Hacking it with the 82nd Airborne Division!

Ardboe man Phil Conlon looks back

It’s a long way from Ardboe, Co.Tyrone to Connecticut in the USA, but in the 1950’s it was an incredible journey for a 'greenhorn' from around the shores of Lough Neagh.

When 22-yr old Phil Conlon boarded the great ocean liner ‘Queen Elizabeth’ at Southampton dock, little did he realize he’d spend the best part of his life in the land of Uncle Sam.

Phil left school without any qualifications and started work as a plumbing and electrical apprentice with a Cookstown contractor by the name of Crilly. It wasn’t what he wanted to do but it was a job of sorts until something ‘better’ came along.

He rode nine miles to work on a ‘push-bike’ and his wages were £3 a week. Any man who doesn’t like his job is always on the lookout for something better and Phil was no exception. One evening he spotted an advert in the ‘Irish Press’ for a bartender in a London pub called ‘The Oxford Arms’, he applied for the job and got it. Over the next couple of years he’d return from London to Ardboe to visit his parents at the foot of Duff’s Hill.

In 1953 the RAF took possession of the old Cluntoe airfield at Ardboe; it was in need of major repair and that meant work for many of the locals. When Phil heard about the project he came back home and got a job working on the ‘drum’. The money was exceptionally good for those times; £26 a week. But all good things come to an end, as they say; the work ‘dried up’ and it was back to ‘scouring’ the ads in the papers again.

Within a short time Phil was back in England and ‘on the buses’, so to speak, this time in Paddington, as a bus conductor---but his heart wasn’t in this kind of work either. Then in 1956 Phil saw an advert in one of the English newspapers that had an interesting ‘ring’ to it; a wealthy Jewish couple were on the ‘look out’ for someone who could act as butler, carver and chauffeur at their home in Stanford, Connecticut in the USA.

Phil applied for that job and got it, and on the 17th of April 1956 he sailed out of Southampton bound for America. Phil imagined that the job would be easy, after all it would be infinitely better than a spade and shovel.

Unfortunately the reality was quite different. He was earning $50 a month and he ‘hadn’t a minute to himself’ (he was working 7-days a week). Everything he did was timed----- and to complicate matters he was in debt to the Jewish couple, because they had paid his fare out to the ‘States’. Added to all that was his living quarters; they were on the ‘boon docks’, a sort of unglamorous wooded area on the edge of the city.

After a month, and unable to ‘stand it’ any longer he packed the job in and headed for his sister Kathleen’s place in New York for temporary refuge. Before too long Phil was looking for a bit of action and soon found it when he volunteered as a paratrooper for the USA 82nd Airborne Division.

Induction into the ‘82nd’ meant 8-weeks of basic training on how to conduct yourself and fit in to army life. Another 8-weeks was spent doing ‘basic infantry training’ which meant a lot of walking and marching.

As the 82nd Airborne Division was a parachute regiment it was important to know how to jump out of an aircraft without getting killed. With the first 16-weeks of army life completed it was on to a further 3-week stint in North Carolina preparing for the real thing. A couple of weeks were spent doing ‘simulated’ jumps which Phil described as frightening and ‘hair-raising’.

Then the day came that many of the ‘rookies’ in the regiment feared - a jump from a moving aircraft from as high as the Empire State building. Phil recalled that he went to confessions and Holy Communion the day before the jump, as did many others.

It was an extremely hot afternoon when Phil and 150 other nervous and frightened paratroopers ‘taxied’ down a 2,000-ft runway in North Carolina. Everyone was preoccupied in thought, the only sounds were the drone of the aircraft engine and Phil reciting the Rosary. There was tremendous tension within the aircraft. ‘I thought she’d never get of the ground’, said Phil.

The plane finally cleared the runway and climbed to over 2,000 ft; a few minutes later they were over the landing area and the jump began. A total of 16-jumps were made in the last week of training---and when it had ended Phil had done enough to merit the title, paratrooper.

The Ardboe man was popular in the regiment and his colonel offered him a job as his orderly. Phil had no hesitation in accepting his new post, which was to look after the colonel's day to day affairs. It's interesting to note that when Phil arrived in the USA in 1956, America had started training South Vietnamese soldiers to resist the incursion of communists from North Vietnam into the south of the country.

Throughout the remaining few years of the 1950s,  Phil remained at the colonel’s side, a loyal employee. Then one day the colonel sprung a surprise.  He was going on a 30-day tour of duty to Vietnam and he asked Phil if he’d like to come along for the ‘ride’. Phil didn’t give it a second thought and accepted the invitation right away.

A few days later Phil and the colonel took off from Andrew’s Air Force Base in Maryland and arrived in the Province of Da Nang in South Vietnam two days later; it was the early 1960s.

Over the period of the Vietnam-war Phil Conlon made several trips to Vietnam and on one occasion suffered a shrapnel-wound in the arm .On one of those trips tragedy struck! He was driving his army jeep along a trail with the colonel by his side when they came under sustained enemy fire. Phil drove through the ambush and managed to come out unscathed on the other side. He turned to speak to the colonel about the near shave they’d had only to discover that the colonel had been dead beside him and he’d not been aware of it.

A few years ago Phil Conlon returned to his native Ardboe,  where he now lives no doubt he often thinks of the years that have come and gone—and what he’s been through.

Phil’s private life is as ‘colourful’ as his military one; he’s now in his seventies and has been married four times. He has two sons in the United States; Robert Emmett Conlon is a captain in the New York Police Dept and Pearse Patrick Conlon, teaches at the marine academy at Quanaco, Virginia.