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Ron Kaye: Getting their names on the wall

October 19, 2013

A year after graduating from Hoover High School, where he was a star pitcher who attracted attention from major league scouts, Seaman Apprentice James Kerr found himself sitting on a dock at Subic Bay, near Manila, chatting with Signalman Stephen Kraus as they waited to go out to their ship, the destroyer USS Frank E. Evans.

This was Kerr's first assignment after boot camp. It would also be his last.

Days later, at 3:15 a.m. on June 3, 1969, the Evans was cut in half by the Australian aircraft carrier, the HMAS Melbourne, during a multi-national training exercise called "Sea Spirit." The bow half of the Evans, where Kraus was on watch and where Kerr was asleep below, sank in less than three minutes, while the aft half stayed afloat.

It was a freak accident that led to formal military inquiries and court-martials.

For 74 of the 278 crew members — including 18-year-old James William Kerr — it was the ultimate sacrifice, a tragic end to their lives. Kraus was among the lucky 40 or so who were rescued, although he was fighting for his life in the South China Sea for more than 30 minutes.

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"I can't imagine the grief my parents went through to lose a child, especially in such a horrific, by-chance accident," said Fred Kerr, 15 months younger than his brother and now a San Luis Obispo-area resident.

"For up to a week after he dies, we're getting letters to me or my sister and he says, "Hey, say hi to Mom and Dad.' For my mother, who is 94, it's like he left and never came back. There's no headstone. There's no closure," Fred Kerr added.

They are called the Lost 74 and the grieving has never ended for the loved ones, the parents, the siblings, and in some cases, the children. They all want closure and over the last 44 years, that has come to mean getting the names of the Lost 74 on the Vietnam War Memorial.

They have a great claim that until now has fallen on deaf ears of U.S. presidents — Democratic and Republican — and a string of defense secretaries.

The USS Evans was providing artillery support for troops on the ground in Vietnam when it was ordered to join several dozen other naval vessels for the training exercise off the coast of the Philippines. It was scheduled to return to the combat zone after this show of force, put on for China, Russia and anyone else who might be tempted to take advantage of America's fading support for the war.

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