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Finding a place on the Vietnam wall for a local veteran and his shipmates

Randy Henderson vividly remembers the warm June night 46 years ago when his family got the news that his brother, Terry Lee, had died on a Navy ship during the Vietnam War.

It was 1969. He was 13 and in his older brother’s bedroom when the phone rang at their Westfield home. His father screamed and started to cry. When his dad told his mother as she arrived home from her night job at a drug store, she ran off up the street.

“It’s the type of thing that never leaves you,” said Henderson, who now lives in Mayville.

Worse, the June 3 collision of the USS Frank E. Evans that killed his soft-spoken, guitar-playing brother and 73 others didn’t lead to the kind of honor that most who died in the war received: Their names were not engraved on the black granite Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Now after decades of lobbying by families of the seamen, an effort to right that wrong has been making progress. Sen. Charles E. Schumer officially launched his push to add the names this week with a letter to Navy Secretary Ray Mabus.

Schumer says he’d like to have the names on the wall by next Memorial Day. Henderson is hopeful.

“We’ll see if he can do that. ... I’m very appreciative,” Henderson said. “The Frank E. Evans ship itself received the Vietnam service medal. Yet for some reason, the Navy and the Department of Defense feel that they don’t qualify to be on the wall. It’s kind of hard for me to understand that you can have one but not the other.”

In 1969, a year of political unrest and protests against the war, the Evans was in the South China Sea participating in anti-submarine warfare exercises with seven other countries when an Australian Navy ship plowed into it, according to author Louise Esola.

Esola’s book “American Boys” is about the tragedy and three brothers who died, along with the other seamen aboard, when the front of the ship sank. Another 199 survived.

The men who died weren’t included on the Vietnam memorial because the Evans was 100 miles from the combat zone when it went down, a distinction that Esola says shouldn’t matter. “That ship would have never been there, had there not been a Vietnam War,” she said.

Should the Department of Defense give its blessing, there is room on the memorial wall for more names, so long as they are spread out.

“Which is just fine with us,” said Henderson, who has arranged for the annual reunion of Evans ship families to be held in Buffalo in 2016. “Hopefully, we’ll be celebrating that all 74 will be the wall.”