It all began as a routine naval exercise between the U.S. and Australia during the Vietnam War. But for Watchman Steve Kraus, nothing could ever prepare him for the events that were about to unfold before his eyes.
"I came forward to over the bridge and I could see the carrier coming directly right at us," Kraus recalled. "I ran into the signal shack, I hit the 1MC that we designate communication between locations, and said, We're going to get hit.' And I probably no sooner got that out and we actually got hit."
At 3:15 am on June 3, 1969, The American destroyer: the USS Frank E. Evans was struck at mid-ship by the Australian carrier: the HMAS Melbourne. The collision immediately caused the Evans to roll over on its side at a 90-degree angle while simultaneously breaking in half. Krauss, who was located on the bow of the Evans, rushed to escape as the front half of the ship took on more and more water by the second.
"I kicked open the shack door, the water was right there and I swam away from the ship. The adrenaline was pumping, and I went and swam and swam and swam," remembered Kraus. "I swam so far out that I actually, literally had to swim back in to be picked up. But I do remember seeing the bow go all the way up and it went down. The bow sank between two and three minutes."
Kraus, now living with his family in California, considered himself to be one of the lucky ones. As the bow sank, it took with it the lives of 74 sailors trapped inside. The Melbourne carrier, only slightly damaged by the crash, immediately maneuvered alongside the stern of the Evans and used mooring lines to attach the two ships together. The remaining 199 survivors were reportedly located and rescued within 30 minutes of the accident, but the psychological effects of the disaster would last for years.
The aftermath of the collision in the South China Sea brought an official investigation by both governments. And while the incident was ruled an accident, the aftershock of the tragedy rippled all throughout the country. For Linda Sage and her husband's family in Niobrara, Nebraska; the news changed their lives forever.
"I think we were all numb. I don't think we really knew anything that was going on," recalled Linda. "It was just such a stress. The flags were at half-staff all around town. I think we were just all zombies. "
Prior to the wreck, her Husband Greg and his two brothers Gary and Kelly enlisted in the Navy. For Linda and her husband's family, it seemed like the smart choice. After all, it offered a safer alternative to the army. But then came the shocking news: the three brothers had died at sea. For Linda Sage, the mother of Greg's 13-month-old son at the time, the news was devastating and difficult to accept.
"It was really hard. I think if there would have been a body I could have accepted it. Every time I would see a sailor, I would break down and I would look and see if it was Greg. Maybe he's really alive! Maybe he didn't die, maybe he's got amnesia and he got onto another ship and they picked him up. Or he's on a desert island and he's waiting for me there? That was probably the thought of not just me. I think all the widows had that hope and dream that we would find them someday on a deserted island," said Linda.
It's been more than 40 years now, but for the survivors and family members of those killed, the memories have remained strong. Standing guard over many of those memories are a small group of retired women in Niobrara. At the Memories of Old Niobrara Museum, a collection of newspaper clippings and photographs commemorating the Sage brothers still remain perfectly intact.
Volunteers Helen Lawldman and Jo Cameron both work at the small museum. Lawldman fondly remembered the three brothers before the war.
"They were nice young men. Farm boys, really," stressed Lawldman. "Kelly (the youngest) used to buy gas from us all the time. He was just like one of our kids."
"It just was unbelievable, when it came back to Niobrara that they (Ernest and Eunice Sage) had lost them all," added Cameron.
Photo courtesy of the USS Frank E. Evans (DD 754) Association, Inc.
Several survivors of the USS Frank E Evans disaster pose for a photo at an Association reunion in 2008 (including Steve Kraus)
Niobrara has since become a symbol for survivors of the Evans disaster throughout the country. Particularly for the USS Frank E. Evans Association, a group currently that's working for the names of the 74 sailors killed to be placed on the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial. The government has denied the request because the wreck was not part of war operations in Vietnam. The group continues to holding reunions and meetings, every year, with the latest being held last month in Waterloo, Iowa.
Linda is now remarried under the last name Vaa. She said the late parents of the Sage brothers, Ernest and Eunice, were frequent visitors of those reunions. She also said that both wanted the brothers' names to be placed on the memorial. A wish unfulfilled before both their deaths.
"This broke Ernie's heart, just something terrible," stressed Linda. "And he went to his grave feeling extremely sad that his children were not considered casualties of the war. And then of course, that was Eunice's dream- and it looks like it's getting closer all the time. But of course, she went to her grave a year ago without seeing the boys' names on the wall.
"Linda says that despite never seeing their names on the wall, Eunice Sage took comfort over the years in meeting survivors from the disaster and treating them as if they were her own family.
"The first time she met, I don't know which one of the young men, and he looks at her with his face just dropping clear down to his toes, and he says, I am so sorry your boys are dead and I'm still alive.' And she looked and she pointed her finger at him and said, "I don't ever want to hear you say that again. I am so glad you are alive, and you are here for a reason," said Linda. "Eunice felt that about every one of the survivors because they're the ones that have kept the memory, the hopes and the dreams alive."