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The Melbourne-Evans collision' was a collision between the light aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) and the destroyer USS Frank E. Evans of the United States Navy (USN). On 3 June 1969, the two ships were participating in SEATO exercise Sea Spirit in the South China Seamarker. At approximately 3 am, when ordered to a new escort station, Evans sailed under Melbourne’s bow, where she was cut in two. Seventy-four of Evans’s crew were killed.

A joint RAN-USN Board of Inquiry was held to establish the events of the collision and the responsibility of those involved.


HMAS Melbourne was the lead ship of the Majestic class of aircraft carriers. She was laid down on 15 April 1943, but construction was stopped at the end of World War II. She was sold to the Royal Australian Navy in 1948, along with sister ship HMAS Sydney, but was heavily upgraded and did not enter service until the end of 1955. In 1964, Melbourne was involved in a collision with Australian destroyer HMAS Voyager , sinking the smaller ship and killing 82 of her crew.

USS Frank E.
USS Frank E. Evans was an Allen M. Sumner class destroyer. She was laid down on 21 April 1944, and commissioned into the United States Navy on 3 February 1945. She served in World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.


Melbourne’s commanding officer during the SEATO exercise was Captain John Phillip Stevenson. Rear Admiral John Crabb, the Flag Officer Commanding Australian Fleet, was also embarked on the carrier. During Sea Spirit, Melbourne was assigned five escorts: US Ships Everett F. Larson, Frank E. Evans, and James E. Kyes, HMNZS Blackpool, and HMS Cleopatra. Stevenson held a dinner for the five escort captains at the start of the exercise, during which he recounted the events of the Melbourne-Voyager collision, emphasised the need for caution when operating near the carrier, and provided written instructions on how to avoid such a situation developing again. Additionally, during the lead-up to the exercise, Admiral Crabb had strongly warned that all repositioning manoeuvres performed by the escorts had to commence with a turn away from Melbourne.

Despite these warnings, a near-miss occurred in the early hours of 31 May when USS Larson turned towards the carrier after being ordered to the plane guard station. Subsequent action narrowly prevented a collision. The escorts were again warned about the dangers of operating near the carrier and informed of Stevenson's expectations, while the minimum distance between carrier and escorts was increased from .

The paths taken by HMAS Melbourne and USS Frank E.
Evans in the minutes leading up to the collision
On the night of 2-3 June, Melbourne and her escorts were involved in anti-submarine training exercises. In preparation for launching a S-2 Tracker aircraft, Stevenson ordered Evans to the plane guard station, reminded the destroyer of Melbourne’s course, and instructed the carrier's navigational lights to be brought to full brilliance. This was the fourth time that Evans had been asked to assume this station that night, and the previous three manoeuvres had been without incident. Evans was positioned on Melbourne’s port bow, but began the manoeuvre by turning starboard, towards the carrier. A radio message was sent from Melbourne to Evans’s bridge and Combat Information Centre, warning the destroyer that she was on a collision course, which Evans acknowledged. Seeing the destroyer take no action and on a course to place herself under Melbourne’s bow, Stevenson ordered the carrier hard to port, signalling the turn by both radio and siren blasts. At approximately the same time, Evans turned hard to starboard to avoid the approaching carrier. It is uncertain which ship began to manoeuvre first, but each ship's bridge crew claimed that they were informed of the other ship's turn after they commenced their own. After having narrowly passed in front of Melbourne, the turns quickly placed Evans back in the carrier's path. Melbourne hit Evans amidships at 3:15 am, cutting the destroyer in two.

Melbourne stopped immediately after the collision and deployed her boats, liferafts, and lifebuoys, before carefully manoeuvring alongside the stern section of Evans Crew from both ships used mooring lines to lash the two ships together, allowing Melbourne to evacuate the survivors in that section. The bow section sank quickly; the majority of those killed were believed to have been trapped within. Members of Melbourne’s crew dived into the water to rescue overboard survivors close to the carrier, while the carrier's boats and helicopters collected those farther out. All of the survivors were located within twelve minutes of the collision and rescued before half an hour had passed, although the search continued for fifteen more hours. 817 Squadron RAN, which was responsible for the Westland Wessex helicopters embarked on Melbourne at the time of the collision, was later awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for their rescue efforts. Five other decorations were presented to Australian personnel in relation to the rescue of Evans’ crew: one George Medal, one Member of the Order of the British Empire , one Air Force Cross, and two British Empire Medals. Fifteen additional commendations for gallantry were awarded by the Australian Naval Board.

Following the evacuation of Evans’s stern, the section was cast off while the carrier moved away to avoid damage. Against expectation, the stern failed to sink, and was recovered, stripped of parts, and sunk for target practice. Following the collision, Melbourne travelled to Singapore for temporary repairs to her bow, arriving on 6 June. Melbourne departed Singapore on 27 June and arrived in Sydney on 9 July, where the carrier spent until November docked at Cockatoo Island Dockyardmarker while she underwent repairs and installation of the new bow. The stern section of Evans was towed by fleet tug USS Tawasa to Subic Baymarker, arriving there on 9 June 1969. The hulk was decommissioned on 1 July 1969, and was later sunk for target practice.

Seventy-four of the 273 crew on Evans were killed. It was later learned that Evans’s commanding officer, Commander Albert S. McLemore, was asleep in his quarters at the time of the incident, and command of the vessel was held by Lieutenants Ronald Ramsey and James Hopson; the former had failed the qualification exam to stand watch, while the latter was at sea for the first time.

Joint Board of Inquiry

A Joint RAN-USN Board of Inquiry was established to investigate the incident, following the passing of special regulations allowing the presence of Australian personnel at a United States inquiry. The Board was in session for over 100 hours between 9 June and 14 July, with 79 witnesses interviewed; 48 USN, 28 RAN, and 3 from other navies.

The Board was made up of six officers. The RAN representatives were Rear Admiral David Stevenson (no relation to Melbourne’s Captain Stevenson), Captain Ken Shards, and Captain John Davidson. The USN officers were Captains S.L. Rusk and C.B. Anderson. Presiding over the Board was United States Navy Rear Admiral Jerome King: considered to be an unwise posting as he was the commanding officer of both the forces involved in the SEATO exercise and the fleet unit Evans normally belonged to, and was seen during the Inquiry to be biased against Captain Stevenson and other RAN personnel. King's attitude, performance, and conflict of interest were criticised by the Australians present at the inquiry and the Press, and his handling of the inquiry was seen as detrimental to relations between the two countries.

Despite admissions by members of the USN, given privately to personnel in other navies, that the incident was entirely the fault of Evans, significant attempts were made to reduce the US destroyer's culpability and place partial blame for the incident on Melbourne. At the beginning of the inquiry, King banned one of the RAN legal advisors from attending, even as an observer. He regularly intervened for American witnesses, but failed to do so on similar matters for the Australians. Testimony on the collision and the subsequent rescue operation was to be given separately, and although requests by American personnel to give both sets of testimony at the same time in order to return to their duties were regularly granted, the same request made by Stevenson was denied by King. Testimony of members of the RAN had to be given under oath, and witnesses faced intense questioning from King, despite the same conditions not applying to USN personnel. There was also a heavy focus on the adequacy of Melbourne's navigational lighting. Mentions of the near miss with USS Larson were interrupted with the instruction that those details could be recounted at a later time, but the matter was never raised by the Board.

The unanimous decision of the Board was that although Evans was partially at fault for the collision, Melbourne had contributed by not taking evasive action sooner; doing this would have been a direct contravention of international sea regulations, which stated that in the lead-up to a collision, the larger ship was required to maintain course and speed. The report was inconsistent in several areas with the evidence given at the inquiry, including the falsity that Melbourne's navigational lights took significant time to come to full brilliance. Several facts were also edited out of the transcripts of the inquiry.



Stevenson was informed on 29 July of the result, although not the details, and that a court-martial charging him for his role in the incident may be required. Two charges of negligence—for failing to explicitly instruct Evans to change course to avoid collision and for failing to set the carrier's engines to full astern—were laid on 15 August, with the court martial held from 20 to 25 August. Evidence presented during the hearing showed that going full astern would have made no difference to the collision, and on the matter of the failing-to-instruct charge, the presiding Judge Advocate concluded that reasonable warning had been given to the destroyer and asked "What was [Stevenson] supposed to do—turn his guns on them?". Of the evidence and testimony given at the court-martial, nothing suggested that Stevenson had done anything wrong; instead it was claimed that he had done everything reasonable to avoid collision, and had done it correctly.

The reasons for the court-martial given by historians vary. Some accounts state that it was to appease the USN, which had court-martialled three officers from Evans and had threatened to prevent US ships from operating as part of Australian-commanded forces if no action was taken against Stevenson. The other view is that the court-martial was used in an attempt to clear Stevenson's name and to allow the RAN to distance itself from the findings of the Joint Board of Inquiry.

The defence submitted that there was "no case to answer", resulting in the dropping of both charges and the verdict of "Honourably Acquitted". Despite the findings, Stevenson's next posting was as chief of staff to a minor flag officer; seen by him as a demotion in all but name. The posting had been decided upon before the court-martial, and was announced while Stevenson was out of the country for the courts-martial of Evans’s officers; he did not learn about it until his return to Australia. Following the events, publicly considered to be another scapegoating of a Melbourne commander, Stevenson requested retirement, as he no longer wished to serve under people he no longer respected.Frame, Pacific Partners, pp. 130-131. This retirement was initially denied, but was later permitted.

McLemore, Ramsey, and Hopson

Commander Albert S. McLemore and Lieutenants Hopson and Ramsey also faced courts-martial for their contributions to the collision. Hopson and Ramsey were charged with dereliction of duty and negligence and had their positions in the promotion list moved down. McLemore was reprimanded for dereliction of duty and hazarding his ship.

In 1999, McLemore publicly claimed that the collision was his responsibility, as he had left two inexperienced officers in command of his ship.


A training video, I Relieve You, Sir, was developed by the USN for junior watchkeeping officers. Based around the events of the collision, the video demonstrates the responsibility junior watchkeeping officers hold, and the potential consequences of failing to do their job.

Unlike other naval casualties during the Vietnam War, the names of the 74 Evans crew killed are not inscribed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorialmarker. Despite operating in Vietnamese waters immediately before deployment to Exercise Sea Spirit, and scheduled to return to activities supporting the war effort after the exercise, it was determined that as Sea Spirit was not directly linked with US operations in Vietnam, and the exercise took place outside the geographical limit for the conflict, as defined by the outer edge of Market Time operations, the crew was ineligible for inclusion on 'The Wall'. Vietnam veterans have argued that inclusion on the monument should not be determined by geographic location, and exceptions to this rule have previously been made for soldiers killed as part of the conflict but not in Vietnam itself; for example those involved in operations in Laosmarker, and those killed while in transit to or from Vietnam. These exceptions would also apply to those killed in the Melbourne-Evans collision, but an act of Congress specifically permitting the inclusion of their names on the memorial is required. Legislation to this end has been introduced on several occasions, but has so far failed to gather sufficient support.

Citation list

  1. Frame, Pacific Partners, p. 126.
  2. Hall, HMAS Melbourne, p. 175.
  3. Hall, HMAS Melbourne, p. 176.
  4. Hills, In The Wake
  5. Smith & Lancaster, USS Frank E. Evans, p. 1.
  6. Hall, HMAS Melbourne, p. 178.
  7. Sherbo, Death of a Destroyer.
  8. Frame, Pacific Partners, p. 127.
  9. Hall, HMAS Melbourne, pp. 178, 184.
  10. Hall, HMAS Melbourne, p. 184.
  11. Hall, HMAS Melbourne, pp. 183-184.
  12. Hall,HMAS Melbourne, p. 182, 184.
  13. Hall, HMAS Melbourne, pp. 191-192
  14. Hall, HMAS Melbourne, p. 185.
  15. Bastock, Australia's Ships of War, p. 312
  16. Hall, HMAS Melbourne, p. 200.
  17. Jo Stevenson, 1999, In The Wake, pgs 68, 167-168.
  18. Jo Stevenson, In The Wake, p. 56.
  19. David Stevens (ed.), The Royal Australian Navy, p. 203.
  20. Frame, Pacific Partners, pp. 127-128.
  21. Frame, Pacific Partners, p. 128.
  22. Jo Stevenson, In The Wake, p. 71.
  23. Jo Stevenson, In The Wake, p. 85.
  24. Jo Stevenson, In The Wake, p. 95.
  25. Jo Stevenson, In The Wake, p. 163.
  26. Jo Stevenson, In The Wake, p. 136.
  27. Hall, HMAS Melbourne, p. 204.
  28. Jo Stevenson, In The Wake, pp. 196-197
  29. Jo Stevenson, In The Wake, pp. 200-201
  30. Stevenson, In The Wake, p. 174
  31. Hall, HMAS Melbourne, p. 205
  32. Stevenson, In The Wake, p. 191.
  33. Hall, HMAS Melbourne, p. 206.
  34. Frame, Pacific Partners, p. 129.
  35. Stevenson, In The Wake, pgs 205, 208.
  36. Frame, Pacific Partners, p. 129.
  37. Frame, Pacific Partners, p. 130.
  38. Davis, A rusty hulk is their tombstone.
  39. Prados, A Forgotten Tragedy.



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