Righting a Wrong: On Forgotten Heroes of the Vietnam Conflict

esola93015Louise Esola’s American Boys: The True Story of the Lost 74 of the Vietnam War (Pennway, 2015) focuses on an almost-forgotten tragedy: the death of 74 young men in the sinking of the USS Frank E. Evans off the coast of Vietnam on June 3, 1969. Esola recently told LJ how the story took hold of her personally and professionally, and how she’s become part of the struggle to have the young men’s sacrifice officially recognized.

A family tragedy

americanboys93015In 2010, freelance journalist Esola was assigned to write about the unveiling of a California memorial to the men who died on the Evans, a destroyer that was the only ship sunk in the Vietnam conflict. “I was instantly intrigued by the story,” says Esola, “and the Sage brothers stuck out.” These three brothers—Gary, Gregory, and Kelly, ages 22, 21, and 19, respectively—requested to serve together and were killed when an Australian aircraft carrier accidentally rammed their ship. Readers may be reminded of the story of the Sullivan brothers, five siblings who lost their lives in World War II during the sinking of the USS Juneau. The Sullivans’ deaths inspired the military’s sole survivor policy that separates family members in combat, as well as the movie Saving Private Ryan.

As part of her research for the original story, Esola visited the Sage brothers’ family in Niobrara, NE, two weeks before their 87-year-old mother, Eunice Sage, passed away. The author became close with Doug Sage, a surviving son who was six years old when his brothers were killed and who feels that the U.S. military and the Department of Defense slighted his family. The meetings made Esola determined to “let readers know what had happened and where the story was now,” she said. “I felt it had largely been forgotten.”

Esola’s book chronicles the Sages’ and other men’s experiences and their awful demise, but it also covers a sad coda to the tragedy: the men’s names are not recorded on the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial wall in Washington, DC. No ship is named for the Sage brothers either, unlike the Sullivans—in fact, the Sages’ only recognition by the military is the naming of a now-closed Navy barracks in their honor.

“I couldn’t drop the story. There’s a clear case for their names being on that wall,” remarked Esola, explaining that the reason the men are not honored along with the other war dead is that on the night of the disaster, the Evans was outside the official combat zone. The perimeter of such a zone, explains Esola, is not strictly a military marker but rather is a border created for IRS purposes—military personnel working inside the zone don’t have to pay taxes on their income. Numerous exceptions have been made for other deceased soldiers in similar situations, says the author. Indeed, she explains that other men killed near the Evans, who were also outside the designated zone, are listed on the memorial. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for clarification on the situation have not helped.

The resulting book clearly benefits from a journalist’s research skills, eye for detail, and storytelling experience. It has already won numerous awards, among them the 2015 National Indie Excellence Award in Military Nonfiction. There have been political results, too. “The book is making waves in Washington,” says Esola, who is working with Sen. Charles Schumer of New York to petition the Department of Defense to have the names of Gary, Gregory, and Kelly Sage, and their 71 shipmates listed on the national Vietnam memorial.

Henrietta Verma is Editor, LJ Reviews

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Henrietta Verma About Henrietta Verma

Henrietta Verma is Senior Editorial Communications Specialist at NISO, the National Information Standards Organization, Baltimore, and was formerly the reviews editor at Library Journal.


  1. Curt Nelson6 says:

    Glad to see another review of this important book. Respect for the Frank E. Evans crew is long overdue.