By Garland Davis
The Melbourne–Evans collision was a collision between the light aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) and the destroyer USS Frank E. Evans of the United States Navy (USN). On 3 June 1969, the two ships were participating in SEATO Exercise Sea Spirit in the South China Sea. At approximately 3:00 am, when ordered to a new escort station, Evans sailed under Melbourne‘s bow, where she was cut in two. Seventy-four of Evans‘ crew were killed.
A joint RAN–USN board of inquiry was held to establish the events of the collision and the responsibility of those involved. This inquiry, which was believed by the Australians to be biased against them, found that both ships were at fault for the collision. Four officers (the captains of Melbourne and Evans, plus the two junior officers in control of Evans at the time of the collision) were court-martialled based on the results of the inquiry; while the three USN officers were charged, the RAN officer was cleared of wrongdoing.
On the night of 2–3 June, Melbourne and her escorts were involved in anti-submarine training exercises. In preparation for launching a Grumman S-2 Tracker aircraft, Stevenson ordered Evans to the plane guard station, reminded the destroyer of Melbourne‘s course, and instructed the carrier’s navigational lights to be brought to full brilliance. This was the fourth time that Evans had been asked to assume this station that night, and the previous three maneuvers had been without incident. Evans was positioned on Melbourne‘s port bow but began the maneuver by turning starboard, toward the carrier. A radio message was sent from Melbourne to Evans‘s bridge and Combat Information Centre, warning the destroyer that she was on a collision course, which Evans acknowledged. Seeing the destroyer take no action and on a course to place herself under Melbourne‘s bow, Stevenson ordered the carrier hard to port, signaling the turn by both radio and siren blasts. At approximately the same time, Evans turned hard to starboard to avoid the approaching carrier. It is uncertain which ship began to maneuver first, but each ship’s bridge crew claimed that they were informed of the other ship’s turn after they commenced their own. After having narrowly passed in front of Melbourne, the turns quickly placed Evans back in the carrier’s path. Melbourne hit Evans amidships at 3:15 am, cutting the destroyer in two.
Melbourne stopped immediately after the collision and deployed her boats, liferafts, and lifebuoys, before carefully maneuvering alongside the stern section of Evans. Sailors from both ships used mooring lines to lash the two ships together, allowing Melbourne to evacuate the survivors in that section. The bow section sank quickly; the majority of those killed were believed to have been trapped within. Members of Melbourne‘s crew dived into the water to rescue overboard survivors close to the carrier, while the carrier’s boats and helicopters collected those farther out. Clothing, blankets, and beer were provided to survivors from the carrier’s stores, some RAN sailors offered their own uniforms, and the ship’s band was instructed to set up on the flight deck to entertain and distract the USN personnel. All of the survivors were located within 12 minutes of the collision and rescued before half an hour had passed, although the search continued for 15 more hours.
Seventy-four of the 273 crew on Evans were killed. It was later learned that Evans‘s commanding officer—Commander Albert S. McLemore—was asleep in his quarters at the time of the incident, and charge of the vessel was held by Lieutenants Ronald Ramsey and James Hopson; the former had failed the qualification exam to stand watch, while the latter was at sea for the first time.
Following the evacuation of Evans‘s stern, the section was cast off while the carrier moved away to avoid damage, but against expectation, it failed to sink.The stern was recovered and towed by fleet tug USS Tawasa to Subic Bay, arriving there on 9 June. After being stripped for parts, the hulk was decommissioned on 1 July and was later sunk when used for target practice.
Melbourne traveled to Singapore, arriving on 6 June, where she received temporary repairs to her bow. The carrier departed on 27 June and arrived in Sydney on 9 July, where she remained until November docked at Cockatoo Island Dockyard for repairs and installation of the new bow.
817 Squadron RAN—which was responsible for the Westland Wessex helicopters embarked on Melbourne at the time of the collision—was later awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for their rescue efforts. Five other decorations were presented to Australian personnel in relation to the rescue of Evans‘s crew: one George Medal, one Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE), one Air Force Cross, and two British Empire Medals. Fifteen additional commendations for gallantry were awarded by the Australian Naval Board.