one of the “Lost 74,” who perished at sea when the Evans collided with an Australian aircraft carrier in the South China Sea around 3 a.m. Just shy of his 21st birthday, he was at the front of the ship, while Thibeault was at the rear.

Thibeault is honoring his friend, “Mess,” as he called him, as well as the others with cross-country performances of his new song, “Recognition,” promoting the cause (listen to the song at www.billthibeault.com).

Anne White, a Cumberland resident and one of Messier’s sisters who’s been fighting for proper honor for more than two decades, said the “U.S. government has really fallen short” in its obligation to honor those lost.

“Those 74 young men, their names aren’t on that wall, and they should be on that wall,” she said. “All I know is there’s something not right with this.”

U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse has been a point person on the matter, she said, but even he hasn’t been able to move the needle. Representatives from Whitehouse’s office did not respond to requests for comment this week.

White said she and her brother Dick were born and raised in Cumberland, her brother playing Little League and delivering local newspapers. “Everyone knew him,” she said.

When the crash happened, the government immediately seemed to hush it up, “closing it really tight, really fast,” added White.

“There’s something about this that we don’t know, and I don’t know if I’ll ever find out in my lifetime,” she said. “It’s such a horrible mess. From the day that ship went down, those guys didn’t matter to anyone.”

She said her previous efforts to have a monument erected at Veterans Memorial Park in the Cumberland Monastery came up short after she said staff of former Mayor Dan McKee told her such a monument didn’t fit the vision for the area, said White.

A ceremony was held two years ago in Cumberland’s Resurrection Cemetery marking the placement of a stone to honor Messier and others who died that day. Mayor Bill Murray said Tuesday that his impression at the time was that the family was satisfied with the placement of the stone and dedication of a tree in his memory.

White said there have been suggestions that the lack of a national honor was because the ship was outside the war zone, but other names on the national monument were also not in a war zone when they died.

According to members of the Evans Association, they recently learned that the U.S. House of Representatives in May overwhelmingly approved an amendment in the National Defense Authorization Act for 2019 to add the names to the wall, but Senate did not. The bill sent to Trump did not include the provision.

“We recently were told the amendment failed because of pushback from the Department of Defense because of space on the memorial,” said association president Steve Kraus, a survivor of the 1969 shipwreck, adding that several years ago congressional efforts established that there is space on the memorial. “This is all smoke in mirrors from the DOD, whose only job is to say, these men died defending our freedom in the Vietnam War.”

The 74 were not considered war casualties because the Evans had been pulled away from battle to help escort the Australian carrier. The collision, in which those involved cited numerous errors on both sides, occurred outside the combat zone. A news release from the government reported the location of the crash as being 650 miles off the coast of Manila, even though it occurred 230 miles from Vietnam.

Kraus emphasized that the Evans and all U.S. ships operating in those waters at the time of the accident received Vietnam Service Medals, for which the criteria mirrors that for inclusion on the wall. The Department of Defense last year silently rescinded some but not all of those medals.

“It’s a disgrace that they can just take our medals away just to make their case a little less shaky,” said Kraus.

Despite the setback, Kraus said the group is the closest it has become to resolution. In addition to support from numerous lawmakers, the U.S. Secretary of the Navy in 2010 and 2016 endorsed adding the names to the wall. In 2015, the state of California added the names of the 23 Californians killed on the ship to its Vietnam memorial in Sacramento.

Louise Esola wrote the book “American Boys: The True Story of the Lost 74 of the Vietnam War. She has original records showing Vietnam Service Medals for the Evans and other American vessels that were there on the morning of June 3, 1969.

“A key point has always been that the ship and all the American ships there that morning, including the one that came to the aid of the Evans, all received Vietnam Service Medals, a citation you can only receive if you are doing something related to the war,” she said in a previous statement. “This is the third tragedy. The first was the incident. The second was leaving those names off the wall. The third is this. To keep from answering questions, they simply alter naval records. How convenient.”

Military provisions allow officials to add names of those who were traveling to or from a combat mission, said Kraus.

Kraus said he and others long ago agreed that the 74 names would not have to be lumped together, as is traditionally done, but even that concession failed to memorialize the names.

“We’ve proven that there’s space on the wall,” he said. “We’re not giving up and we’re not quitting on the issue.”

Frederic Messier after entering the U.S. Navy.