MITCHELL, HARRY E.

Name: Harry E. Mitchell 
Rank/Branch: Torpedoman's Mate Senior Chief Petty Officer/US Navy 
Unit: Guided Missile Cruiser USS Long Beach (CGN-9) 
Date of Birth: 19 September 1948
Home of Record: Marion, IN 
Date of Loss: 05 May 1968 
Country of Loss: North Vietnam/Over Water
Loss Coordinates: 163000N 1090000E 
Status in 1973: Unauthorized Absentee 
Category:
Aircraft/Vehicle/Ground: At Sea
Other Personnel In Incident: Michael J. Kustigian (missing) 

REMARKS:  POSS SEEN 9 MY 79 USA (45)

SYNOPSIS:  Once the US Navy arrived off the coast of Vietnam, it divided the coastal waters into two sectors in order to more easily manage the different and distinct mission requirements of each. Dixie Station included all the territorial waters south of the demilitarized zone (DMZ), and Yankee Station referred the area north of the DMZ.

On 5 May 1968, then Gunner's Mate Michael J. "Mike" Kustigian and Torpedoman Harry E. Mitchell were Seamen Apprentice (E-3) assigned to the Guided Missile Cruiser USS Long Beach (CGN-9) operating in Dixie Station. The two men were good friends who often spent their off-duty hours together.

On the morning of 6 May 1968, both Mike Kustigian and Harry Mitchell failed to report to their assigned duty stations for their normal work detail. An immediate and complete inspection of every compartment in the cruiser failed to locate the young sailors. Further, this investigation failed to disclose any cogent reason for their disappearance. The USS Truxton and the USS Long Beach along with aircraft from the USS Yorktown conducted an extensive search of the entire area traversed by the USS Long Beach. Like the search of the ship, the search of the sea found no sign of the missing sailors. At the time the formal search was terminated, Mike Kustigian and Harry Mitchell were reported Missing.
 
 

Over the next several days, a more indepth investigation was conducted by ship's personnel. It established that Mike Kustigian and Harry Mitchell were last seen on the after part of the ship's main deck at approximately 2100 hours on the night of 5 May. At that time, the USS Long Beach was approximately 20 to 25 miles east to northeast of DaNang, South Vietnam and moving deeper into the Gulf of Tonkin toward the DMZ. By the time they were discovered missing, the USS Long Beach was some 40 miles off shore. During the night none of the lookouts on duty saw any indication of a man overboard situation. The exact circumstances of their disappearance are not known. The only thing known for sure is that the weather was fair, the seas calm and visibility good throughout the night.

As part of the continuing investigation, Harry Mitchell and Mike Kustigian's personal effects were examined. It disclosed the only items missing from either sailor's possessions were one set of swim fins, a facemask and a snorkel from Harry Mitchell's personal locker. One strong speculation bantered about was that Harry Mitchell and Mike Kustigian chose to disappear over the side in some fashion to avoid "Man Overboard" reports from lookouts with the intent of swimming to shore. However, those individuals putting this theory forward were unable to provide any reasonable explanation of why the two young men would want to carry out such an action particularly since no survival equipment was missing from the ship and it was so far out to sea.

In spite of the fact that it made little sense, the Captain of the USS Long Beach determined "Due to the insufficient evidence to support a determination of death after leaving the ship, the casualty status was changed from Missing to Unauthorized Absentee (US)." This arbitrary act insured that both Harry Mitchell and Mike Kustigian were not listed as casualties in Southeast Asia due to the Defense Department's policy of excluding deserters from casualty reports.

After their initial disappearance, a Stars and Stripes article erroneously reported them as having been located. It did not indicate whether they were found alive or dead. Another report offered information that Harry Mitchell was seen later in the United States, but this was never confirmed and neither seaman has ever been confirmed alive since the night they disappeared. Likewise, no evidence of death has been forthcoming. The Navy has never been able to establish the precise circumstances of their disappearance, or to determine the fate of either man.

Early in 1979, the Kustigian family petitioned the Department of the Navy to reexamine its conclusion that Mike Kustigian and Harry Mitchell intentionally deserted on the night of 5-6 May 1968. When the Naval Review Board examined the men's military records, they found both to be excellent. When the board looked into their personal lives, the board learned both were stable and normal. Finally, when they examined the findings of the ship's investigation at the time of loss, the officers sitting on the Review Board determined that the ruling of Unauthorized Absentee could not be substantiated.

On 13 September 1979, the Status Review Board reversed the 1968 determination of UA. It reinstated the original status of Missing under non-hostile conditions for both Mike Kustigian and Harry Mitchell. Further, the Board promoted Mike Kustigian to the rank of Chief Petty Officer (E-7) and Harry Mitchell to the rank of Torpedoman's Mate Senior Chief Petty Officer (E-8). These promotions were commensurate with their years of service and respective time in grade, in the same manner as all POW/MIAs were promoted right along with their peers while in a prisoner or missing status. Before closing the hearing, the Review Board took the final action of promptly pronouncing both men Dead/Body Not Recovered under a Presumptive Finding of Death thereby listing them legally deceased.

Under the circumstances of loss and based on information known today, there appears to be little chance of learning the real facts concerning the events surrounding the disappearance of Harry Mitchell and Mike Kustigian on the night of 5-6 May 1968. If they are dead, they have a right to have their remains returned to their families, friends and country if at all possible. If they miraculously survived, their fate could be quite different.

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

Military men were called upon to live under many dangerous circumstances while serving in a war zone, 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.