During the Vietnam War, how to interdict the men and material North Vietnam sent south through neutral Laos and Cambodia proved to be one of the most vexing challenges faced by the United States military. In the Fall of 1966, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara requested that Army Lieutenant General Alfred Starbird, Director, Defense Communications Planning Group devise a system to reduce enemy flow of supplies and reinforcements from North Vietnam to South Vietnam. Lieutenant General Starbird recommended use of a seismic and acoustic detection system to monitor the movement of enemy vehicles and troops along the HoChi Minh Trail. The task of placing the sensors fell to the Navy which converted 12 P-2E Neptune patrol and anti-submarine aircraft, redesignated OP-2E, for the purpose of inserting modified sonobuoys into the jungle canopy. The converted aircraft, part of the newly formed Observation Squadron SIXTY SEVEN (VO-67), arrived at Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Base in November 1967 and soon began to fly the missions for which the squadron had been created. The squadron had prepared intensely for ten months to meet the 15 November target date for all of her aircraft to be in country and operational. However, the unique nature of the squadron’s mission insured that much would have to be learned from experience.
Two of the squadron’s aircraft had already been lost to enemy fire by February 27, 1968 when the OP-2E under the command of Commander Paul Milius flew into Laos to deliver her equipment. As the aircraft flew at an altitude of 5000 feet, without warning an explosion ripped into the radar well that instantly killed PO2 John F. Hartzheim and severely damaged the planes hydraulic and electrical systems. As smoke and fumes filled the fuselage, Commander Milius took control of the aircraft and turned rightward toward a safe area. Lieutenant (j.g.) Richard E. Jacobs attempted to alleviate the effects of the smoke by removing a hatch on the flight deck, but Commander Milius realized that the damage to the aircraft had been too severe and ordered the crew to evacuate. Ensign Thomas G. Wells suffered serious burns to his hands as searched in vain for a fire extinguisher to quell the blaze in the radar well of the aircraft. During the search, he realized that the rest of the crew had left the aircraft and only he, Hartzheim, and Commander Milius remained. Ensign Wells followed Milius out of the aircraft into the jungle below. The 37th Air Rescue Squadron and the 602nd Fighter Commando Squadron almost immediately departed Nakhon Phanom to begin the search for the downed crew. The rescue helicopters recovered seven of the eight surviving crew, but never found Commander Milius. On 25 June 1968, VO-67 flew her last mission and the squadron disestablished on 1 July.
The Navy posthumously promoted Milius to Captain and awarded him the Navy Cross for his actions. The award credits him with “Remaining at the controls to insure stable flight” despite the damage suffered by his aircraft. Captain Milius’ actions played a significant role in the survival of all but one of his crew. On November 23, 1996 the Navy commissioned the destroyer named in his honor, MILIUS (DDG-69).