Shipwreck survivors still fighting for recognition, 43 years later

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by JIM DOUGLAS

Bio | Email | Follow: @wfaajdouglas

WFAA

Posted on September 28, 2012 at 10:51 PM

Updated Saturday, Sep 29 at 4:54 PM

D/FW AIRPORT -- Every ship's crew has stories to tell at reunions.

Listen to the story of the USS Frank E Evans, from the night of June 3, 1969.

"I heard a big loud crash," recalled Tom Anthony, his eyes reddening. "Water coming in about 15 feet to my left."

The Evans had been blacked out for a large night training exercise in the South China Sea. It crossed the path of the Australian aircraft carrier Melbourne, which cut the smaller destroyer in half.

Anthony, a radar operator from Fort Worth, had just gone to bed after being relieved by his best friend, Greg Sage. He found himself scrambling through darkened corridors turned at a 45-degree angle.

He remembers looking back, "water coming through the hatch I just left. Water hit the light. I saw my friends get sucked down."

With sailors screaming and dying behind him, a jammed hatch blocked Anthony's escape, until someone opened it from the outside. A sailor had swum back to the sinking bow, and risked his life to open hatches.

Anthony jumped into the sea, and struggled to get away from the suction.

"I rolled over -- backstroked," he said. "I looked at my ship. Saw it go down. Giant bubbles, and it was gone."

Floating nearby, Chief gunner's mate Larry Reilly, Sr. watched the front of the ship sink. He didn't know 74 sailors would die that night.

But he knew Larry Reilly Jr. was at his station, deep in the bow.

"It was pretty obvious to me no one was going to get out of that forward fire room," recalled the 88-year-old Reilly. "Ship went down in three-and-a-half minutes."

Reilly lost his son. The Sage family of Nebraska lost three sons, Greg, Gary and Kelly.

But 199 sailors survived. Sixteen of them joined sailors from previous years at the Hyatt Regency at D/FW Airport for the annual reunion.

They're still a fighting crew -- fighting the government to get the fallen sailors' names inscribed on the Vietnam Memorial.

The Evans had steamed just beyond the combat zone for training after firing on Vietnam the day before. Survivor Steve Kraus believes the government did not want to classify them as Vietnam-related casualties, because such a large loss would increase political pressure to end the war.

"It was probably a directive that this was a training exercise, non-Vietnam related," Kraus said. "Scratch off 74."

"I'm 65. I was 22 when it happened," Tom Anthony said. "Every day I have nightmares."

After the Navy, Anthony was a letter carrier in Arlington for nearly 25 years. He still carries deep emotional scars from that night in 1969.

"It's been 43 years," he said. "And I'm still mad about it."

E-mail jdouglas@wfaa.com

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