Sens. Steve Daines and Jon Tester are part of a bipartisan group of federal lawmakers hoping to find a home for the “Lost 74,” a group of U.S. sailors who died in 1969 when their ship collided with an Australian vessel in a training exercise off the coast of Vietnam.
The two signed a Sept. 9 letter to the Armed Services committees in the House and Senate asking that the names of the sailors be included on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall.
This includes William Fields, who grew up in Great Falls, who served as a seaman apprentice aboard the U.S.S. Frank E. Evans. He and the names of the other sailors killed have been omitted so far, because the incident took place outside of the conflict zone, officials said.
Daines, a Republican and Tester, a Democrat, said they should be honored regardless.
“Montana is home to thousands of brave men and women who served our nation, and to those who have paid the ultimate price for our freedom. They should be properly recognized,” Daines said in an email. “From Great Falls, Montana, William Fields served this nation in Vietnam, and it’s long overdue he receives the proper recognition for that service.”
Tester, ranking member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, threw his support behind the bill in May.
“Young sailors like William Fields made the ultimate sacrifice 50 years ago protecting the freedoms we enjoy today,” he said in an email. “Now, it is time to honor these sailors on behalf of an eternally grateful nation. We must properly commemorate William and other Vietnam War heroes like him, by ensuring their names are never forgotten.”
The Evans, a destroyer named after a brigadier general of the U.S. Marine Corps, and the HMAS Melbourne, a Majestic-class light aircraft carrier of the Royal Australian Navy, collided June 3, 1969. The Evans sailed under Melbourne’s bow, where it was cut in two and sank into the South China Sea at about 3 a.m. There were 199 survivors from the Evans.
In the letter, the eight senators ask lawmakers to include Senate Bill 849 in the National Defense Authorization Act, which would add the names of 74 sailors to the Vietnam Memorial wall who died off the coast of Vietnam in a training accident outside of the conflict zone.
“While hundreds of names have been added since it was built, the memorial still does not include the ‘Lost 74,’” the lawmakers wrote.
According to the U.S.S. Frank E. Evans Association, William Donald Fields was born Dec. 25, 1950, in Great Falls. He was the son of Jack and Lucy Fields and had a sister named Teresa. He went to boot camp in San Diego and was a seaman apprentice.
“William grew up in the Montana countryside and enjoyed ranching,” the posting states.
“He enjoyed working with stained glass windows and was involved with youth leadership.”
The website states Jack Fields was in the Air Force and the family moved to Sacramento.
Fields reported on board the U.S.S. Frank E. Evans 17 days prior to the fatal collision. He was 18 when he died.
“While the incident occurred about 100 miles outside of the official combat zone, the ship and a majority of the deceased sailors had previously provided naval gunfire off the coast of Vietnam, including during the Tet Offensive,” the senators wrote.
“This marks 50 years since we lost these 74 sailors,” the senators wrote. “Honoring their service is already long overdue, but what better way to commemorate their sacrifice than to see their names added. Now is the time. Just ask the nearly 60,000 people who died in Vietnam, these 74 left home to give their country their all, and they did not return. We respectfully request that Section 1094 remain in the final conference text so the ‘Lost 74’ are lost no more.”
One of the people who hopes to see the names added to the wall is Steve Kraus, president and chairman of the U.S.S. Frank E. Evans Association, which has 280 members consisting of survivors of the deadly crash, the families of victims and survivors and others interested in history.
He said much of the group’s time has been in dealing with the bureaucracy in Washington, D.C.
“(The names) should have been done without any thought a long time ago,” he said in a telephone interview from his California home. “This is just something that was automatic and a no-brainer and now it takes the Senate and Congress to get the Department of Defense to do the right thing.”
Kraus, 74, is a survivor and said he is one of the few witnesses to the crash.
He said he was a signalman on watch and tried to warn the pilothouse as the Melbourne approached. He said it happened fast. He said the collision haunts him every now and then.
“You see flashbacks and you see things,” he said. “You challenge yourself” as to whether some things happened if memories change with time.
Kraus said among the dead were three brothers from Nebraska.
He said he did not know Fields, but met his sister, Teresa, several years ago. He said she died in 2016. Kraus said the 74 came from 27 states and stones have been put in those states in their honor. He said Fields’ stone is in Bremerton, Washington, because he was living there at the time he enlisted.
Kraus said it will bring relief when the names are finally added to the wall.
“I’d only hoped this would have happened way before all parents passed away,” he said.