Fern Kerr took a long pause before recalling the day nearly half a century ago when she found out her son, Jim, had died in a Vietnam War shipwreck in the South China Sea.
“It was just an awful shock. I just wanted to go out there and dive in and bring him back,” Kern, 95, said Friday in a telephone conversation from her San Luis Obispo home. “But he was gone. And there was no retrieving him.”
Jim Kerr’s body was never recovered. The U.S. Navy sailor was deemed lost at sea two weeks into his first assignment at age 18 when the USS Frank E. Evans destroyer collided with an Australian aircraft carrier during a wartime training exercise and its bow sank off the coast of South Vietnam.
His mother’s loss is amplified by the fact that Jim Kerr’s name, along with the other 73 American sailors who died on the ship that day, was never added to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
“It’s a very hidden part of American history,” freelance journalist Louise Esola told The Tribune. “And what matters now is to add these names to the wall.”
Esola, based in Temecula, detailed the story in her recent book, “American Boys: The True Story of the Lost 74 of the Vietnam War.”
According to Esola, then-President Richard Nixon’s administration, embroiled in a heated political controversy over the war’s steep death toll, worked to disassociate the 74 deaths from the Vietnam War since the accident occurred outside of the combat zone.
As such, the sailors were never recognized among the names of America’s fallen Vietnam War veterans displayed in the nation’s capital.
Jim Kerr’s younger brother, Fred Kerr of Atascadero, is part of a group working to rectify that.
Last month, he implored the California Department of Veterans Affairs’ Vietnam Memorial Name Committee — the board tasked with deciding what names go on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Sacramento — to add the names of the 21 Californians who died on the USS Frank E. Evans to the state’s monument.
“I appealed to them as the brother of a California boy that grew up doing all the things that California kids did in the 1950s and ’60s,” said Fred Kerr, now 62. “He joined the U.S. Navy to avoid being drafted into the Army and gave his life knowing when he left home he’d be off the shore of Vietnam.”
The memorial committee granted the request to add the sailors’ names. That’s expected to occur March 29.
Now, the families of the fallen Navy men hope California’s actions will encourage the federal government to follow suit. Their request is expected to go before the U.S. Senate by year end as a line item in the larger 2015 Defense Appropriations Bill. The U.S. House of Representatives approved the bill, and the line item, in May.
“It’s important for these boys to be recognized for what they did,” Fern Kerr said. “And we all need closure on this with Jim.”
Growing up, enlisting
Born just 15 months apart, Jim and Fred Kerr were always close.
“He was my big brother. We were just little boys — always into mischief, played Little League and had paper routes,” Fred Kerr said. “Jim was quite a baseball player.”
He said his brother was a happy person, laid-back and had a good sense of humor.
The brothers grew up in Glendale, with their mother, father and sister.
Jim Kerr graduated in 1968 from Hoover High School and worked at a dental lab before enlisting in the Navy. The draft was active then, and young men were being sent to the Army and shipped overseas to fight.
“Those were dark days,” recalled Fred Kerr. “Every night they had a body count from the war on the nightly news. And all the guys in the dental lab … said, ‘Sign up for the Navy. You’ll have hot meals and be out of the trenches.’ And it made sense. So he enlisted.”
After his tour of duty, Jim Kerr planned to return home, attend college and become a dentist.
In the spring of 1969, he completed basic training in San Diego. Two weeks after graduation, he shipped out to join the crew of the USS Frank E. Evans, a Navy destroyer that provided gunfire support from the water to Marines on the ground in South Vietnam. He boarded on May 14 and joined the deck force.
Esola used letters Jim Kerr wrote to his family to help gather details about life in the Navy.
His days on ship were long and hot, he wrote, noting it was tough to sleep in a compartment with the other men right below the forward gun mount. But he also joked about how at least he would be getting a tan. On June 1, two days before the accident, Jim Kerr wrote that he was excited about buying Christmas presents — a pair of binoculars for his father and a Japanese ring for his brother.
Kerr joined the ship’s crew just as it was leaving Vietnam’s gun line. It docked in Subic Bay in the Philippines for two weeks to resupply and reload ammunition before heading back out to provide firing support to the ground troops. But on its way, the ship was re-directed to participate in a combat-related exercise with the Allied nations 200 miles off the coast of South Vietnam.
That’s where the USS Frank E. Evans collided with another ship by accident on June 3, according to Esola’s book.
“The American ship got confused and got right in the path of the Australian aircraft carrier,” Esola said. The much larger vessel collided with the destroyer at 3:15 a.m., cutting it in two. Half of the USS Frank E. Evans sank in three minutes.
“It would be like a Volkswagen driving in front of a Mack Truck,” Esola said. “There was no collision alarm, no warning.”
Jim Kerr had left his watch station at midnight, his brother said, and gone below deck to sleep.
When the ships collided, he was among 32 men in the sleeping compartment, located in the bow — the part of the ship that sank.
“Just imagine it. He was trying to get out of this very small compartment with all these guys trying to get out at the same time — in the dark,” Esola said. “They had been hit and (that part of) the ship was rolling on its side and sinking.”
Only six men in that sleeping compartment escaped.
In all, the USS Frank E. Evans lost 74 men that night, while 199 of its crew survived.
Using a Public Records Act request, Esola found that the initial press release by the Navy public affairs office in Saigon put the collision about 200 miles off the coast of South Vietnam.
“The press release was a draft that never made it to a reporter’s desk,” she said. “But the one that did put the collision 650 miles off the coast of Manila, in the Philippines islands.”
The South China Sea, where the ships collided, sits between Manila and Vietnam.
While Esola acknowledged that the second press release was not a lie, she said the re-wording obscured the truth because the government used Manila, the location that was farther away, as the reference point to purposely leave Vietnam out of the narrative.
The altered press release “was done for the sake of politics — for President Nixon to lessen the death toll out of Vietnam,” she said. “During that time period, there were 200 to 300 Americans who died per week in Vietnam. It ignited a firestorm of controversy among the anti-war groups and in Washington.”
Impact of death
News of the collision traveled to the United States within hours.
Back home, Fred Kerr was sitting in his high school junior year history class when he received the news that his brother had died.
“The assistant principal came in and I could just tell by the look on his face,” he said. “I remember the teacher and exactly where I was sitting. You don’t forget. I just grabbed my notebook and walked out.”
Fred Kerr had an inkling that bad news was coming before school, though, after his uncle picked up a radio transmission while working on his boat in the Ventura Harbor and heard that a ship called the USS Frank E. Evans had collided with another ship.
“Dad said, ‘Your Uncle Lloyd called and told me your brother has been in a bad accident,’ ” Fred Kerr recalled. “And in my heart I thought, ‘He’s gone.’ We weren’t twins, but we were so close. And it was just this sinking feeling. And then when I saw the assistant principal, I knew my heart was honest with me.”
Fern Kerr said watching her surviving children struggle with the death made the loss that much harder for her.
Now, years later, Fred Kerr said he’d like his brother’s name to be on the wall not just for him, but also for his mother.
“Names are always added to the wall,” he said. “Once a year it’s done, and it’s always done on Mother’s Day. So we’re very hopeful that these names will be added by this Mother’s Day. My mother is 95. And, 45 years later we still don’t have closure on this.”