Mission: Memorialize

CNJ staff photo: Liliana Castillo Friona veteran Joe Bob Mann is trying to get veterans who died on the USS Frank E. Evans on the Veteran’s Memorial in Washington D.C. and Clovis.

By Eric Butler: Freedom New Mexico

When Veterans Day rolls around Wednesday, an ample amount of monuments exist to remember those who have fallen in action.

But Joe Luis Gonzales of Clovis, who was only 19 when he died on June 3, 1969, is not on the most prominent of these monuments — either locally or nationally.

It’s not because Gonzales was derelict in his duties, or anything of that matter. It’s just that he’s one of the unfortunates who, while dying at a time of war, was not engaging the enemy directly when it happened.

In the heart of the Vietnam War, Gonzales was part of the crew of the USS Frank E. Evans, a destroyer sliced in two by the Australian aircraft carrier Melbourne.

At 3:15 a.m. in the South China Sea, just off the coast of South Vietnam, the rear portion of the Evans stayed afloat while the fore section almost immediately submerged.

Gonzales was one of 74 men, most in the front of the ship, who died during the exercises.

Ironically, another local youth was also on the ship. Fortunately for Joe Bob Mann from Friona, also only 19 at the time, he was on the aft part of the Evans and he survived along with 198 others.

But Mann and other veterans, like Clovis VFW Post 3280 commander Vern Luce, are stumping to have Evans and the other 73 get their names on the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington D.C.

“I think they should be recognized because we had been in combat shortly before and that’s what we were headed right back into,” Mann said.

“I hope they do put his name on there. He deserves it,” said Christine Martinez, who is one of Gonzales’ four sisters and still lives in Clovis. “Even if he wasn’t fighting, he was still out there.”

The sinking of the Evans represented the single biggest loss of life at sea during the Vietnam War.

Gonzales was the only New Mexican to lose his life because of the accident.

Luce said he has twice made trips to Washington to lobby Congress to get the Evans’ deceased on the Vietnam wall.

“It made it to a House bill at one time, but then it died in the House,” Luce said. “It never went to a vote. We feel those 74 people should be on the wall. They say it wasn’t in Vietnam – ‘foot-in-country,’ they call it.”

“It’s nearly impossible to get the Department of Defense to open it back up for discussion,” Mann said.

Still living in Friona, Mann at times comes to Clovis to work at the VFW 3280 post on Grand Street.

Mann thinks the atmosphere of the time, when counts of the fallen — both United States and Vietcong — were aired on the evening news with regularity, may have been a factor as to why those involved were ultimately not regarded as war casualties.

“I think that’s one reason why they wouldn’t say that, because it was a war of attrition,” Mann said. “They couldn’t very well say that we lost 74 people in one day to the enemy.”

Other memorials to the fallen of the USS Evans do exist in Independence, Mo. and Long Beach, Ca..

Mann said that, locally, an effort is also being made to make Gonzales a memorial at Lawn Haven cemetery in Clovis.

However, at the veterans memorial outside of Clovis Carver Public Library, Gonzales’ name is not listed.

“I could go and see his name, at least,” Martinez said.