I write about the USS Frank E Evans with admitted bias – my uncle Larry was one of the seventy-four men lost at sea that fateful night in June 1969, and my beloved grandfather was one of the ones lucky to survive. The repercussions of the collision of the USS Evans and the HMAS Melbourne have now spanned four generations of Reillys. I grew up with the accident – it colored many a family occasion.
It changed my grandmother irrevocably – a part of her remained heartbroken the entire rest of her life. Her “Booper”, her beautiful son Larry, was taken so early from her. That night continues to haunt my grandfather, Larry Sr., who requested special permission to serve onboard the Evans with his namesake son, who was struggling in the Navy and still needed the close eye of a loving father. My cousin, Larry III, would grow up without a father, too young to have ever known him, his live course altered by his father’s absence.
My father, who would count that time as one of the most difficult of his life, made the telephone call to inform his mother after receiving word of his brother’s death. My aunts and uncle, young teens, grappled with the devastating news of their brother’s death and had to finish growing up in a grieving household. The generations of Reillys who were born after June 3, 1969, were raised by a family struggling to overcome the trauma of that night and the continuing injustice of the failure of the United States to recognize the sacrifice these men made for their country.
The Phone Call
On June 3, 1969, my father, James Reilly, was on duty at the Naval Base in Charleston, South Carolina. A graduate of West Point, my father had switched services upon graduation and received a commission in the U.S. Navy as a lieutenant in 1967. The phone rang on his desk, and when he picked up the receiver, it was a classmate who was now working at the Pentagon.
“Jim, there’s been an accident. The Evans has been sunk, and there is a Lawrence Reilly on the casualty list.”
Both my uncle and grandfather serving on the Evans were named Lawrence John Reilly (Junior and Senior respectively).
“Is it my dad or my brother?”
“I only have the rank – BT3.”
BT3, or Boiler Tender Third Class. It was his brother. My father new instantly that his brother was gone.
Thanking his friend, who risked disciplinary charges for making this premature notification, my father knew what he had to do next. He called his mother in California to tell her the news.
My uncle Larry was the second of five kids, with my father being the oldest. Three years apart, Jim and Larry were close as kids, with my dad often riding Larry around on his bike, going to the town beach, delivering newspapers, hanging out in the woods, in their hometown of Lindenhurst, New York. My grandfather had joined the Navy during World War II, serving in the Pacific aboard the USS Oakland. My father was born at the Brooklyn Naval Yard and Larry was born in San Diego at the Navy Base hospital. Eventually, my grandfather became a Navy Reservist, and the family settled on Long Island, New York, where my uncle Jerry and my aunts Luanne and Suzie were born.
In many ways, their childhood was idyllic, and so different from what children know today. They roamed the streets of Lindenhurst freely, often gone all day, with little to no adult supervision. Later in life, my grandmother would look back in horror, calling herself a bad mother for all the freedom she gave them. In truth, she was a great mother, who raised five independent, self-reliant and confident children who love her deeply. It was just a different time with different rules.
My father, Jim, her first born, was the apple of her eye and could do no wrong. Larry, her second born, was called “Booper” – her affectionate pet name for him. Jerry was the athlete and the entrepreneur, always with some scheme in mind. Luanne was no nonsense, a straight shooter and sometimes a little grumpy. Suzie was the baby, doted on by her big brothers.
In 1963, after graduating from Lindenhurst High School, Jim received a commission to attend the United States Military Academy at West Point. At the same time, my grandfather, still a Naval Reservist, was called back up during the Bay of Pigs. He was going to be stationed in California, so they packed up the rest of the Reilly family and headed west.
Larry attended Costa Mesa High School, where he met his future wife Joyce. He wanted to join the Navy and after high school, he enlisted. Joyce and Larry married and soon had a son they named Lawrence John Reilly III. Despite a strong initial desire to join the Navy, once in, Larry struggled and was looking forward to getting back out again. Ultimately, he would be scheduled to discharge in September 1969, if only he had made it to that date.
The night of June 3, 1969, my grandfather, was asleep in the Chief’s Quarters. His rank was Master Chief Gunner’s Mate, and over the course of his Naval career, he had received commendations for his actions, including a Bronze Star during World War II. He was a well respected Chief who worked well with his soldiers and the other Chiefs onboard the Evans.
Larry was on duty below decks by happenstance that night, because he was covering for a friend. If he had not been on duty, he would have been in quarters in the aft section of the ship, which had stayed afloat and would have likely survived. Instead, he was below decks in the general area of the ship where it was struck, and likely died from the impact. His body, along with all but one of the other seventy-three men who died that night, would go down with the bow section of the ship and would never be recovered.
As my father contemplated how to tell his mother, he dialed the phone. When she answered, his throat constricted, and clearing his throat, he said, “Mom, there’s been an accident on the Evans. Dad’s o.k., but Larry is gone.”
There is a moment of silence, then he hears her whisper plaintively, “Oh my Booper”.
Current Words: 1076
Running Total: 2064