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Schumer fights to give crew of USS Frank E. Evans – lost at sea in 1969 – their due

HARTFIELD – Fewer and fewer people remember Terry Henderson these days.

Even fewer recall that day 47 years ago this week, when he and 73 other sailors aboard the USS Frank E. Evans lost their lives when their destroyer collided with an Australian aircraft carrier in the South China Sea.

But for about 40 people gathered Tuesday in the Chautauqua County backyard of his brother – Randy – the memories are more than vivid. Nobody there has forgotten.

Nor has Sen. Charles E. Schumer, who traveled to this rural town outside Mayville on Tuesday to reassure those waiting for decades that hope is stronger than ever for including the names of the Frank E. Evans crew upon Washington’s famous Vietnam Memorial. He told Henderson’s family and friends that he is pursuing all avenues – including possible legislation – to include their names as combat-related deaths.

He called it a matter of justice for the 21-year-old from Chautauqua County as well as for all the other victims. “One of the most moving things you can see is family and friends at that wall,” Schumer said, adding that he often visits the Washington site early in the morning. “No family should be deprived of that.”

Maryann Henderson Buettner, the lost sailor’s 88-year-old mother, told Schumer while sitting on her son’s patio that her mother called after seeing television reports of the incident on June 3, 1969. Buettner knew exactly the tragic results when she saw two naval officers approaching her home the next day.

On Tuesday, she, Randy Henderson and Schumer pored over old scrapbooks devoted to the Frank E. Evans cause. Behind them hung a giant banner with names and photos of all 74 victims along with a painting of the collision.

“I don’t like that picture,” she murmured.

She told the senator it only seems right that Terry’s name and all the men lost at sea that day have their names added.

“I’m at peace. I am. I have been,” she told Schumer. “But I think all the boys should be on that wall. All of them.”

Schumer explained that the Frank E. Evans was participating in a joint naval exercise with the Australians that day when it collided with the carrier. The much larger vessel – the Melbourne – cut the Evans in half, and one part of the ship sank in three minutes. But the 74 casualties were never considered war-related because the accident occurred outside the official combat zone.

Schumer said arbitrary lines should not serve as an impediment to the Vietnam Memorial honor, since the ship was “essential to the American military efforts in Vietnam and their presence in the South China Sea was directly linked to the war.”

“Even a giant bureaucracy like the Department of Defense should be called upon to account, and that’s what I’m trying to do,” he said.

Others, especially in recent years, have joined the effort. Louise Esola, a Southern California reporter, has chronicled the affair in her 2014 book, “American Boys,” which received Writer’s Digest’s self-published book of the year award. She spent years researching the tragedy and said her book underscores the need to correct the Pentagon’s oversight.

Esola said the ship was of World War II vintage, and was saved from the scrap heap only because it was needed in Vietnam. On that day in 1969, it was loaded with a full allowance of ammunition and had just been awarded the Vietnam Service Medal.

“It’s a tragedy to say your son’s life doesn’t count,” Esola said. “And it’s a slap in the face to those Gold Star families. What a miscarriage of justice.”

She said she will consider all the efforts of her book a failure unless Washington changes its approach to adding the names of the Frank E. Evans men.

“The Pentagon feels that they do not have to answer these questions,” she said. “But they work for us. And this is not going away.”

Indeed, Schumer said he is pursuing all the administrative and legislative avenues open to a senator to include the names on the memorial. He acknowledged it will take time, and that major bureaucratic hurdles lie ahead.

“But I am not giving up until I achieve this,” he said. “I am hopeful. I am optimistic. ‘Confident’ might be too strong a word.”

Randy Henderson, however, said he and those gathered at his home on Tuesday are more optimistic than ever because of the senator’s efforts. Only 13 when his brother was lost in the South China Sea, he said he has taken up the cause as a way of “getting to know him.”

“It’s been very gratifying to have someone in the senator’s position listen and actually understand the circumstances behind this,” he said. “It’s very refreshing.”

Esola noted the survivors of the Frank E. Evans will take up the cause this fall when their association meets in Buffalo. She said she is hopeful that Schumer’s efforts will pay off and thankful that “he’s sticking with it.”

“I am hopeful Chuck Schumer can do this,” she said. “If they won’t put their names on the wall, they can at least answer our questions.”

Terry Henderson’s brother said “the time is right” to look at the facts.

“We just want the same recognition for those 74 men,” he said. “When you look at the evidence, it’s all there.”

email: rmccarthy@buffnews.com