A calm moonlit night struck tragedy around 3 a.m. on June 3, 1969 in the South China Sea when the Melbourne collided with the USS Frank Evans.
The Evans was a destroyer that had previously served in World War II, the Korean war and the Vietnam War before a grave mistake lead it to be sunk.
According to historians, the Melbourne was a light aircraft carrier of the Royal Australian Navy and had signaled the Evans to prepare to take the position of plane guard. This was not the first time the Evans had tried to carry out this maneuver, in fact it was the fifth time that night that the Evans was asked to take plane guard.
The Evans turned the wrong way, directly into the path of the Melbourne, which sliced the Evans in two. The bow quickly began sinking taking 74 lives with it.
The small town of Niobrara felt the pain from halfway around the world. Radarman 3rd Class Gregory Sage and Seaman Recruits Gary Sage and Kelly Sage died together that night.
The Sage brothers grew up on a farm near Niobrara and joined the Navy. They wanted to serve together, and eventually obtained special permission to sail on the same ship.
Survivors of the accident said Gary, the oldest at age 21, jumped from the stern to join his brothers in the bow shortly after collision. All three perished in the black night at sea. The 199 sailors on the stern survived.
As if the brothers’ loss wasn’t enough to bear, the Department of Defense refused to consider the Evans sailors as casualties of the Vietnam War. DOD officials determined that the accident happened outside the combat zone. Consequently, the names were not included on the Vietnam Memorial Wall.
After many efforts for the last 50 years, the DOD still fails to see that none of the men on that ship would have been in the South China Sea that fateful night if they had not laid down their lives to serve their country.
Niobrara decided to dedicate their own memorial to the 74 sailors which includes all of their names, photos and the history behind the incident.
This year, a special ceremony was held at the Niobrara Sage Brothers Memorial. On June 2, at 3 p.m. friends and family gathered there to remember the incident exactly 50 years after the event occured, which would be June 3, 3 a.m. where the incident took place between Vietnam and the Spratly Islands.
A special guest, Darwin Sietsema, a Navy veteran from Ruthton, Minn. spoke at the ceremony. Sietsema remembers the tragic night vividly as he wasn’t too far from the collision serving on the James E. Kyes. In fact, the Kyes was sent to the collision to help in rescue efforts.
He recalled the event, “right away we launched our small boats, but we felt helpless,” he said. “There was nothing you could do. It was over with.”
Historians say that it took less than five minutes for the bow to sink taking 73 men with it, one body was also recovered from the water.
Sietsema asked the small crowd if they remembered where they were when JFK was shot, when the terrorists attacked the twin towers. He stated how he will never forget where he was in the South China Sea when the Melbourne struck the Evans.
He also pleaded with the crowd to keep up the efforts on getting the 74 sailors names on the Vietnam wall.
The ceremony also included the reading of the 74 sailor’s names followed by the traditional ringing of the bell.
All of the lost sailors names, photos and brief summary of each sailor can be found at www.ussfee.org/the74.html
Names of the 74 include:
ENSIGN ALAN HERBERT ARMSTRONG
SEAMAN JAMES ROBERT BAKER
YEOMAN THIRD CLASS ANDREW JAMES BOTTO
RADARMAN THIRD CLASS THOMAS BELUE BOX
ELECTRONICS TECHNICIAN THIRD CLASS JAMES FRANKLIN BRADLEY
ENSIGN ROBERT GEORGE BRANDON
SEAMAN APPRENTICE HARRIS MELVIN BROWN
BOILER TECHNICIAN SECOND CLASS WILLIAM DANIEL BROWN II
CHIEF HOSPITAL CORPSMAN CHARLES WILLIAM CANNINGTON
RADARMAN SECOND CLASS CHRISTOPHER JOHN CARLSON
SEAMAN MICHAEL KALE CLAWSON
SEAMAN DANNY VICTOR CLUTE
YEOMAN THIRD CLASS JAMES RICHARD CMEYLA
ELECTRONICS TECHNICIAN THIRD CLASS LARRY WAYNE COOL
SEAMAN PATRICK MICHAEL CORCORAN
SEAMAN APPRENTICE JOE EDDIE CRAIG
ELECTRONICS TECHNICIAN (RADAR) THIRD CLASS JAMES WILBURN DAVIS
SEAMAN APPRENTICE LEON LARRY DEAL
SEAMAN JAMES FRED DYKES III
SEAMAN APPRENTICE RAYMOND JOSEPH EARLEY
GUNNERS MATE THIRD CLASS STEVEN FRANK ESPINOSA
SEAMAN APPRENTICE STEPHEN DONALD FAGAN
SEAMAN APPRENTICE WILLIAM DONALD FIELDS
SEAMAN APPRENTICE ALAN CARL FLUMMER
SEAMAN APPRENTICE HENRY KENNETH FRYE
SEAMAN FRANCIS JOSEPH GARCIA
SONAR TECHNICIAN (SURFACE) THIRD CLASS MELVIN HOLLMAN GARDNER
SEAMAN APPRENTICE DONALD EUGENE GEARHART
BOATSWAINS MATE THIRD CLASS PATRICK GENE GLENNON
SEAMAN APPRENTICE KENNETH WAYNE GLINES
SEAMAN APPRENTICE JOE LUIS GONZALES
SONAR TECHNICIAN (SURFACE) THIRD CLASS LARRY ALLAN GRACELY
SEAMAN APPRENTICE DEVERE RAY GRISSOM, JR.
SEAMAN APPRENTICE STEVEN ALLEN GUYER
RADARMAN THIRD CLASS TERRY LEE HENDERSON
CHIEF ELECTRICIANS MATE EDWARD PHILIP HESS
RADARMAN SECOND CLASS GARRY BRADBURY HODGSON
SEAMAN APPRENTICE DENNIS RALPH JOHNSTON
SEAMAN APPRENTICE JAMES WILLIAM KERR
CHIEF BOATSWAINS MATE WILLIE LEE KING
CHIEF RADARMAN GEORGE JOSEPH LA LIBERTE'
RADIOMAN SECOND CLASS RAYMOND PATRICK LEBRUN
RADARMAN FIRST CLASS EUGENE FRANCIS LEHMAN
SEAMAN APPRENTICE ISAAC LYONS, JR.
SEAMAN APPRENTICE DOUGLAS ROY MEISTER
SEAMAN APPRENTICE ANDREW MARTIN MELENDREZ
SEAMAN FREDERIC CONRAD MESSIER
SEAMAN APPRENTICE TIMOTHY LYNN MILLER
ENSIGN JOHN TOWNSEND NORTON, JR.
ENSIGN GREGORY KOICHI OGAWA
SEAMAN APPRENTICE MICHAEL ANTHONY ORLIKOWSKI
INTERIOR COMMUNICATIONS ELECTRICIAN SECOND CLASS LINDEN RUSSELL ORPURT
LIEUTENANT JUNIOR GRADE DWIGHT SCOTT PATTEE
SEAMAN APPRENTICE CRAIG ALLEN PENNELL
SEAMAN APPRENTICE JEROME PICKETT
YEOMAN SECOND CLASS EARL FREDERICK PRESTON, JR.
BOILER TECHNICIAN THIRD CLASS LAWRENCE JOHN REILLY, JR.
RADARMAN SECOND CLASS VICTOR THOMAS RIKAL
BOATSWAINS MATE SECOND CLASS GARY LOREN SAGE
RADARMAN THIRD CLASS GREGORY ALLAN SAGE
SEAMAN APPRENTICE KELLY JO SAGE
SEAMAN APPRENTICE JOHN ALAN SAUVEY
BOILER TECHNICIAN FIREMAN APPRENTICE ROBERT JAMES SEARLE
FIREMAN APPRENTICE GERALD WAYNE SMITH
SEAMAN THURSTON PERRY SMITH, JR.
SONAR TECHNICIAN SECOND CLASS JOHN RAYMOND SPRAY
LIEUTENANT JUNIOR GRADE JON KENNETH STEVER
SEAMAN APPRENTICE THOMAS FRED TALLON
RADARMAN SECOND CLASS RONALD ARTHUR THIBODEAU
RADARMAN THIRD CLASS JON WAYNE THOMAS
SEAMAN APPRENTICE JOHN THOMAS TOLAR
QUARTERMASTER THIRD CLASS GARY JOSEPH VIGUE
RADARMAN THIRD CLASS CON WESLEY WARNOCK
SEAMAN APPRENTICE HENRY DENNIS WEST III
The Nebraska Department of Transportation has authorized Omaha-based Hawkins Construction to immediately begin install a temporary bridge to provide access over the Mormon Canal while a new permanent bridge is constructed.
Hawkins Construction will build a 24-foot wide, single lane temporary bridge and then a permanent bridge over the Mormon Canal. Work will begin at the site on Wednesday, June 5.
The NDOT announced Friday that Hawkins Construction has been award contracts to reconstruct and repair two Highway 12 bridges caused by the March flooding of the Niobrara River.
The Mormon Canal was lost when the flooding damaged the approach and girders of the bridge.
Seventy-four sailors who died during the Vietnam War might have been forgotten if not for the small Nebraska town of Niobrara, where an impressive memorial has been created.
The 74 men were aboard the USS Frank Evans when it collided with an Australian ship in the early morning hours of June 3, 1969.
A program will be held at Niobrara beginning at 3 p.m. on Sunday, June 2, to honor the sacrifices of the sailors who lost their lives that night in the South China Sea. The start time coincides with 3 a.m. in Vietnam, the hour in which the ship was sunk.
“We welcome anyone and everyone who wants to come,” says Jim Scott, the commander of the Niobrara American Legion. “The tragedy of the USS Evans should always be remembered.”
However, the Evans story is especially poignant in Niobrara because three of the town’s young men were on the ship that night. Gary, Greg and Kelly Sage were brothers who grew up on a farm near town and joined the Navy. They wanted to serve together, and eventually obtained special permission to sail on the same ship.
Survivors of the accident said Gary, the oldest at age 21, jumped from the stern to join his brothers in the bow shortly after the 376-foot ship was split in two by the collision with an Australian aircraft carried called the Melbourne. All three perished in the black night at sea. The 199 sailors on the stern survived.
Scott says the June 2 remembrance will include a prayer, music and a reading of the names. Darwin Sietsema, a Navy veteran from Ruthton, Minn., will also speak. He was serving that summer on the James E. Kyes, which was only a few miles from the collision.
His ship was sent to assist with rescue efforts. “Right away we launched our small boats, but we felt helpless,” he says. “There was nothing you could do. It was over with.”
Once Sietsema learned about the Niobrara memorial, he began to make an annual pilgrimage to Nebraska to pay respects on June 2. This year, the 50th anniversary, he agreed to offer his somber memories of the event and its aftermath.
The public is welcome to attend the services, which will be held at the memorial site along U.S. Highway 12 in the middle of town. The town’s museum, which is just west of the memorial, will be open after the program. The museum has a special exhibit of photographs, artifacts and stories about the Evans and the Sage brothers.
Scott says the tragedy became even more pronounced for survivors when the Department of Defense refused to consider the Evans sailors as casualties of the Vietnam War. DOD officials determined that the accident happened outside the combat zone. Consequently, the names were not included on the Vietnam Memorial Wall. That omission led to the Niobrara memorial, which includes the names, photographs and a history of the tragedy.
“There are still efforts to add the names to the wall,” he says. “I don’t know if that will ever happen. But these men will not be forgotten here in Nebraska.”
Registration for the poker run will be at Sportsmen’s Bar from 8-10:15 AM with stands up right at 10:30 AM. During registration there will be free-will-donation breakfast feed. This is an annual event to raise money for suicide prevention, awareness, and survivor aftercare. Proceeds benefiting the Paul Taggart Foundation For Suicide Awareness.
This event is open to all and the poker run is open to all forms of transportation. The eventful day will include a poker run, silent auction, ticket raffle prizes, door prizes, breakfast feed, t-shirts, koozies, BBQ, TWO talented live performing bands "Locked N Loaded" & “Shawn Cole”, and so much more. This year we will be starting/ending the poker run at Sportsmens Bar in Niobrara, NE. Due to road conditions our route will be all in South Dakota except the short 3 miles to Niobrara. 8:00 AM-10:15 AM registration at Sportsmen’s Bar in Niobrara, NE. 5:00 PM-1:00 AM is the Poker Run Finale.
A Go Fund Me page has been created to help a Niobrara man who, at age 42, suffered a heart attack and is now on life support. Jones recently left a job with benefits in Fremont to return to his hometown of Niobrara to take over Jimmy Dean's Bar.
To donate, click here for the Go Fund Me page.
According to the page, on Monday, May 6, Jason Jones checked into the Sioux Falls Veterans Hospital after not feeling well for weeks. While he was speaking to the doctor, Jones had massive heart attack. The doctors, nurses and staff took immediate action. He was fortunate to be in the hospital when this happen. He flatlined twice while he was there. When they got Jason stabilized at the VA, they transferred him to the Sanford Hospital. After analyzed him at Sanford, they realized that he would need to be life flighted to Minneapolis University Hospital, where he could be placed on a machine that would circulate his blood through his body, so that his heart would have a chance to recover.
Jones is now on full life support, he is on currently on a heart and lung bypass machine that is doing all the work for him while he is trying to recover. This machine is only a temporary device used for up to five days. Currently Jason is heavily sedated to keep him from pulling out all the tubes and wires that are keeping him alive. The doctors are periodically lowering the sedation to check if his heart and other vital organs will function correctly when life support is removed.
Currently, the doctors know that his kidneys and liver are not functioning properly. They are unsure of how his heart will react on its own. However, they have seen some heart function and will continue to monitor it.
Here is why Jones needs everyones help: Jason recently left his job and benefits in Fremont, Nebraska, to take over Jimmy Deans Bar in Niobrara. He moved back to be closer to his daughter, family and friends. He is in the process of selling his house and Fremont and getting settled back home. Jason currently does not have any medical insurance and he will not be able to receive full VA benefits from National Guard.
Last night the doctor briefed us all about what needs to happen in the next couple day. Jones has a long way to go. There are many unknown factors yet with his body's condition. What we do know is, he is going to need a device that monitors and helps his heart function after the heart and lung machine is removed. Jason will not be a candidate for a heart transplant, so this device will be needed for him to survive. The doctor explained that this device will cost $200,000. Without insurance or money to pay for this device, the hospital will not put it in.
The Doctor explained that Jones care has already exceeded $100,000. They are going to do as much as they can for him, but we needed to search for ways to help assist him with medical expenses. The family is talking with VA and the state of Nebraska for assistance. I am hoping that we can help take some of the burden off and help get Jason and his family through this difficult time.
Thanks for all the thoughts and prayers from everyone out there. Jones has touched us all. Please share this with everyone.
Every morning he grabs his backpack and lifejacket — two of the most important items he needs for school since the March flood took out the Mormon Canal Bridge near Niobrara.
Thursday was a good day for a boat ride for Austin Motacek, Katie Ryan and their son, Jacob. The sun was shining and there wasn’t a rain cloud to be seen, but they weren’t enjoying a fun day on the Niobrara River.
The family has been boating across the river for a few weeks in an attempt to save time and money while getting to town. Because of the March flood, families on the west side of Niobrara have been at a loss since the Mormon Bridge floated away.
“There are people who can see the town from their house, but it takes them an hour or more to get there without that bridge,” Ryan said.
For Ryan and her family, who live by Verdel, the trip to Niobrara would normally take about 10 minutes. Now, the drive would take about an hour on good roads.
The county roads are not in good condition, however. The combination of the additional travel due to the missing bridge, and the excessive amount of rain the last few weeks, has put these vital roads in terrible condition.
To avoid those roads, many people have been traveling into South Dakota, driving around to the Standing Bear Bridge and backtracking into Niobrara. This route is a two hour drive—one way.
“We have teachers that live in Verdel, Lynch, Bristow,” Ryan said as the list went on.
For these teachers, the trip that would normally take anywhere from 10 minutes to a half hour is now taking up to two hours. That is the equivalent of driving to Sioux Falls to get to work every day.
“Every day, teachers are making that trip,” Motacek said.
Motacek owns a construction company in Niobrara and Ryan and their son have to get to school every weekday.
“I finally got sick of wasting gas and time and beating my pickup up on the county roads,” Motacek said.
He decided to borrow a flat-bottom boat from his friend and set up a vehicle on each side of the river.
With the boat, it only takes 15 minutes on average to get home, depending on weather. The boat also saves money as they only had to fill the boat’s gas tank twice in the weeks since they started boating across the river.
The river is too shallow for a normal boat to get across safely. A boat with a mud motor on it works best because it can run in as little as three inches of water.
“As it warms up, I wouldn’t be surprised if more people start using the river as transportation,” Motacek said.
For Ryan, who works at the school, it is a hard choice if she should continue to work at the school for the summer once students are let out for the year.
“I just don’t know if it is worth the trouble,” she said.
Many who live on the other side of the river are in similar situations. It can cost about $50 a day to commute to Niobrara.
“We have had so many people lose their jobs already because they can’t afford the gas to get around,” Motacek said.
The couple personally knows many people who have quit their jobs or can’t get to their jobs because of the cost of getting to work.
Ranchers who have cattle on both sides of the river also suffer. Calving season was extremely hard on those ranchers. Calves were lost as ranchers couldn’t make it to them and a lot of money was wasted in an attempt to get back and forth every day.
“During calving season, ranchers need to be with them every couple hours,” Motacek said. “Look how many calves still ended up dying because the ranchers couldn’t do chores.”
Niobrara business owners will also suffer. Summer is a huge time for the village with all the tourists coming through the area to visit the Niobrara State Park, which is now just out of reach with the bridge out.
Frustration is definitely building in the community, he said.
“There is no reason why there shouldn’t have been something up two weeks after the flood happened,” Motacek said. “A simple shoefly could have been built, and we would already be across.”
It’s been eight weeks since the flood, and the NDOT has announced that there will be a temporary bridge placed in August, with a permanent bridge planned in 2020. The people of the area are not confident there will be anything in place in August or even before school starts.
Motacek also expressed his concerns for the future of the county roads, especially near Verdel. The “west-siders” will be dealing with the aftermath of the torn apart county roads well after the new bridge is put into place, unless the county uses FEMA money or tax money to fix and maintain those roads, he said.
With the rain and constant travel tearing up the roads, it is getting harder and harder for locals to take care of the road.
“I had to pull someone out of the middle of a county road the other day. You know it’s bad when you can get stuck in the middle of a road,” Motacek said.
The Pischelville Bridge has become a vital route for many after the flood, but even that road has been deteriorating due to overuse. Locals decided to take care of the road themselves.
“The only reason we were getting across that road five days after the flood was because we took it into our own hands,” he said.
Until the conditions of the roads improve and a temporary bridge gets put in, the people on the west side of the bridge will suffer, Motacek said.
“We are pretty fortunate compared to a lot of people,” Ryan said.
“It’s a Godsend that I had a buddy with a boat,” Motacek added.
Attorney Dave Domina is hosting a meeting in Niobrara on Monday at 7 p.m. at the Lutheran Church fellowship hall.
The public is invited to discuss options for those affected by the flooding the followed the collapse of the Spencer Dam.
A Nebraska High School Rodeo athlete has been awarded the Gates Scholarship.
Abbi Holz, Niobrara, Neb., has received the scholarship, which covers the full cost of attendance not already covered by other scholarships, to a public or private college.
Holz, whose ACT score was 33, is on track to be the salutatorian of the class of 2019 at Niobrara High School.
In school, she was on the drama crew for three years and this year served as the assistant director for the play. She was on the speech team for two years, and has been on the A-Plus Superior honor roll since seventh grade.
She has competed in high school rodeo for three years in the barrel racing and pole bending. Holz also competes in local jackpots and loves the friends she’s made through rodeo. “The people you meet and get to know become your second family and that’s what I really enjoy about it,” she said. “Sometimes I feel closer to the people I rodeo with than the people at school.”
Holz will attend Kansas State University this fall, majoring in animal science with a pre-veterinary emphasis and hopes to attend K-State’s veterinary program. She loves animals, and gives credit to the local veterinarian for her interest in veterinary science. “I can probably blame my interest in animal science on him, for making me help castrate a horse when I was ten. I’ve always been the one ready to jump in.”
In her spare time, Holz likes to read and do leatherwork. In the eighth grade, she taught herself to tool leather, making belts, headstalls and breast collars.
She has trained the horse she currently rides, a six-year-old stallion named Feather. Her younger brother Clay, a high school sophomore, also rides him, and when Cooper, the youngest of the Holz siblings, wants to ride, he chooses Feather.
The Gates Scholarship, funded by Bill and Melinda Gates, is awarded to 300 students annually and is given to students who have an outstanding high school academic record, have demonstrated leadership ability, and have exceptional personal success skills.
She is the daughter of Orvil and Kelli Holz.
The Nebraska High School Finals Rodeo will be held in Hastings at the Adams Co. Fairgrounds June 13-15. The rodeo is held at 10 am and 6 pm on Thurs., June 13 and Fri., June 14, with the finals at 1 pm on June 15. Tickets are $7 for everyone ages five and up and are available through the office and at the gate. For more information, visit AdamsCountyFairgrounds.com or hsrodeo-nebraska.com, or call 402.462.3247.
The Northeast Nebraska Bargain Jaunt will replace the Bargain Buyway this year as the buyway was cancelled due to the flood. The jaunt will be held April 26-28 and Niobrara is one of many towns that will be participating. Niobrara could use some traffic and extra business as many businesses are suffering with the Mormon Bridge out of commission. A vendor show will be held at Sportsmen's Bar April 27-28 from 11am to 4pm. There will also be yard sales and businesses open.
The State of Nebraska and FEMA have opened a Disaster Recovery Center in the Santee Sioux Nation. The center is located at the Santee Health and Wellness Center (lower level, shelter room). They will be open from April 23 to April 27 from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
At the center, recovery specialists from FEMA and the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) will provide information on available services, explain assistance programs and help survivors complete or check the status of their applications. They can provide referrals and help with appeals. Centers are equipped with captioned phones, video remote interpreting and assistive listening devices.
Nebraska homeowners, renters and business owners in the Santee Sioux Nation and Antelope, Boone, Boyd, Buffalo, Burt, Butler, Cass, Colfax, Cuming, Custer, Dodge, Douglas, Hall, Howard, Knox, Madison, Nance, Nemaha, Pierce, Platte, Richardson, Saline, Sarpy, Saunders, Stanton, Thurston and Washington counties may apply for assistance for uninsured and underinsured damage and losses resulting from severe winter storm, straight-line winds and flooding.
How to Register with FEMA:
• Online, visit www.DisasterAssistance.gov.