Ed Conner of McLean, 90, will tell you that he has been shot at in four different wars.
He will say it, and then smile quietly as you scratch your head trying to figure out how that’s possible.
“The fourth one was the Cold War,” he will finally answer. “It wasn’t as cold as you might think.”
Born in 1922 in Los Angeles, Conner moved to Florida as an infant, and it was there that he witnessed the death of his mother at age 4 in a bizarre car mishap.
My father was driving and we were all in the car,” he said of the incident that occurred 86 years ago.
“We were taking a sharp turn when the passenger door flew open and my mother fell out. I remember her last words to my father as she fell;‘Take care of the kids!” and then she was gone.”
With his father traveling in the U.S. Navy, Conner was raised by his grandparents in Inverness, Fla, just noth of Tampa.
From there, it was a short trip to Jacksonville, where he used to take trips to watch the New York Yankees in spring training. “I got to meet Babe Ruth there.” he said. “That was really something.”
Originally planning to attend the University of Florida, Conner instead enlisted in the U.S. Air Corps.--the predecessor to the U.S. Air Force--in 1940 at age 18.
“I couldn’t be a pilot because I was colorblind,” he said. “But I became a radio gunner.”
After the attack on Pearl Harbor and the outbreak of World War II a year later, Conner was shipped out to the Pacific on a 26-day boat ride that eventually landed in Brisbane, Australia. “Pearl Harbor had just happened, and I spent that Christmas at sea,” he remembers.
Conner was eventually dispatched to New Guinea, where he was awarded the Silver Star as part of the 13th Bomb Squadron of the U.S. Air Corps.
On May 10, 1942, Conner was aboard a B-25 bomber high above the New Guinea jungle approaching a Japanese target when the aircraft’s engines both went out.
He says the pilots were eventually able to restart them, but the mission had been compromised and the plane had dropped so much in altitude that the crew was unsure if it could cross back over a large mountain range to safety without giving away its position. “After discussing the problem, the crew decided not to bail out,” he said. “The New Guinea jungle was so dense that you might get hung up in trees and never make it to the ground. Even if you did, that jungle was full of cannibal tribes and you could end up as someone’s exotic dinner.”
Conner said the crew jettisoned everything it could, including ammunition, to lighten the plane as it then attempted to cross over the Owen Stanley mountains.
“We made it across but we had been followed, and we were attacked by two Japanese Zeros as we tried to land. I was able to shoot one down and drive off the other. For this I was awarded the Silver Star.”
Conner said New Guinea in the 1940s was like another world, one that will probably never exist again.
“Bananas grew wild there in abundance,” he said. “One day I was out with a couple of guys and we decided to bring some back to the barracks. We saw a particularly nice batch up in a big tree and I proceeded to climb up there and started cutting them down. It was then that a whole group of terrifying native warriors, all wearing war paint, walked up. It turned out that we were in their tribal leader’s personal banana grove. The chief himself then walked up, looking more fierce than any of them and began looking at us up in the tree.”
According to Conner,it took offering his leather bomber jacket, his .45 pistol and all its ammunition to be able to get out of the situation with his skin. “But we did get to keep all the bananas we cut down,” he said.
Conner flew a total of 67 combat missions against the Japanese from New Guinea, including a bombing mission during the Battle of the Bismarck Sea in 1942, for which he received an Air Medal. He then became a communications officer in the U.S. Air Force and flew an additional 16 missions against North Korea during the Korean conflict with the 55th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing.
“On one of those missions, we were flying a reconaissance mission up and down the Yalu river, which divides North and South Korea, looking for night flyers,” he remembers. “We were flying at about 30,000 feet when an anti-aircraft round knocked out part of the nose of our plane, creating a huge hole where icy cold air was coming in. The outside temperature was minus 51 degrees, so to keep our pilots from freezing to death we wrapped them up in blankets and every member of our 17-man crew took turns stuffing the hole with their own backs while wearing a parachute. We couldn’t descend to warmer air because we would then be an easy target for anti-aircraft fire, It was so cold that each man could only take about five minutes in the hole, but with the team effort, we managed to successfully finish our mission and then return to base.”
After his 22-year Air Force service, USAF Major Conner joined the Central Intelligence Agency and flew missions in Laos with Air America. Following his missions leading up to the Vietnam War, he continued working for the CIA for a total of 12 years.
He then embarked upon another 15-year career with the Corvus Group, supplying advance communications equipment for U.S. Presidential convoys.
Today, Conner enjoys telling about his life to the younger generation, often speaking at local schools and other events.
“Edward has never has met a stranger,” said his wife, Sarah. “He always meets friends, regardless of their age.”