NORTH WILDWOOD — When he was 9, Tom Corcoran lost his brother, Patrick, to a U.S. Navy training accident off Vietnam in 1969.

Corcoran was very close to his brother, who took him on his pizza-delivery route and helped raise him and their baby sister, Suzanne, after their parents separated. Today, Corcoran wonders how his life would be different if his big brother were still around.

“If not for the Vietnam War, he wouldn’t have been there and I’d be enjoying fun times with my brother and perhaps his kids. I firmly believe that,” Corcoran said.

Corcoran and his sister, Suzanne, have been trying for decades to get their brother’s name inscribed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. It’s a personal campaign that received national attention this year after their brother’s casket flag was stolen from its flagpole in North Wildwood on Independence Day.

The Navy presented the flag to the Corcoran family at Patrick Corcoran’s funeral in 1969. The family has flown it every Memorial Day, weather permitting. This year because of rain, Corcoran flew it July 4. When it was stolen, veterans and politicians across New Jersey expressed outrage.

Someone returned it anonymously a week later.

Patrick Corcoran was asleep in his berth aboard the destroyer USS Frank E. Evans, which completed a fire-support mission off Vietnam to join naval exercises. On the morning of June 3, 1969, the destroyer collided with an aircraft carrier. The entire bow of the Evans was sheared away and sank, killing Corcoran and 73 other sailors, all but one of them lost forever to the South China Sea.

The disaster left an indelible mark on Corcoran’s family and 70 others. Three brothers from Nebraska serving aboard the Evans died in the accident.

Corcoran said his late father, Thomas, fought for years before his death in 2006 to get his son’s name engraved on the memorial. The black granite wall bears the names of 58,272 soldiers killed or missing in action. But the U.S. Department of Defense did not recognize them as Vietnam War casualties because the destroyer was just outside the war zone, taking part in a naval exercise called Operation Sea Spirit.

These boundaries are important to the federal government because soldiers serving in war zones do not pay income taxes, said Bill Davenport, a U.S. Marine and Vietnam veteran from Wildwood.

“It’s an arbitrary line they drew based on the IRS designation,” Davenport said.

“Certainly, they should be recognized on the wall,” he said. “More than 90 percent of your time in the military is in training. But training simulations are realistic. You’re using real ammunition, planes are dropping bombs. Accidents happen.”

Davenport stood at the half-scale Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall on Ocean Avenue in Wildwood, staring at the names of soldiers he knew as kids growing up in Cape May County, such as Marine Rodney Stinson, who was killed in a firefight in 1967.

Every year, thousands of veterans and tourists visit the black granite wall across from the Wildwoods Convention Center. The wall is a chronicle of the war’s casualties by year and bears the names of many local soldiers, including Michael J. Crescenz, of Wildwood Crest, who died in battle in 1968 and posthumously received the Medal of Honor.

Spacing of names on “the Wall That Heals” was designed to allow the addition of more veterans as the war’s casualty toll was fully realized.

Davenport said he thinks the exclusion of sailors aboard the Evans was motivated, at least in part, by politics.

“President Nixon had declared there would be no more mass-casualty days. He sure as hell didn’t want 74 war casualties in a single day,” Davenport said.

So those sailors’ lives were never included in the final war tally, he said.

Louise Esola is an expert on the disaster. She is the author of “American Boys,” which recounts the sinking and its aftermath for families of the victims. Esola noted that all the sailors aboard the destroyer were awarded the Vietnam Combat Medal — 74 of them posthumously.

“The Evans had just come off the gunline near Da Nang in May of 1969,” she said.

The other American ships taking part in the naval exercise were awarded Vietnam Service Medals, she said. When the exercise concluded, the rest of the destroyer squadron returned to the Vietnam coastline to resume gunfire and carrier support.

Esola said she has letters sailors aboard the Evans wrote home saying they expected to conduct four missions off Vietnam that summer. The ship was fully loaded with armaments for those missions.

Finally, Esola said there are other examples of the military acknowledging casualties of war with inclusion on the memorial wall despite geography outside the war zone.

Names have been added to the wall every few years, as recently as 2011. Some of the additions came when the geographic war zone was amended to reflect war casualties. President Ronald Reagan agreed to add the names of 68 Marines and Navy sailors who were killed in a crash on a flight to Hong Kong in 1965. Similar acknowledgments were given for victims of suicides, heart attacks and accidents outside the war zone.

“I absolutely think the names belong on the wall,” she said. “The fact is they were on duty supporting the war.”

Corcoran said he has a copy of “American Boys” but has read only the first chapter. The retelling of the accident from survivors was too hard to read, he said.

A nonprofit group called the Frank E. Evans Association has been lobbying Congress and the U.S. Defense Department to acknowledge the sacrifice of the 74 soldiers and the others who served aboard the destroyer. They have appealed to U.S. Reps. Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd, and Bob Brady, D-Pa. LoBiondo agrees the names should be added to the wall, spokesman Jason Galanes said.

LoBiondo and U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said they will take the families’ request directly to Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, who has authority to amend the criteria.

“They fought in Vietnam. They were still on deployment in the act of serving the American forces in Vietnam. They deserve to be honored as such,” Menendez spokesman Steven Sandberg said.

Joe Griffies, a Vietnam veteran from Middle Township, hosts a weekly radio show on veterans issues on WIBG-AM 1020. He was a public champion of the Corcorans’ case even before their flag was stolen July 4.

“The person who stole that flag learned the lesson that they could correct a wrong. I want to know when the Defense Department and politicians will correct this wrong,” Griffies said.

“This wall stands for healing. It’s not a tourist attraction. This wall is not meant for anything but for family, friends and visitors to see what the cost of war is,” Griffies said. “If you died for your country in Vietnam, you deserve to be on that wall.”

Contact: 609-463-6712

Twitter @ACPressMiller

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