Remains Recovered 05 November 1996; Identified 19 February 1999
Name: John Francis Hartzheim 
Rank/Branch: Petty Officer/US Navy 
Unit: Observation Squadron 67
Nakhon Phanom, Thailand 

Date of Birth: 25 November 1945 (Appleton, WI)
Home of Record: Appleton, WI
Date of Loss: 27 February 1968 
Country of Loss: Laos 
Loss Coordinates: 170500N 1060300E (XD116889) 
Click coordinates to view maps

Status in 1973: Missing in Action 
Category: 2
Aircraft/Vehicle/Ground: OP2E "Neptune"
Other Personnel In Incident: Paul L. Milius (missing) 


SYNOPSIS:  The Lockheed P2 Neptune was originally designed for anti-submarine warfare using magnetic detection gear or acoustic buoys. Besides flying maritime reconnaissance, the aircraft served as an exceptional night attack craft in the attempt to interdict the movement of enemy truck convoys. The OP2E, which usually carried a crew of nine, was used to drop electronic sensors to detect truck movement along the supply route through Laos known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

The Neptune had precise navigational equipment and an accurate optical bombsight. Its radar was housed in a well in the nose underside of the aircraft, and the radar technicians who were stationed in it felt especially vulnerable working in this "glass bubble". It was believed that the aircraft could place the seismic or acoustic device within a few yards of the desired point. To do so, however, the OP2E had to fly low and level, which made it an easy target for enemy anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) site that were increasing in number along the trail.

On 27 February 1968, Commander Paul L. Milius, pilot; and ATN2 John F. Hartzheim, Aviation Electronics Technician Second Class, were part of a nine-man crew conducting a midday armed reconnaissance mission along Route 137, the primary road that ran through the Ban Karai Pass, Khammouane Province, Laos.

This area of eastern Laos was considered one of two major gateways into the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail. When North Vietnam began to increase its military strength in South Vietnam, NVA and Viet Cong troops again intruded on neutral Laos for sanctuary, as the Viet Minh had done during the war with the French some years before. This border road was used by the Communists to transport weapons, supplies and troops from North Vietnam into South Vietnam, and was frequently no more than a path cut through the jungle covered mountains. US forces used all assets available to them to stop this flow of men and supplies from moving south into the war zone.

At approximately 1300 hours, the crew of the Neptune was in the process of delivering ordnance on their assigned target when a single 38mm AAA shell struck the aircraft. A projectile struck the underside of the aircraft and exploded in the radar well. ATN2 Hartzheim was wounded by fragments of the projectile and began to bleed profusely. Other members of the crew, including Cmdr. Milius, were slightly wounded by shrapnel. Shortly thereafter the radar well burst into flames that filled the flight deck area with dense, acrid smoke.

As soon as Cmdr. Milius determined the aircraft was no longer airworthy, he reported their position to the airborne command and control aircraft, requested an immediate search and rescue (SAR) operation be initiated and ordered the crew to bail out. The Tactical Coordinator carried ATN2 Hartzheim to the after section. Upon arriving in the after station, John Hartzheim stated that he could not go any farther, and collapsed. Other crewmembers later stated in their debriefings that they believed he died at this time because his eyes were wide open and rolled to an upward position, and there was no movement.

The bombardier/third pilot reported that he saw Paul Milius sitting at the after-station hatch and that the Neptune's pilot bailed out just prior to his own departure. The aircrew bailed out of the aircraft as it entered a steep climb before crashing into the rugged jungle covered mountains that were heavily populated by communist forces approximately 2 miles southeast of Route 137 and 15 miles southwest of the Ban Karai Pass.

When search aircraft arrived in the area of loss, they immediately heard the crew's emergency beepers. Subsequently seven crewmen were rescued. A search effort on 29 February, Operation Texas Crest, continued for Paul Milius, but failed to locate any trace of him.

While searching for the downed crew, SAR personnel did locate the wreckage of the Neptune. At the time they were only able to examine the burned wreckage from the air. Later they reported that they believed no identifiable remains would be found for ATN2 Hartzheim whose body had been left aboard. At the time the formal search as terminated, John Hartzheim was listed Killed in Action/Body Not Recovered while Paul Milius was listed Missing in Action.

In August 1968, a NVA soldier whose unit moved south along Route 137 during the same timeframe that the Neptune was shot down defected to US control. He reported that during infiltration, his unit captured a US Colonel with a survival radio. The approximate date of capture was March 1968, but the precise location was not pinpointed. Military intelligence personnel considered the defector's information truthful, correlated this report to Cmdr. Milius and placed a copy of it in his casualty file.

Paul L Milius and John F. Hartzheim are among the nearly 600 Americans who disappeared in Laos. Many of these men were known to be alive on the ground. The Laotians admitted holding "tens of tens" of American Prisoners of War, but these men were never negotiated for either by direct negotiation between our countries or through the Paris Peace Accords that ended the war in Vietnam since Laos was not a party to that agreement.

In January 1985, a Lao refugee turned several human bone fragments, a compass and a plastic Escape-and Evasion (E&E) map to the Joint Casualty Resolution Center (JCRC) Liaison Office in Bangkok. The Lao indicated that the items were recovered from a location near a 1968 crash site  of a US aircraft in Khammouan Province. After examination by the Central Identification Laboratory, Hawaii (CIL-HI), the remains were determined to be human, but no further identification was possible. In December 1986, another Lao refugee offered remains and a dog tag allegedly belonging to ATN2 Hartzheim.

In October and December 1994, joint teams from the Joint Task Force for Full Accounting (JTFFA) traveled to Khammouan Province to interview several villagers with information about this crash. While surveying the crash site, the team found aircraft wreckage, a fragment of possible knife sheath and human remains. Successive visits in 1995 and 1996 recovered more remains, life support equipment and other crew-related items. The crash site was closed on 5 November 1996.

The possible human remains were transported to the Central Identification Laboratory, Hawaii (CIL-HI) for examination and possible identification. The remains recovered during the joint excavations were added to those bone fragments turned over by the Lao in 1985. On 19 February 1999, these remains were identified as John Hartzheim. Shortly thereafter they were turned over to his family for burial.

John Hartzheim's fate is finally resolved and his family and friends have the peace of mind of knowing where their loved one lies. For Paul Milius only questions remain. There is no question he bailed out of his crippled aircraft over territory under total enemy control. If he reached the ground safely, he most certainly could have been captured and his fate, like that of other Americans who remain unaccounted for in Southeast Asia, could be quite different. Under the circumstances, there is every reason to believe the Vietnamese or Lao could return Paul Milius or his remains any time they had the desire to do so.

Since the end of the Vietnam War well over 21,000 reports of our government has received American prisoners, missing and otherwise unaccounted for. Many of these reports document LIVE American Prisoners of War remaining captive throughout Southeast Asia TODAY.

Pilots and aircrews in Vietnam were called upon to fly in many dangerous circumstances, and they were prepared to be wounded, killed or captured. It probably never occurred to them that they could be abandoned by the country they so proudly served.

On 28 October 1995 the United States Navy granted Commander Paul L. Milius exceptional recognition by naming the first Navy ship for a POW/MIA from the Vietnam War in his honor. The christening ceremony for the destroyer, the USS MILIUS (DDG-69), was held at its homeport of Pascagola, Mississippi.