Families thankful for Johnstown monument dedicated to 5 sailors lost in 1969
Barbara Rikal hopes a memorial dedicated on Tuesday to her husband and four other Navy seamen who died 45 years ago off the coast of Vietnam will be a “stepping stone” to getting their names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.
“They were heroes. They are unrecognized heroes,” said Rikal, 67, of Butler. “I think the more recognition they receive, the better.”
The five Pennsylvania seamen were among 74 on the USS Frank E. Evans who died on June 3, 1969, in the South China Sea when their destroyer was cut in half by an Australian aircraft carrier that changed course during a training exercise. The forward half of the ship sank in three minutes.
There were 204 survivors.
The USS Frank E. Evans Association, based in Grandbury, Texas, is erecting a monument in each home state of the 74 lost crewmen. The monument to the five crewmen from Pennsylvania was placed in Sandyvale Memorial Gardens and Conservancy in Johnstown, a pioneer cemetery that was established about 1840.
“We have veterans of eight wars interred here. The roots run deep,” Sandyvale President Bill Horner said.
Tom Haberkorn, president of Pennsylvania Council of the Vietnam Veterans of America Inc. and its Chapter 364 in Johnstown, said the location was selected once other municipalities turned down requests.
“I think it's fitting that it ended up here, most of the guys were small-town guys. This (Johnstown) would remind them of their hometowns,” he said before the dedication ceremony attended by about 50 people.
Barbara Rikal was making dinner when she heard a television news report on the sinking of her husband's ship.
“When it came on, my heart sank,” she said.
Radarman 2nd Class Victor Thomas Rikal's death was confirmed the next day when a priest and Navy officers knocked on his wife's door.
Then the letters her husband had written before his death started to arrive.
“That was the hardest part ... I have shoeboxes (full of them),” she said.
For Barbara Rikal — she met her husband in the sixth grade and never remarried — the memorial dedication was an emotional day.
“It's very personal,” she said. “It will mean a lot to so many shipmates who are still with us and the families.”
The story of the USS Frank E. Evans was one of family. Three brothers from Niobrara, a small town in Nebraska — Gary, Gregory and Kelly Jo Sage — were killed. Navy chief Lawrence Reilly Sr. survived, but his son, Lawrence Reilly Jr., a boiler technician, did not.
There was a sense of closeness on the ship that went beyond kinship, said survivor Dean Wyse, a native of West Unity, Ohio.
“A ship that small, you get pretty well-acquainted,” he said. “I was probably as close to them as our (high school) graduating class.”
The Allen M. Sumner class destroyer was named after Maj. Frank Edgar Evans of Franklin in Venango County, an infantryman during the Spanish-American War who led the 6th Marines in France during World War I.
The names of the 74 who died in 1969 do not appear on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, because the Department of Defense casualty lists did not include them. The Pentagon has repeatedly denied requests to add them because the ship was deployed to a training exercise that was outside the parameters of a “combat zone.”
Just before Memorial Day, the House passed an amendment to the annual Defense authorization bill urging Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to add the 74 names to the Wall. An online petition urges the president and Congress to add the names.
“These sailors died serving our country during the Vietnam War, and there is no reason to deny these ‘Lost 74' their rightful place on the Wall,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., who sponsored the amendment and has been pressing the Pentagon and key members of the Senate to join in the effort to add their names.
“It would mean the world to the relatives of the guys who were lost,” said Wyse, who has been fighting for about 15 years to get the names of his dead shipmates on the memorial.
Now 70 and living in Maricopa, Ariz., he is still haunted by the accident.
“It's my whole life. I try to do something every day to try to get this to happen,” said Wyse, a former gunfire control technician.
“We are hoping we all meet again at the Wall,” Rikal said after the ceremony.
Craig Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5646 or firstname.lastname@example.org.