Retired Col. Philip Conran. USAF photo.
The heroic actions of a USAF special operations helicopter pilot, who saved multiple American lives during a secret 1969 mission in Laos, are getting a renewed look as a Congressman is urging the Pentagon to upgrade the previous award of an Air Force Cross to the Medal of Honor.
Retired Col. Philip Conran, then a pilot with the 21st Special Operations Squadron based in Thailand, received the award for a mission on Oct. 6, 1969, as part of a multiple helicopter flight into Laos. During the flight, a lead helicopter was shot down and a rescue helicopter, designated H-1, in the formation refused a request to try to reach the downed crew because of how dangerous the area was.
Conran, then a major, was flying a H-3 Jolly Green Giant that was carrying troops. He had two choices: “depart the area leaving his downed comrades or attempt a rescue and reinforce the friendly troops already on the ground,” the Air Force Cross citation states.
Despite knowing the chance of survival was minimal, Conran decided to try to rescue the crew “since he felt his comrades would not survive the overwhelming enemy forces.” As the Jolly Green Giant began its approach, the helicopter’s servos were destroyed, but he continued on and landed, letting off the troops he was carrying. He then picked up the four Americans from the downed helicopter. As they tried to take off, enemy fire destroyed the helicopter’s transmission, making flight impossible.
The team fled the helicopter, and Conran took command, exposing himself to enemy fire to set up a perimeter. He ran back to the H-3 to pick up packaged parachutes to use as cover, and then ran 50 yards through enemy fire to get to the downed H-1 that had two M-60 machine guns and ammunition. As the day went on, Conran called in airstrikes, using a pocket compass to help direct the fires. Eventually he received a severe leg wound, but he remained a “source of energy” to the rest of his team. As night fell, the area “was completely sanitized with gas” and two H-53 helicopters were able to land to rescue the downed crews.
Even though he was severely wounded, as the team boarded the rescue helicopter, Conran got down on his hands and knees so another man could use his back as a stepping stone to get onto the aircraft.
“Major Conran’s decision to come to the aid of his downed comrades, his heroic actions above and beyond the call of duty while under severe hostile fire, and his outstanding leadership throughout the many hours were instrumental in enabling them to withstand the superior enemy force,” the citation states.
Conran’s local Congressional Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Calif) introduced a bill this week to authorize the President to award Conran the Medal of Honor.
“His heroic actions above and beyond the call of duty while under severe hostile fire, and his positive attitude throughout the ordeal were instrumental in enabling the two helicopter crews and 44 friendly troops to withstand superior odds until a rescue could be made,” the bill states.
In a statement to Air Force Magazine, Carbajal said, “Conran served our nation with the utmost bravery during the Vietnam War when he risked his own life in combat to save his fellow soldiers. It has taken far too long for our country to honor his courage, and I will continue working to help secure this well-deserved recognition.”
In addition to the bill, Carbajal provided two eyewitness accounts from others on the mission to the Air Force Decorations Board to bolster the case for an upgrade.
In one of the statements, a gunner from the helicopter that was shot down said he owes his life to Conran because “before he joined us on the ground, I didn’t think we would survive the day.” The reinforcements from Conran’s helicopter and his leadership helped them “withstand the onslaught” of enemy fighters. The gunner said Conran’s decision to get on his hands and knees to help another soldier was a particularly “heroic act” “that still impresses me.”
In the other statement, the mission commander of the helicopter that was shot down wrote that Conran showed the “willingness to sacrifice to save your comrades” that shows Conran deserves the Medal of Honor.
“I know I lived to see another day because Conran risked his life to save me and my crew,” he said.
The aircraft commander wrote that at the time, politics prevented Conran from the recognition he deserved. Those who fought in Laos did not receive the same attention as those in Vietnam because the US was not publicly in the country.
“We were in a place we should not have been, doing what our country asked us to do, yet we were treated different from those in open combat when it came to recognizing our accomplishments,” he wrote. “In war some secret missions can’t be discussed until enough time has passed so as not to embarrass the nation. In this case, there is no excuse not to bestow this honor on a deserving warrior that was willing to give his life for his comrades.”
The military has in recent years upgraded several valor awards to the Medal of Honor. Last year, MSgt. John Chapman’s Air Force Cross was upgraded the Medal of Honor, and in October, President Donald Trump also awarded the Medal of Honor to retired Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. John Canley, who originally received the Navy Cross for his actions during the notorious Battle of Hue in 1968.
In 2010, former President Barack Obama awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously to CMSgt. Richard Etchberger, who originally received the Air Force Cross. Like Conran, Etchberger was deployed to Laos, where he was killed during the Battle of Lima Site 85.
There is precedent for a law pressing the military to upgrade an award. In 1999, then Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) introduced a measure to upgrade the Air Force Cross awarded to A1C. William Pitsenbarger to the Medal of Honor. The measure was included in the next year’s defense authorization bill, and the award was presented to Pitsenbarger’s family in 2000.