They nominated Phil Conran for the Medal of Honor.
He didn’t receive it because of a quirk of geography.
The retired Air Force colonel isn’t concerned, Conran told me in a June 18 telephone interview. But the rest of us should demand our elected leaders rectify an earlier error by awarding Conran our highest decoration for valor.
Conran was pilot of a Thailand-based CH-3E helicopter that attempted to rescue the crew of another downed helicopter in adjacent Laos on Oct. 6, 1969. The American presence in Laos was sensitive, and the Nixon administration publicly denied U.S. troops were in the country.
That day, the Americans flew into an ambush. The lead helicopter was shot down. Its crew and passengers took up defensive positions. Conran took command of the remaining four helicopters and directed fire from two A-1E Skyraider fighter-bombers.
Low on fuel, Conran could have returned to a safe area and refueled — abandoning fellow airmen. Instead, he chose to land in the middle of the fight.
Conran’s CH-3E was severely damaged by small arms fire. As he began to take the downed crew members aboard his own helicopter, enemy fire ripped through the main rotor transmission and cockpit. Takeoff was now impossible.
For the rest of the day, Conran exposed himself to enemy fire to obtain ammunition and food from the downed helicopters. An HH-3E attempted to rescue them but was driven off by an intense barrage of automatic weapons fire and enemy mortar rounds. Conran located the enemy mortar crew and called in an airstrike to destroy it.
Severely wounded, Conran was recommended for the Medal of Honor.
Pacific Air Forces deputy commander Lt. Gen. (later Gen.) Lucius D. Clay presented the Air Force Cross — the nation’s second-highest award for valor — to Conran in 1970. According to Conran, “Clay said the Air Force approved the Medal of Honor request but it was subsequently rejected because it was against what President Nixon was saying at the time.”
The problem was the location — Laos.
But the identical problem was resolved for Chief Master Sgt. Richard L. Etchberger, who lost his life in a March 11, 1968, Laotian battle. Because of the location, Etchberger’s award was downgraded to an Air Force Cross but the higher medal was awarded in 2010.
“Etchberger’s Air Force Cross was upgraded to a Medal of Honor after Congress waived the two-year time limitation,” said Fred L. Borch, author of “Medals for Soldiers and Airmen.” “Conran’s case deserves a new look.”
Conran, 76, of Santa Barbara, 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 needs to happen. Phil Conran should be awarded the Medal of Honor.