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Should Air Force Col. Philip J. Conran Receive the Medal of Honor?

Vietnam-era U.S. Air Force pilot denied medal because action took place in Laos

It’s not too late for the U.S. Air Force to reexamine whether a Medal of Honor should be awarded to retired Air Force Col. Philip J. Conran.

Conran, 76, was awarded the nation’s second highest decoration for gallantry in action against the enemy — the Air Force Cross — for an action in Oct. 1969. U.S. Army leaders recommended Conran for the Medal of Honor. A general later told Conran why he didn’t receive it. “President Nixon had told the public we didn’t have any troops there,” Conran said in a June 1 telephone interview. “The vice commander of Pacific Air Forces, Lt. Gen. Lucius D. Clay, told me I didn’t receive the higher award because of the location.”

The location was Laos.

 

Serious Soldier

Born in Hartford, Conn. in 1937, Conran graduated from Fordham University and was commissioned a second lieutenant in 1958. After receiving his pilot’s wings in 1960, Conran served as an air rescue aircraft commander and as a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps professor of aerospace studies before deploying to Southeast Asia in July 1968. It was during this combat tour (while serving as a special operations helicopter commander) that then-Maj. Conran became caught up in the battle that got him written up for recognition. He was based at Nakhon Phanom, Thailand — called NKP — flying a CH-3E, a close cousin to the HH-3E “Jolly Green” helicopter.

CH-3E Jolly Green Giant

A CH-3E Jolly Green Giant, like the one Col. Philip J. Conran flew, in Southeast Asia. U.S. Air Force photo

At 10:45 a.m. on Oct. 6, 1969, five helicopters carrying U.S and friendly troops left NKP for a camp in Laos. Conran was the aircraft commander of the number two helicopter in the formation. After being told that the landing zone or LZ was clear, the helicopters started their approach in trail formation. But the LZ was far from safe, and the lead aircraft was shot down while landing. Its crewmembers and the other troops on board had no choice but to abandon the helicopter and take up defensive positions on the ground.

Conran, still aloft, immediately climbed out of the range of small arms fire, and assumed command of the remaining four helicopters. He directed fire from two escorting A-1E Skyraiders.

For the rest of the day, Conran repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire to obtain essential ammunition and food from the downed helicopters. After an HH-3E attempting to rescue Conran and the other airmen was driven off by an intense barrage of automatic weapons fire, mortar rounds began falling into the friendly positions. Conran exposed himself, located the enemy mortar crew, and called in an air strike.

Conran began to run low on fuel. He had two choices: Return to a safe area and refuel — leaving his fellow Americans on the ground to be overrun and killed — or attempt a rescue of the downed crew and reinforce the friendlies fighting on the ground. Concluding that the 26 friendly soldiers would not be able to provide sufficient protection for the downed aircrew, Conran decided to land his helicopter.

Although he selected what he thought was the safest approach route, Conran’s helicopter was severely damaged by enemy fire while attempting to land. Although he probably could have broken off his approach and returned to a safe area, Conran elected to land and deliver his cargo of friendly troops — who now joined the fight.

Although damaged, Conran’s helicopter was still flyable. But, as he began to take the downed crewmembers aboard, small arms fire ripped through the main rotor transmission and cockpit. Take-off was now impossible. Conran and his crew abandoned their aircraft.

For the rest of the day, Conran repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire to obtain essential ammunition and food from the downed helicopters. After an HH-3E attempting to rescue Conran and the other airmen was driven off by an intense barrage of automatic weapons fire, mortar rounds began falling into the friendly positions. Conran exposed himself, located the enemy mortar crew, and called in an air strike.

Air Force Cross

Col. Philip J. Conran received the Air Force Cross, the second highest military award that can be given to a U.S. Air Force member. U.S. Air Force illustration

Later, while trying to strengthen defenses, Conran was severely wounded in the leg. He did not mention this injury until he had lost all feeling in his leg and felt that, if a rescue helicopter were to arrive to extract them, he might not be able to make it to the aircraft on his own and would need help. In spite of the seriousness of his leg wound, Conran refused to allow anyone to expose themselves to enemy fire to examine his injury.

Just before nightfall, two Jolly Greens were able to complete a successful rescue of all 44 downed airmen and, believing that Conran was chiefly responsible for the survival of the men on the ground, he was recommended for the Medal of Honor.

When he was subsequently awarded the Air Force Cross, Conran was told that the Air Force had initially approved the award of the Medal of Honor to him. While Clay acknowledged that the higher medal was the appropriate award, Conran was being awarded the Air Force Cross because his act of heroism had occurred in Laos, where Nixon had said no American military operations were ongoing. Awarding the Medal of Honor to Conran would be a “red flag” that U.S. troops in fact were in Laos, and that would be bad politics. Conran was grateful to have done his duty and come home in one piece and, he said, did not give the matter of the Medal of Honor much more thought.

As an aside, Phil Conran’s heroism in Oct. 1969 was not the only time in which he had risked his life to save his fellow Americans.  Ten months earlier, on Jan. 19, 1969, Conran and his copilot, Capt. Troy Lindabury, were in the process of refueling at NKP when they got a radio call that a B-26 “Nimrod” had jettisoned its bombs somewhere northeast of the base. The pilots were ordered to find the location, check for casualties, and secure the area. After topping off their fuel tanks, Conran and Lindabury took off and soon found the fires started by the detonated bombs.

Although the flames were intense, and ammunition was exploding around them, the two Americans managed to extricate a fourth crewmember trapped in the helicopter. The helicopter blew up as soon as Conran and his fellow airman took the immobile crewman from the area. As a result of their extraordinary heroism that day, both Phil Conran and the crewman who had helped in the rescue were awarded the Airman’s Medal, the highest decoration an Air Force member may be awarded for non-combat heroism.

Lindabury initiated the aircraft’s approach while Conran covered the pre-landing checklist. Lindabury, disoriented as a result of focusing exclusively on the ground fires, developed vertigo and went from a straight-in descending approach to a nose-high unusual attitude. Before Conran could take corrective action, the helicopter settled into one hundred foot trees. The blades struck the trees and the aircraft then fell to the ground like a rock.

When it struck the ground, the helicopter rolled and caught fire. Conran, Lindabury and another airman escaped, but after hearing screaming coming from the rear of the helicopter, Conran and the crewman returned to the fiery wreck. Although the flames were intense, and ammunition was exploding around them, the two Americans managed to extricate a fourth crewmember trapped in the helicopter. The helicopter blew up as soon as Conran and his fellow airman took the immobile crewman from the area. As a result of their extraordinary heroism that day, both Phil Conran and the crewman who had helped in the rescue were awarded the Airman’s Medal, the highest decoration an Air Force member may be awarded for non-combat heroism.

Chief Master Sgt. Richard Etchberger

Chief Master Sgt. Richard Etchberger posthumously and belatedly received the Medal of Honor for his heroic actions in Laos on March 11, 1968. The righting of this wrong has given hope that something similar will happen regarding Col. Philip J. Conran. U.S. Air Force photo

After his Southeast Asia tour, Conran served in a variety of assignments and locations, including executive officer and commander of an Air Force satellite control facility and inspector general for Air Force Systems Command. He retired as a colonel in 1988 with more than 5,000 flying hours, 300 of which were combat hours. He then had a successful career in private industry until retiring again. Today, he lives in California.

A few years ago, some Air Force veterans learned that Chief Master Sgt. Richard L. Etchberger, who lost his life in a firefight in Laos in March 1968, had been recommended for the Medal of Honor. Because of the action’s location in Laos, however, Etchberger’s award was downgraded to an Air Force Cross. In 2010, however, Congressman Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.) asked the Air Force to look into whether Etchberger’s Air Force Cross should — and could — be upgraded to the Medal of Honor for which he had originally been recommended. When the Secretary of the Air Force agreed that the Medal of Honor was desirable, Pomeroy introduced legislation in Congress that waived the two-year time limit that was an obstacle to such an upgrade. When Congress enacted Pomeroy’s bill, President Barack Obama approved the award of the Medal of Honor to “Dick” Etchberger – which was presented to his surviving family members.

Conran’s situation is identical and warrants an identical upgrade. Conran says he isn’t bothered about it but his neighbors and his congressman, (Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.) are studying the legislation that would permit him to receive the higher award.

It’s the right thing to do for an airman who showed such caring and concern for his fellow Americans in Southeast Asia almost 45 years ago.

By

Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-216075">

    He should definitely be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. This man acted above and beyond the call of duty where he saved lives by risking his own on several occasions. He was approved the the honor but denied for political reasons. That is reprehensible. It would be unconscionscionable to deny this award. Please award this patriotic, brave American the honor he was approved for, the Congressional Medal of Honor.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-216090">
    Ulick McEvaddy

    I believe Col. Conran deserves the Medal of Honour. Rarely do men of such courage excel except in times of war. We need heroes like him as an example of the unselfish service of our Armed Forces.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-216093">

    Col. Conran should definitely receive the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroric actions in Laos. I understand his views regarding the situation, but the opportunity to correct this political SNAFU really needs to be addressed. Regardless of the outcome, thank you Col. Conran for your outstanding service to your country.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-216099">

    Heroic men should be recognized for the deeds they have done…..this is long overdue!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-216106">
    Kent Wagoner

    To hell with politics, give the Col. what he deserves!

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-216123">

    This man exemplifies all that is good that can come from the horrors of war. Honor him appropriately so that future generations understand the concept of true honor, character, and the American spirit.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-216165">
    Earl Hansen

    With out a doubt the man deserves the MOH.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-216206">
    Dan McKenrick

    Col. Conran earned the MOH and it’s award is long overdue. Representative Capps needs to expedite.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-216235">

    YES!

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-216398">

    Of course he earned the CMH, he was put in for and recieved the approval by the people that really matter the ones that were there day in and day out and knew first hand what happenedand under what circumstances. “Courage knows no boundries, especially man made lines on a map”.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-216507">

    He should ABSOLUTELY, POSITIUVELY be awarded the Medal of Honor. It is a travesty that political cover took precedence over proper recognition of a hero. An AF Cross for an enlisted USAF NCO for action at LS-85 was recently upgraded to the MOH. It had been subject to the same political supression. There is no reason, then, that Colonen Conran should not get the same consideration. DO IT NOW!!!

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-216541">

    As a member of the 21st SOS, I wholeheartedly agree that Col Conran should have been awarded the MOH for his actions. Long overdue, downgraded because of political reasons, it should have been corrected long ago.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-216649">
    Bill Junkins

    He should definitely be awarded the Medal of Honor!

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-216659">
    Robert F. Dorr

    Thanks to everyone who read the article about Col. Phil Conran and especially those who left comments. If any readers happen to live in Congresswoman Capps’ district, this would be a good time to weigh in with your legislator. There are a thousand stories about American airmen who served at Nakhon Phanom but this is one of the most memorable.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-216961">
    Hollis H. Barnhart

    Conran should receive the Medal of Honor, particularly because it appears it was denied for purely political reasons. My father, Brad Hoelscher, was at NKP during Conran’s tour there. While I think he left NKP in Aug. ’69, he certainly was there in Jan. ’69 when Conrad received the Airman’s Medal. I wish my father were alive now so that I could get his impression. My guess is that he would have been furious at the brass…. … By the way, the article should indicate that it was Gen. Lucius D. Clay, JR. Readers should not confuse him with his father— Lucius D. Clay, Sr. who brilliantly orchestrated the Berlin Airlift.

    Well written, article. Thank you

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-217413">
    Larry Steenstry

    Get it done!!! It’s way overdue.