When Jim Arthur, a retired sailor and Vietnam veteran, penned a letter to the editor after May’s Memorial Day ceremony at City Hall, he berated Mayor Rich Tran for leaving out his friend “Phil” from being honored.
“I was expecting him [Phil] to be acknowledged,” Arthur wrote. “However, the mayor was more interested in his political mentors, who made an appearance, and other ‘dignitaries.’”
The “Phil,” in the letter, 93-year-old United States Navy vet and Milpitas resident Phil Coneeny, framed the debacle in more sailor-friendly terms…
“The mayor got up and makes his introductions and so forth, and he starts his introductions with the war in Korea,” said Coneeny incredulously.
“And pardon my French,” he continued. “What the [expletive] is going on? What about us World War II veterans? It got me and Jim [Arthur] a little pissed off.”
He swore openly and often during his interview with The Beat, causing one to wonder if Coneeny himself is the origin of the term “sailor’s mouth.”
Arthur described his friend’s knee as “gimpy.” But other than that, he’s in excellent shape. He’s tall, he’s lean, and he has a handshake with a grip that would rival anyone’s at City Hall. It makes sense, because part of his long resume — sailor, medical worker, police officer — includes being an international bodybuilder.
And, as The Beat learned quickly, he doesn’t pull any punches.
Born in Washington Heights in the upper portion of Manhattan, he often jokes in his thick New York accent that he’s the “only veteran” from the “war to end all wars” who still attends the city’s Memorial Day and Veterans Day ceremonies.
In 1943, at the age of 16, he enlisted in the Navy to distance himself from his alcoholic father, and because he “didn’t want to wait for the draft and end up in the [expletive] Army.”
Coneeny, who had been trained by the Navy as a firefighter, was assigned to the USS Missouri, where he and his shipmates took turns manning the ship’s many gun turrets. He recalled a dramatic — and now well-documented — moment in April, 1945, where a kamikaze pilot aimed to destroy the ship.
“It [the plane] was coming straight at me,” Coneeny said. “I knew I was a goner.”
The plane, repelled by anti-aircraft fire, struck the ship, causing a gasoline fire. Had it not been for the anti-aircraft fire, the plane would have most likely stayed on course and hit the Missouri head on.
Coneeny credits the ship’s thick steel armor, “more than twice as thick as the table we’re sitting at,” from sinking the ship.
When Japan finally agreed to surrender to the United States after the atomic bomb ripped through Hiroshima and Nagasaki, President Harry Truman ordered the Missouri to Tokyo Bay in 1945 to partake in the Japanese surrender ceremony. The occasion, attended by dignitaries on both sides of the conflict — including famed Supreme Commander for the Allied Forces General Douglas MacArthur — officially marked the end of World War II.
Coneeny recalled that day in September, 1945, in striking detail. He sat on top of one of the ship’s turrets as he witnessed the historic event, giving him a literal bird’s-eye view of history.
“This was two days before my 19th birthday,” he added.
He remained assigned to the ship after the war. In March of 1946, Coneeny was on hand as the ship went to Turkey to receive the remains of the former Turkish Ambassador to the United States, Münir Ertegün. The ship toured the Mediterranean, stopping at places like the Parthenon and the Coliseum.
Coneeny, with a smile, said Europe was where he got to fully enjoy his “time as a 19-year-old.”
Coneeny is full of playful banter. He recalled an even more frat party-like experience from when he was stationed in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, long before the base became the prison Americans now associate it with. He and a few sailors took a bus to Havana, the Cuban capital.
“Havana was the town where you went drinking, girls, the whole bit,” he said. “It was a phenomenal thing. I was just some New York City street kid seeing all these different things happening.”
He and three other sailors overslept after partying in Havana the night before, and missed their ship as it left Guantanamo Bay. They hurried back to the base, where they were forced to stay on the island for four days before another naval ship came by.
“They gave us a bunker, and nothing else,” he said. “No toothbrush, no clothing change. There was nothing.”
So they went to the local American Red Cross office to explain their situation, hoping the aid workers would lend the desperate sailors some supplies.
“And they didn’t give us a [expletive] thing,” he said, mildly annoyed.
But the officers club, which was located inside the Red Cross office, “got everything.”
“And now every time the Red Cross sends me stuff asking for money,” he said with a laugh, “shove it up your ass, you know?”
As luck (or perhaps irony) would have it, as he told this story, city workers were busy setting up the Senior Center’s annual health fair. Included among the free literature were Red Cross pamphlets.
Coneeny left the Navy in 1946. He became a police officer in the New York Police Department soon after, where he would spend 18 years climbing up the ranks of the department.
In 1971, after bouncing around the South Bay — including Sunnyvale, “which used to be only a two-lane road,” he settled in Milpitas with his wife, Jeannie. Jeannie became a fixture in the community herself, becoming the records supervisor at the Milpitas Police Department.
He frequents the Barbara Lee Senior Center two to three times a week, giving friendly waves to staff and gym instructors as they pass. He recalled that Barbara Lee and his late wife Jeannie were once good friends, and spent many nights going out to dinner.
Milpitas is a far cry from the hustle and bustle of New York, or the rushed panic of war planes flying overhead. Yet even Milpitas is quickly growing from the land of orchards and the trailer park Coneeny and his wife once knew.
But still, it’s home. And Coneeny, despite the French he might have had for the mayor (himself a fellow veteran), sees it as such. He’s still lifting weights (this time at the Senior Center gym) and working out with Arthur, and he’s committed to attending next year’s Memorial Day and Veterans Day ceremonies. He probably won’t pull any punches there either.
“There’s something in California, between the bodybuilding and my friends that moved here,” Coneeny said. “One of the best things we did in our lives is come out here.”