Veteran Voices of the Central Coast -
Col. Philip J. Conran

When Phil Conran was about seven years old gathering hay at his childhood home in West Hartford, Connecticut during WWII, a twin-engine bomber flew low over the field. He was so impressed by it that from that moment on, he became interested in the military and the Air Force.

“I always wanted to become a pilot,” Conran said.

Conran didn’t waste much time working to make his dream a reality. At 16 years old, he joined the Connecticut Air National Guard. He then joined the Air Force ROTC at Fordham University in New York City, graduating as a second lieutenant.

At flight school, he graduated 18th of 62 in his class while checking out in the T-34, T-28, and T-33.  At the time, he wasn't interested in making the Air Force a career so he selected helicopters training to allow him to get as many certificates as he could. Those classes would pay off later.

Joining PCVF
Conran has been involved with the Pierre Claeyssens Veterans Foundation for about seven years and is the current board chair.
When asked why he joined the organization, he said, “I thought the mission was laudable. I felt there were positive results coming from what they did. I like that they encompass a variety of work and are not dedicated to just one war.”

For Conran, Pierre Claeyssens’ motto of “Never Forgotten” is key as he knows all too well the ultimate price that some pay for the freedom we have in the U.S.

The Vietnam War
In 1968, Conran was assigned to Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base in Thailand as a helicopter special operations pilot.  On October 6, 1969, while inserting some indigenous troops in Laos with four other troop carrying helicopters and one rescue helicopter, the lead helicopter was shot down.  

Conran took command of the mission while two fighter aircraft attempted to neutralize the enemy forces.   After the rescue helicopter commander declined to attempt a rescue, Conran chose to put himself in harm's way and attempt to rescue the downed crew members even though he felt there was minimal chances of making a successful landing.

While on final approach, his helicopter was hit numerous times, knocking out his servos and shattering his cockpit windows, but he continued the approach knowing the downed men would not survive without additional troops.  

Once on the ground, enemy fire soon rendered his helicopter inoperable.  Conran spent the next six hours directing overhead fighter support to eliminate the enemy forces while also gathering ammunition, equipment, and food from the downed helicopters.  During this period, he continually exposed himself to enemy fire and was wounded in his left leg.

 “I feel I am alive today because Philip Conran risked his life to put the extra troops on the ground to help us defend our position,” wrote his fellow serviceman, Col. Claret Taylor, in a letter.

For his actions on that day, in 1970, Conran received the Air Force Cross – the highest award the Air Force can give. Prior to that, he received a Purple Heart, the Airman’s Medal and four Distinguished Flying Crosses for actions in Vietnam.

He was recommended for the Medal of Honor in 1969, but was denied because his act of heroism occurred in Laos and the American presence in Laos was classified at the time.

One Hell of a Lesson
Conran said there was always something good coming out of every assignment he had, sometimes unexpectedly. He said one assignment changed his perspective on the world and made him grateful to be an American.

While stationed in Bermuda from 1962-1965, at one point, he was assigned to Operation Ayacucho and went to Peru to support the Joint U.S. – Peruvian Exercise. A friend told him to visit a Father of a Catholic parish while there.

“It was one hell of an education for me,” said Conran. “I had never seen poverty to that extreme before.”

He said he helped the Father distribute food to people living in what Conran describes as a dump.

“We have it so good in this country. It’s amazing,” he said.  

The Messenger
While Conran said he has many great memories of living in Los Angeles from 1965-1968 during his Air Force ROTC assignment at Occidental College and also flying with the Van Nuys California Air National Guard, his voice and demeanor completely changed as he recounted another assignment he had during that time – notifying families of those killed in action. He said that each time, he brought a typed letter and showed up in uniform.

“The families always knew something was wrong when you show up in uniform,” he said. “It didn’t get any easier with time.”

One moment remains vivid in his memory. When no one answered the door at one home, a neighbor directed him to find the mother at a grocery store where she worked.  The mother instantly broke down in tears when she saw Conran, knowing his presence meant her son had died.

“Once they start crying, you can only hold it in so long,” said Conran. “You can handle it on the battlefield a lot easier than you can handle it in a grocery store. You have adrenaline on the battlefield.”

He recalls that moment with the same emotion as if it happened yesterday. It was 50 years ago.

“Combat has shaped my mind,” he said. “I don’t like wars. If there’s any way to prevent them, do it.”

Reflections on 30 Years of Service
Aside from Vietnam, Conran’s 30 years of active duty service took him to Hawaii to retrieve satellites, Michigan as a rescue helicopter pilot, Bermuda to find lost aircraft and support the NASA program, New Hampshire to command satellites, Rhode Island to attend Naval War College, Washington, D.C. for defense systems management college, Massachusetts, Florida, Tennessee, and finally London.  He earned two Legions of Merit before retiring as a colonel in 1988. He is one of the most decorated veterans in Santa Barbara County.

To support the mission to ensure that the local men and women who have served our country, such as Phil Conran, are “Never Forgotten,” you can make a donation by mailing a check to the Pierre Claeyssens Veterans Fund, 1187 Coast Village Rd, Suite 1-334, Santa Barbara, CA or DONATE NOW.