Congressional members fight for proper honor
From the age of 6, Phil Conran knew he was destined for the skies.
Once when he was standing in his family’s field in Hartford, Conn., a bomber jet flew low overhead like it was coming right at him.
As the plane barreled down, Mr. Conran fell to the ground and watched as the pilot wiggled his wings as if waving hello. The pilot circled back again, and the boy jumped to his feet and waved his arms excitedly toward the sky. It was this scenario that sparked aspiration in his young mind.
“I said, ‘By God, I want to do that,’ ” Mr. Conran told the News-Press. “That’s what started my ambition to become an Air Force pilot.”
This childhood dream to fly for the Air Force became a reality when he earned his wings 15 years later.
With a background in both flight and helicopter training, Mr. Conran, who is now a Goleta resident, set himself on a path to become an eventual war hero and nominee for the Medal of Honor.
When American troops began descending on Vietnam at the start of the war, Mr. Conran answered the call of duty to serve his country overseas with the expectation he would be flying fighter jets.
But the reality was far different.
Instead of flying fighter jets over enemy territory in Vietnam, Mr. Conran was assigned to a helicopter unit with a classified mission and location. When he received the assignment, an officer told him it was “the highest mission in Southeast Asia.”
After he finally landed overseas, Mr. Conran was stationed at Nakhon Phanom Thai Air Force Base in Thailand, just a stone’s throw from Vietnam.
His mission was two-fold.
First, his unit was responsible for dropping sensors over the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos, a method that would allow American forces to track enemy movement. And second, he would deliver troops from Vietnam to Laos, dropping them behind enemy lines.
“Those guys are my heroes (because) we would drop them off up into enemy territory behind enemy lines and then schedule a pick up a week or ten days later,” Mr. Conran said. “But usually, it was an emergency pick up (before) the scheduled pick up time because they were detected by the enemy and trying to get out. We’d have to go in there and pick them up.”
After several months of serving overseas, Mr. Conran received orders to report to a new assignment at an Air Force Base in Hawaii.
With his time in Vietnam coming to a close, his officers prepped him for his final mission on Oct. 6, 1969, which he was told would be a “walk in the park.”
“As they briefed us, they said, ‘You’ll be home for lunch,” Mr. Conran said.
The mission was to deliver about a hundred troops behind enemy lines in five helicopters, which was an ordinary task for the unit.
But when Mr. Conran and his fellow pilots set out on the mission, things quickly took a turn for the worse.
As the first helicopter descended into enemy territory, it was immediately met by an ambush. Enemy troops on the ground shot the chopper down, causing it to crash land with 25 troops aboard.
Watching this, Mr. Conran called on another helicopter to land and offer backup, but the pilot refused. He said it was too dangerous and his chopper was too low on fuel.
It was in that moment Mr. Conran knew that he had to do something. He knew the troops on the ground would not last if he did not do something to help.
“I made a decision to try to go in and pick them up myself,” Mr. Conran said. “I had 25 troops on board, so I could bring those troops into the fight too, and possibly with the 50 troops that would be on the ground then, we could withstand the enemy and I could get the Americans out.”
However, when Mr. Conran descended, he said the enemy “literally came out of the ground” and began firing at his helicopter. The barrage of gunfire killed one of the troops on board the chopper and caused Mr. Conran to crash near the other downed aircraft.
Trapped behind enemy lines, Mr. Conran began controlling ground operations for the next six hours, calling in backup from other units nearby as the enemy surrounded them on all sides.
As the situation became more desperate, Mr. Conran even called in fighter jets to drop bombs over the area.
After hours of holding off the enemy’s attack, help finally arrived when A-1 aircraft dropped non-lethal debilitating gas around the perimeter and deterred the enemy long enough for helicopters to descend and rescue the troops on the ground.
As the troops rushed onto large H-53 helicopters, Mr. Conran noticed Lt. Col Theodore Silva, commander of the 21st Special Operations Squadron, was struggling to get into the aircraft after being shot in the back.
In a final heroic effort, Mr. Conran, who had been shot in the leg, got on his hands and knees to help Lt. Col. Silva climb aboard the chopper after he was shot in the back.
The helicopters sped out of enemy territory and many of the troops were saved.
After recovering from his leg wound in the hospital, Mr. Conran was shipped off to Hawaii and began serving at Hickam Air Force Base. But in the meantime, Lt. Col. Silva submitted a nomination for Mr. Conran to receive the Medal of the Honor for his heroic service in Vietnam.
A few months later, Mr. Conran received a letter explaining that he had been nominated for the Medal of Honor, but would be receiving the Air Force Cross instead, which is the second-highest honor an Air Force member can receive.
During the Air Force Cross award ceremony in 1970, the presenter explained that Mr. Conran was initially slated to receive the Medal of Honor, but because his service occurred in Laos at a time when President Richard Nixon denied any American activity in the country, he received the next best award.
Though he would have been honored to receive the Medal of Honor, Mr. Conran said he was “extremely proud” to be a recipient of the Air Force Cross, and he never really had any interest in pursuing an upgrade. He continued on with his military career, serving for another 18 years after Vietnam at various Air Force bases across the county and the world.
But now, more than 50 years later, congressional representatives are nearly a decade into a legislative battle to make sure Mr. Conran is properly honored.
It started when Richard Etchberger, a retired veteran who served in northern Laos during the Vietnam War, was upgraded to the Medal of Honor in 2010 after receiving the Air Force Cross because of the location of his service.
When this occurred, many people close to Mr. Conran told him he should share his story and try to get his award upgraded as well.
Mr. Conran was hesitant at first, but then in 2012, he decided it was time to share his story. He started talking with former U.S. Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, who then authored multiple bills in Congress to request that the veteran receive the Medal of Honor.
Her requests were continually denied, but that has not stopped her successor, Rep. Salud Carbajal, D-Santa Barbara, from continuing to lobby on behalf of Mr. Conran. For each term in office, Rep. Carbajal has authored a bill asking for further consideration to honor Mr. Conran with the Medal of Honor.
Currently Rep. Carbajal’s most recent bill has been introduced in Congress and needs to be heard in the House Armed Services Committee. The congressman is also awaiting a CIA assessment of evidence submitted by Mr. Conran pertaining to the heroic event.
Rep. Carbajal told the News-Press that the key element moving forward will be to corroborate Mr. Conran’s evidence with CIA records from the event.
As a Marine veteran himself, Rep. Carbajal said it is a “high priority” to make sure Mr. Conran is properly honored.
“Our veterans sacrifice along with their families to serve our country, and so when they’ve earned various benefits, and in this case recognition for their heroic efforts, like Phil Conran, and it is important that as his representative, I fight for him to see through his grievance and fight to get him the proper recognition that he deserves,” Rep. Carbajal told the News-Press.
In the meantime, Mr. Conran is at peace with any outcome. Mr. Conran retired with the rank of colonel after 35 years in the military, and he now lives in Goleta with his wife of 62 years, Margaret.
“I’m still honored to be a recipient of the Air Force Cross … Yes, it would be nice to have the Medal of Honor, I’d be very honored to have it,” Mr. Conran said. “But I’m not going to lose any sleep over it.”