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Weirton sailor recalled at memorial dedication

DEDICATION — John Coffey of the USS Frank E. Evans Association addresses those gathered Sept. 9 at the Brooke-Hancock County Veterans Memorial Park. to dedicate a new memorial to the 74 lost on board the USS Frank E. Evans after its 1969 collision with an Australian aircraft carrier. Those lost included James Robert Baker of Weirton. (Photo by Craig Howell)

WEIRTON — James Robert Baker was only 22 years old when a collision at sea between the USS Frank E. Evans and the HMAS Melbourne resulted in the loss of his life and those of 73 of his fellow American sailors.

On Sept. 9, a memorial honoring the Weirton native and another West Virginian who served on the destroyer during the Vietnam era was dedicated in his hometown.

A group of city residents and other guests gathered at the Brooke-Hancock County Veterans Memorial Park, welcomed by Ward 4 Councilman George Ash, to recognize the lives of Baker and Larry Wayne Cool, who was from Clifftop, W.Va.

They were among those who died June 3, 1969, when the two naval vessels collided in the South China Sea during exercises involving ships from seven countries. As the incident took place outside of the designated combat zone of the Vietnam war, the names of “The Lost 74” are not included on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C.

Wednesday’s dedication is part of the ongoing effort by the USS Frank E. Evans Association to recognize those who were lost by placing memorials in 27 U.S. states.

“It’s always an honor for me to recognize our veterans,” Mayor Harold Miller said.

Baker, the mayor noted, was a 1966 graduate of Weir High School, the son of Warren and Faye Baker. He had been assigned to the Frank E. Evans only a few months before the collision, Miller noted, as he read a proclamation dedicating June 3 as James Robert Baker Day in the city.

Among those on hand for the dedication was Baker’s sister, Gerri Chappell, who said it has always been disappointing to visit the Vietnam Wall and not see her brother’s name on it. She said, though, she is grateful for the efforts to remember Baker.

“Doing this today was wonderful,” she said.

Cool’s widow, Judy, whom he married in March 1969 during a surprise visit home, also was in attendance.

State Sen. Ryan Weld, R-Wellsburg, admitted he hadn’t been familiar with the story of the Frank E. Evans, or those known as “The Lost 74,” but learned more about Baker in recent days.

“James Baker was a regular Weirton kid,” Weld said, explaining Baker was born in 1947 and grew up on Ritchie Avenue.

After high school, he said, Baker worked in the sheet mill of Weirton Steel Corp. and attended classes at what was then the Weirton campus of West Liberty State College. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy Reserves in 1967, going through basic training at Great Lakes, Ill., and serving throughout Asia and the Pacific region. He began duty on the USS Frank E. Evans April 29, 1969.

Weld noted he read of a memorial service held for Baker at Baptist Evangel Church on Colliers Way, which he said was well attended. A bulletin board, designed by Baker’s father, was later dedicated at the church in his memory, funded through donations from more than 100 residents.

“He meant a lot to his community and his church,” Weld said.

State Del. Pat McGeehan, R-Hancock, quoted St. Thomas Aquinas by saying “Virtue is at the core of human existence.”

He noted the virtues, values and convictions of past generations, stepping forward to fight for something greater than themselves.

“They had deep convictions, deep beliefs that they were willing to die for,” McGeehan said, noting those values often are absent from the generations of today.

Others on hand for the dedication were members of the USS Frank E. Evans Association Terry Vejr, association vice president, and John Coffey, both of whom were on board the ship during the collision.

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