Valor Friday

| June 14, 2024 | 11 Comments

Philip J Conran

We talked about Philip Conran briefly several years back. At the time, I wrote a piece on him for Valor Friday, but it appears that it was never shared with the blog. Here it is, five years later.

A congressman from California, Rep. Salud Carbajal (D), has introduced legislation authorizing the president to upgrade Air Force Colonel Philip Conran’s Air Force Cross to the Medal of Honor. Let’s explore what the colonel did that has garnered the Congressman’s attention.

Enlisting in the Connecticut Air National Guard in 1953, Conran served as a motor pool dispatcher until receiving a commission through the ROTC program at Fordham University in 1958. Trained as a pilot he received his wings in 1960 and then was trained in flying helicopters. He was serving in Bermuda in 1962 when he was deployed for the Cuban Missile Crisis.

HH-3 Jolly Green Giant of the USAF in 1991

In November 1968 he was deployed for a year to Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai AFB, Thailand where he flew CH-3 Jolly Green Giants in the 21st Special Operations Squadron. It was here, in the span of a single year, that Conran would repeatedly distinguish himself. Many of his awards reference classified Southeast Asia locations, which is code in this case for Laos (or maybe Cambodia).

In January 19, 1969 then-Major Conran’s aircraft caught fire. After exiting the burning airframe, he realized a crew member was left aboard. As the thousands of rounds of ammunition cooked off and the fuel risked exploding he unhesitatingly rushed back into the flames. Conran dragged the injured man from the aircraft to safety. Conran received the Airman’s Medal for his bravery. The Airman’s Medal is considered the non-combat equivalent of the Air Force Cross.

Airman’s Medal

On February 7th, Conran successfully inserted indigenous personnel deep in enemy held territory. He was called back to exfiltrate them before being able to return to refuel. He piloted his helicopter back, running on fumes, to pick up the soldiers who were under attack. He was able to get the men out despite the heavy fire directed at his aircraft. He was awarded his first Distinguished Flying Cross for this.

A week later, on the 14th of February, he flew his helicopter at tree top height into heavily defended enemy territory to deliver his classified ordnance. On the way back he diverted south to rescue two indigenous soldiers who were facing certain death after being lost in action. He received another DFC for this.

On the 5th of May he celebrated Cinco de Mayo by landing a clandestine forward reconnaissance team deep into hostile territory despite poor weather conditions and hostile ground fire. A third DFC was Conran’s reward for his continued superb airmanship.

Conran got his fourth DFC for leading an eight craft flight infiltrating indigenous troops into enemy territory on June 3rd. After dropping the men, Conran returned a short time later to exfiltrate the team after the encountered a large enemy force. Despite heavy automatic weapons fire, Conran was able to rescue the team, saving them from death or capture.

Before his tour in Thailand would conclude in November 1969, Major Conran had one more bit of showing off to do.

At a “classified location in Southeast Asia” (Laos), Conran was part of a flight of four CH-3’s and one UH-1 rescue chopper. When the lead aircraft crashed, Conran assumed command of the remaining aircraft. The downed crew was in hostile territory, with enemy assaulting their position. A-1 Skyraiders were called in to provide air cover.

Conran’s aircraft was low on fuel, so he asked the Huey to attempt the rescue. This was rejected because the area was too dangerous. This left Conran two choices; either leave the area, ensuring his safety and the safety of his aircrew and leaving the downed crew behind, or attempting a rescue himself.

Conran knew the chances of a successful rescue were slim, but he also knew that the men on the ground had little chance of survival. Not wanting them to be killed or captured, Conran took his CH-3E helicopter in. Conran’s aircraft came under heavy fire as it came over the crash site. Repeatedly hit by the withering automatic weapons fire, the helicopter’s servos were damaged as he came in. Instead of abandoning the approach, he continued and was able to pilot the aircraft to a landing. The four indigenous troops he was carrying exited and the four American troops on the ground got on.

Just before he attempted to take off, enemy fire destroyed the helicopter’s transmission, stranding them on the ground. Conran evacuated his downed aircraft, mustered his crew and the crew he was ostensibly there to rescue, and organized the men into a defensive perimeter.

Despite not being the ranking officer onscene he assumed command. Moving from position to position, he organized the troops’ fields of fire. Repeatedly exposing himself to enemy fire, Conran retrieved all the parachutes from the helicopter and handed them out to the men to use as shooting platforms as they fired from prone positions. Conran realized they were too exposed in the open for a successful defense or counterattack.

When he learned the first downed aircraft had two M-60 machine guns aboard he and an indigenous soldier ran 50 yards across open, exposed ground, through a hail of automatic weapons fire to retrieve them. As the enemy saw him running into the downed chopper, the fire directed at him intensified. The two men again crossed the open ground to bring the weapons back to the beleaguered men defending the hasty perimeter.

For six hours the battle raged. Conran called in airstrikes using only his compass. Despite their defense and the air support, the enemy inexorably closed in. During the battle he was wounded, quite severely, in the leg, but didn’t mention it to any of the other men until he’d lost all feeling in the limb. Despite his injury, he refused to give up the fight. A source of confidence for the men through the battle, he refused to give up hope, and was a source of calm, preventing them from panicking in the face of the encroaching forces.

His efforts in leading the men in their defense were successful. Eventually the attack broke off and two HH-53 Super Jolly Green Giants were able to land and extricate the weary troops. Despite his wound he still exuded the utmost in leadership traits when he got down on his hands and knees to allow his soldiers to use back as a step to get into the aircraft.

Conran’s actions that day, coming to the aid of his downed comrades, his heroic actions under hostile fire both in the air and on the ground, and his steadfast leadership through the hours of intense ground combat, were recognized with the Air Force Cross. This award is unusual as most Air Force Cross awards are not given for ground combat, particularly when the award is made to a pilot.

The men Conran rescued believe even that vaunted award is too little to recognize all that he did. Retired Colonel Claret Tayler, who was the commander of Knife 61, the first downed helicopter, wrote Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson in 2017, saying “He could have exited the area because of the extreme high risk and let us fend for ourselves, and nobody would have questioned his decision, but he didn’t. This [was] the willingness to sacrifice to save your comrades [that] separates those who deserve the Medal of Honor and those who do not. I know I lived [to] see another day because Conran risked his life to save me and my crew.” Other eyewitnesses from Knife 61 say they owe their lives to Conran.

After the war, Conran served in a variety of positions, with his final assignment being Commander of the Air Force European Office of Aerospace Research and Development in London, England, after rising to the rank of colonel, from 1985 to his retirement on December 31st, 1988. He retired after 30 years of active duty, with a previous five years as an enlisted guardsman.

Representative Carbajal (D-CA) has repeatedly introduced legislation to authorize the President to upgrade Conran’s Air Force Cross to the Medal of Honor. After reading of his actions on that single day I am convinced that he is most deserving of our nation’s highest award for valor. That he had prefaced it with nearly a year of other heroics speaks to the volume of his character and makes it all the more incredible.

If anyone is so inclined to write their congressperson about this, I would definitely not discourage you. Conran is now 82 years old and retired in Carbajal’s California district. If his award is to be upgraded, as I think it rightfully should, time is probably of the essence.

Congressional bills related to Philip Conran

 

Category: Air Force, Air Force Cross, Historical, Valor, Vietnam, We Remember

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STSC(SW/SS)

Stones.

The entire military leadership today couldn’t hold his jockstrap.

Odie

Huge stones. Apparently the Jolly Green Giants were heavy lift capable.

Berliner

More like “Great Balls of Fire”

2banana

Air National Guard…

I don’t even know how those helos took off with those huge brass balls. Maybe sling load operations.

5JC

Definitely sounds deserving.

USAFRetired

Somebody needs to explain to me why he doesn’t deserve an upgrade. I suspect the reason he didn’t get one originally is because of the location, and maybe the fact he was a rotary wing aviator

Jimbojszz

I think you’re right on it being the location and the time. No one knew about the Operations in Laos. In the US everyone was protesting the war. So awarding this man a MOH was not going to happen. The Pathet Lao forces he encountered were well trained. And he definitely has big balls to do what he did with such a fierce enemy. We should have helped Laos more than we did. The American people were tiring of the Vietnam war at the time. Eventually Laos fell to the communist forces in 1975. This man absolutely deserves the MOH and is way past due.

26Limabeans

Tough to read without getting all choked up.

President Elect Toxic Deplorable Racist SAH Neande

Damned dusty here.
Pass the kleenex

KoB

DAAYUM! Awarding this Warrior the upgrade to a Medal of Honor should be a no brainer. Probably should award him a CIB too. He damn sure did Infantry duty, regulations/parameters be damned. The men he saved used his back as a step and probably used his balls as cover.

Another great story, Mason. Thanks.

Odie

I would think if someone or several someone’s are trying to kill you and yours, regulations and parameters just become so much ass wiping material.