Lawmaker Renews Push to Get Vietnam-Era Airman Medal of Honor

Air Force Col. Philip Conran (U.S. Air Force)
Air Force Col. Philip Conran (U.S. Air Force)

A California lawmaker recently introduced legislation to upgrade an award for a Vietnam-era airman to the Medal of Honor.

Rep. Salud Carbajal, D-Calif., this week presented H.R.2330, which would authorize the president to award the military's highest award for valor to Air Force Col. Philip Conran for heroism in Laos during the Vietnam War. Conran lives in Santa Barbara and is a constituent of Carbajal.

"While a Major in the United States Air Force, Philip J. Conran demonstrated extraordinary heroism in military operations against an opposing armed force as Aircraft Commander of a CH-3E helicopter of the 21st Special Operations Squadron, 56th Special Operations Wing, Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Base, Thailand, in action in Laos on October 6, 1969," the bill's language reads.

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Conran received the Air Force Cross for his actions, although the Pentagon initially recommended him for the Medal of Honor in 1969, according to a report from McClatchy.

On the morning of the mission, Conran and his crew, call sign Knife 62, took off from Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base in Thailand. He was the commander of a group of five helicopters, according to his citation.

Making their way into Laos, the lead helicopter was shot down. Low on fuel and circling the area in an attempt to rescue the crew, Conran's aircraft itself, a CH-3E known as "the Jolly Green Giant," was hit by hostile enemy fire and crash-landed. A barrage of small-arms fire covered the area and made the helicopter inoperable, forcing Conran to retreat into open area where he was exposed, McClatchy reported.

Conran wasn't just a pilot anymore. For the next six hours, he "defended the crash site against an overwhelming hostile force," running to and from downed helicopters to grab U.S. equipment and supplies, all while directing airstrikes from nearby A-1 fighters, according to his citation and media reports.

Before additional rescue came, Conran sustained an injury and was shot in his left leg, McClatchy reported.

"In spite of receiving a severe leg wound while exposed to enemy fire and trying to strengthen their position, Major Conran continued to encourage the others and did not mention his wound until he had lost all feeling in his leg," Carbajal's new bill states. "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 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."

This will be the second attempt to get Conran the Medal of Honor.

In 2016, then-Rep. Lois Capps, D-Calif., put forth a similar bill to upgrade the valor award.

"His story is so compelling, not just for one event, but for a history of events," Capps told McClatchy. "He's an example of the kind of veteran who deserves attention."

His actions occurred in Laos, where the United States was not officially in conflict during the Vietnam War. However, the Air Force had troops in country supporting the Laotian military in response to a request for assistance -- an effort to keep a "neutral" Laos from falling to the communist offensive across the Plain of Jars valley.

A recent valor medal upgrade has brought more attention to the U.S.'s involvement in Laos.

In 2010, then-President Barack Obama posthumously presented the Medal of Honor to Chief Master Sgt. Richard L. Etchberger, who also first received Air Force Cross for his actions in Laos on March 11, 1968. Etchberger was part of a secret mission to call in airstrikes on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, according to Stars and Stripes.

Carbajal said he intends to see the effort through for Conran, who is now 82 years old. Conran retired from the service in 1988.

"Col. Conran served our nation with the utmost bravery during the Vietnam War when he risked his own life in combat to save his comrades," Carbajal told Air Force Times in a statement. "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."

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @oriana0214.

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