New Gurnee monument honors 74 fallen sailors who didn't get on D.C. Vietnam memorial
A Gurnee cemetery is now home to a large black granite monument honoring 74 American sailors who died during a Vietnam War training exercise in the South China Sea.
The 6-foot-tall monument to the sailors on the warship USS Frank E. Evans was lifted into place Thursday on a manicured patch of land in Warren Cemetery & Mausoleum, 1495 N. Cemetery Road. It sits near a smaller marker that identifies three Illinois natives who died in the exercise.
The memorial, a tribute made possible by the generosity of local residents moved by the story, is part of a nationwide effort by survivors who say the sailors who died that day haven't received adequate attention.
Early in the morning June 3, 1969, the USS Frank E. Evans, a U.S. Navy destroyer, was engaged in an anti-submarine training exercise with U.S. allies when it was accidentally struck and ripped in half by the much larger HMS Melbourne, an Australian Navy carrier.
Despite the efforts by the crews of both ships to keep the Evans afloat long enough for the sailors to escape, the front section of the destroyer soon sunk, dragging many of the 74 American seamen who died to the bottom of the sea.
Although the tragic crash happened during the Vietnam War, and the destroyer had previously been part of the conflict, the names of the dead do not appear on the National Vietnam War Memorial in Washington because the ship was engaging in the training exercise when it sank.
Glenn Belec was on the back section of the ship that fateful morning and -- along with members of a national organization of survivors -- has made it a goal to provide proper recognition for those who died.
Belec, now a Gurnee resident, said it is frustrating that their names do not appear on the war memorial's walls.
"We'll keep trying. As long as anybody is still alive, we'll keep trying," he said. "We're not going away."
In the meantime, the USS Frank E. Evans Association has gone across the country establishing smaller memorials for the fallen sailors in their home states.
Belec was tasked with finding a suitable spot to install a monument for the three sailors who were born in Illinois: Linden Russell Orpurt of Chicago, Jerome Pickett of Chicago, and Gerald Wayne Smith of Bridgeview. Belec said he was rejected by several cemeteries in northern Illinois before he met with Wayne Allison and Michelle Mason of the Warren Cemetery last year.
He went in with a modest request for the small monument, but Allison and Mason decided they could do much more.
"They're doing a lot more than what we ever thought of," Belec said.
Allison, the grounds supervisor, said the cemetery is donating the stone for the monument, which is valued at $12,000, as well as the memorial site and new landscaping.
"I feel they should be on the Vietnam Memorial (in Washington), so I felt I should give them a place," Allison said.
In addition, artisans from Coldspring USA Monument Co. etched the 74 names onto the monument as a donation, a task Allison said would normally cost about $8,000. And the American Wilbert Vault Co. provided the crane that lifted the granite monument into place Thursday.
The memorial will be dedicated in a service at noon Saturday. The veterans group Marine Corps League Detachment Lake County 801 will serve as honor guard for the ceremony, and members of the survivor's group will fly in for the event.
Several local leaders also will attend, including Gurnee Mayor Kristina Kovarik, Belec said.
He said the goal is to make the ceremony as close to an official military event as possible.