Resurrection Cemetery memorial stone honors victims of Vietnam-era tragedy

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CUMBERLAND — Friends, family, veterans and government representatives gathered in front of the Veterans Monument at Resurrection Cemetery on May 20 to honor the memory of Frederic Conrad “Dick” Messier, Jr., a native of Pawtucket who grew up in Cumberland and served as a navy seaman aboard the USS Frank E. Evans. Messier was the only sailor from Rhode Island to be killed tragically when the ship went down in the South China Sea on June 3, 1969.

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“We gather here today as your beloved servants to remember those servants, sailors of the USS Frank E. Evans, who proudly answered the call of our beloved country to serve and protect,” said Father William Ledoux, pastor of St. Mary’s Parish, Cranston, during the invocation.

Though Messier is not the only soldier honored at the Veterans Monument — the section, dedicated in November, provides a place for veterans to be buried with their loved ones and also remembers those killed in battle — his case is unique. The USS Frank E. Evans was engaged in an exercise off the coast of Vietnam when it collided with the Australian carrier HMAS Melbourne during the night of June 3. The tragic accident claimed 74 lives, remembered as the “Lost 74.”

“There were just too many mistakes. Errors on both sides,” said former crew member John Coffey, who served on the USS Frank E. Evans prior to the collision. “Many good men died that night.”

The disaster has been remembered as one of the quiet tragedies of the Vietnam era. However, because the USS Frank E. Evans was outside the designated combat zone at the time of collision, the lives lost are not recognized as official casualties of the Vietnam War, and the names do not appear on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. For many, the omission is a distressing slight to families already forced to come to terms with the death of loved ones.

“It was just such a devastating blow. Because of the person, because of the age,” said Fran Cherry, sister to Messier, whose brother was 20 years old at the time of his death. Following the ceremony, she recalled how her brother played baseball and was engaged to be married to his high school sweetheart.

“He was a very kind, caring, gentle brother,” she said.

Survivors, family members and former crew members formed the USS Frank E. Evans Association, an organization dedicated to remembering those lost. The association regularly lobbies Congress for recognition on the memorial wall and travels to each state to place cemetery markers commemorating the sailors. When the Office of Catholic Cemeteries received a call asking if the Diocese of Providence would consider hosting the memorial stone for Rhode Island, Anthony Carpinello, director, said he was honored to oblige.

“We are honored to host this event and thankful to assist the Evans Foundation and Messier family in all the obstacles they’ve had to face to make this day occur,” he said. Following the ceremony, he told Rhode Island Catholic that recognizing servicemen and women is a priority for the cemeteries and the Veterans Monument.

“We’re just honored to be able to do this not only for the Messiers, but for our veterans. We’re here to help all of our faithful, and veterans should hold a special place in everybody’s hearts,” he said.

Many veterans attended the dedication, including USS Frank E. Evans collision survivor Bill Thibeault, who grew up in Pawtucket and met Messier during training. Thibeault shared his memories of his fallen comrade, known affectionately to shipmates as “Mess.”

“It’s an honor and a privilege for me to be here today, a day that’s long, long overdue for Frederic Conrad Messier, Jr.,” he said.

Also in attendance were survivor Terry Vejr, U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and the Navy Band Northeast of Newport, which accompanied the proceedings under the direction of Lieutenant Gregory A. Fritz. Several members of the Messier family were present, including Cherry, who traveled from her home in Idaho to attend the service.

“We have been waiting for this for so long,” she said. “It was amazing, just finding out that somebody was listening to what we were saying.”

Cherry said that the USS Frank E. Evans Association has been a second family to her and her relatives following her brother’s death. For those who lost loved ones on the USS Frank E. Evans, the memorial markers are an important milestone in honoring the legacy of those who gave the ultimate sacrifice.

“This doesn’t give us closure,” she said. “But it’s close.”

Evans