Del Francis is riding so that others will remember.

And in the miles stretching out before him, he too remembers.

He remembers the three Sage brothers from Nebraska — Gary, Gregory and Kelly — and fun he had with them renting a Mustang convertible during a liberty call in Hawaii. He remembers Tom Box who'd just gotten back from leave in the Philippines.

He remembers Vic Rikal, Ron Thibodeau and all the guys he worked with in the Combat Information Center aboard the destroyer Frank E. Evans.

And he remembers that day 47 years ago, when they all vanished in a moment of screaming steel and raging water.

In the early morning darkness of June 3, 1969, the Evans was escorting the Australian aircraft carrier Melbourne during maneuvers in the South China Sea off the coast of Vietnam.

The Evans had just returned to a fourth tour of combat duty off Vietnam a few weeks earlier, already firing its big guns again in support of troops in the field. But at this moment the warship was just outside the official combat zone.

Francis, a radarman third class at the time, was asleep in his cramped rack two decks below the CIC when it happened.

"Only a couple of us escaped from there. I lost all my good friends," he says. "No one escaped from the CIC."

In a tragic navigation error, the 376-foot destroyer was ripped in two by the big carrier.

It was over almost as soon as it started with the entire bow section of the ship sinking into the dark waters in less than three minutes. In all, 74 of Francis' friends and shipmates perished that day.

The destroyer Frank E. Evans at sea in 1963, six years before an Australian aircraft carrier would cut the warship in two off the coast of Vietnam.

Photo Credit: Navy

Only one body was recovered, he says. The rest went to the bottom of the sea trapped inside the bow of the ship. "The Lost 74," he calls them.

Each of those men, along with the rest of the Evans crew, earned the Vietnam Service Medal. But you won't find the names of those killed engraved into the black granite of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

That's something Francis is now trying, one slow-chugging mile at a time, to get changed.

Ride for recognition

On June 3 —  47 years to the day after the Evans tragedy —  Francis got on his bicycle in his hometown of Sulphur Springs, Texas, and started pedaling. He says he is not going to stop until he gets to Washington, D.C.

Wearing a white and blue riding shirt, the number "74" emblazoned in black digits across his back, he calls his 1,250-mile odyssey a "ride for recognition."

"I turned 74 on May 22 and out of frustration I decided I might be able to draw some attention to the situation by riding my bicycle across the country," says Francis.

His mission is simple: Get the names of the Gregory brothers, Tom Box, and all the others on the Wall.

It's a mission, however, that stretches far longer than the miles he's logging now.

Indeed, it winds back to just before the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was completed in 1982.

That's when he found out his shipmates would not be included among those listed as killed and missing in action because they died just outside the combat zone established by the Pentagon.

"I have been fighting ever since," he says. He's among former crew members and families of the Lost 74 who have been lobbying behind the scenes for years.

"We have been through Congress a couple of times, only to be tabled. Petition drives, letters to presidents, SECDEFs, just about everything imaginable," says Francis.

But they have been picking up allies along the way.

In 2014 two major veterans groups passed formal resolutions urging the Lost 74 be added to the Wall.

Because the "Vietnam war zone boundaries were created for tax purposes, were ill defined and have been changed from time to time, the war zone boundaries should not be the defining reason to exclude the names," reads an AMVETS resolution urging the Defense Department to reconsider. The Veterans of Foreign Wars issued a similar declaration.

Last year, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, who has four Lost 74 families among his New York constituents, formally requested the help of Navy Secretary Ray Mabus.

"For years, surviving crewmembers and relatives of the lost have struggled to understand why geographical lines supersede recognition of service. Their combat-related service deserves acknowledgment upon the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall," Schumer wrote.

Francis says Schumer and other congressional boosters have made headway, finally getting the Pentagon to consider the Lost 74.

"It is the first time they have agreed to review it," Francis says.

Exceptions to the rules

To determine who initially would be included on the Wall, the Pentagon compiled a list of casualties and those missing in action according to combat zone criteria laid out in a 1965 Presidential Executive Order. That included Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and their coastal waters.

"We have no control of it," says Heidi Zimmerman, a spokeswoman for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, which oversees management of the site. "Any additions are up to the Defense Department."

Supporters point out that adding names of those killed outside the combat zone would not be unprecedented.

74-year-old Vietnam veteran Del Francis is cycling some 1250 miles from his home in Sulphur Springs, Texas to Washington, DC, in a bid to add the names of 74 sailors killed aboard the destroyer Frank E. Evans to the Vietnam Wall.

Photo Credit: Courtesy Del Francis

In 1983 the names of 68 Marines were added to the Wall. They died in 1965 when their cargo plane crashed into the sea on takeoff from Hong Kong as they were returning to Vietnam from a stint of rest and relaxation.

Other exceptions include a colonel who died at his desk of a heart attack in Thailand, not considered part of the combat zone. He's among other service members who died of illnesses there and are on the Wall.

The name of an Air Force pilot who committed suicide in the United States shortly after returning home from more than seven years in North Vietnamese prison camps was engraved on the Wall in 2004 after protracted debate.

In all more than 350 names have been added to the Wall, Zimmerman says.

This year alone, eight names were added. Most sustained major injuries in combat but died many years after the war was over, she says.

Among them, for example, was one Army veteran who died in 2014. He had been a paraplegic after his spinal cord was severed during a patrol in 1969.

That, of course, was the same year Francis and the remaining crew of the Evans were fighting for their lives in the South China Sea. Somehow they managed to save the stern section of the destroyer, helping lash it the Australian carrier and eventually tow it to Subic Bay in the Philippines.

Riding to honor

In all the years since, he's still saddened that so few seem to know about what happened.

"It is amazing that no one has ever heard of the second largest loss of life for the Navy during Vietnam and the only warship that did not return," he says. "So, I am riding to honor the 74 lives that died serving their country" that others may know as well.

His rolling support crew follows in an RV, the names and faces of the Lost 74 displayed on a banner stretched across its bow.

"The ride to this point has been good for the most part," he says during a pit stop in Missouri. "It has definitely been taxing but for the most part I have been doing well. Only once have I been tempted to quit. I am almost half way now and feel quite confident that I can do this."

He has always enjoyed riding, but never imagined anything like this. The most he'd ever ridden before was about 50 miles.

Still, he expects to make it to Washington by late August.

"I am supposed to be joined by Randy Henderson for a couple weeks of the ride, he is the brother of Terry Henderson." That's another shipmate he remembers as he rides. Another name that should be on the Wall, he says.

"When we arrive in DC I am supposed to be met by Craig Armstrong; he is the only nephew of Alan Armstrong." Another lost shipmate, another name.

The nephew of his friend is on the board of a big cycling club in the area.

He promises "to bring a bunch of his cycling buddies to escort us in to town. The ship sank on his seventh birthday. His mother was invited to read the names on the Wall when it was dedicated. She found out that her brother was not among the names the night before dedication."

Francis says he will remember the names of the Lost 74 — and the lives that went with them — until he goes to his own grave. But until then, he will fight to get them added to the Wall so that others will remember long after he's gone.

Jon R. Anderson covers all that's fun, fascinating, and formidable about military life, from off-duty travel and entertainment to family and fitness. He can be reached at jona@militarytimes.com.

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