Friday, April 25, 2008

Frank Evans

(News-Herald, April 24) Amazing sometimes how one family’s story can stretch over so much time and distance. Here’s where a simple thread with just one local name took me.

The First Baptist Church started up in Franklin in 1867 with 23 members. By 1874 they were ready to build a full-sized church to seat 450 members (with Charles Miller footing a good chunk of the bill). That year the church hired the Rev. Frederick Evans, a minister in his early thirties, born in Wales and immigrated to the US (probably New York City) in 1866; it’s likely that this was one of the many times that Miller used his considerable financial resources to recruit and hire top notch people to fill positions in his favorite organizations.

Evans (Ednyfed, to his Welsh family) never lost his connection to Wales; the Baptists of Franklin granted him a leave to return there where he delivered lectures in Salem Chapel, Glamorgan. Afterwards, he returned to Franklin and a newly-built parsonage, where he lived with his family. In print (not local) he was called one of the most moving preachers in all of Wales and America, and under his leadership, the First Baptist Church increased membership from 80 to nearly 300.

His son Frank was born here in 1876. The Reverend retired and returned to Wales, where he passed away in 1897. The next year, Frank served as an infantryman in the Spanish-American War right after graduating from Princeton. Apparently the military life agreed with him because he was commissioned to the marines in 1900.

By 1909 Frank Evans was a retired marine captain serving as secretary to US Senator Briggs of New Jersey. In October of that year he married Esther Caldwell Townsend of New York City, niece of Lawrence Townsend, former US ambassador to Portugal and Belgium. The couple’s wedding announcement ran in the New York Times.

Frank soon returned to military service first in the Philippines, and then in France during World War I, where he won a citation for meritorious conduct and a promotion to Lieutenant Colonel. Other post war service included duty in Haiti as Chief of the Gender merle d’Haiti. He retired to Hawaii, where he died in 1941.

But the Evans name had not yet finished its long travels from home in Venangoland.

In 1944, the Bethlehem Steel Company manufactured an Allen N. Sumner class destroyer. She was launched in October of 1944, sponsored by Frank Evans’s widow, and commissioned in February of 1945 as the USS Frank E. Evans.

After arriving in Pearl Harbor, the Evans performed radar picket and escort duty, until after the war. She was placed on reserve in 1949, but reactivated in less than a year to serve with the Seventh Fleet in the Korean War. She served two tours of duty there, including the siege of Wonsan. After the war the Evans remained on patrol duty in the Far East, but there was one more chapter left.

In 1969 the Evans was near Saigon in company with the Australian aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne. They were part of SEATO exercise called “Sea Spirit.” A Time magazine report of the event described a dinner with the Melbourne’s captain, John P. Stevenson, reflecting on the horror five years earlier when the Melbourne had collided with a destroyer, sliced it open, and killed 82 hands. Australia could not stand another such disaster.

But four days later, the Melbourne cut the Evans in half. In just five minutes, the bow sank and took 74 men to their deaths (including three brothers from Nebraska).

The Australians made heroic rescue efforts. The Evans’s captain was reported asleep, a less-experienced officer responsible for a wrong turn that put the Evans in harm’s way. It didn’t matter; Stevenson was quickly hung out to dry for the disaster.

Stevenson’s wife Jo flew to be with him at the inquiry and on her own took page upon page of notes, which she later used in writing the book In the Wake as an attempt to cleanse the record. In 1999 Australia marked the anniversary of the collision, one of the worst maritime disasters ever for their nation, and Jo Stevenson was still trying to clear her husband’s name.

Her desire to clear his name is understandable; a name can travel long and far. The Evans name, even with its small roots in Venangoland, managed to spend a century criss-crossing the entire globe.

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