Diane Shields was searching for seashells and rocks along the shore of Lake Michigan one morning in September 2001 when a shiny silver object caught her eye.
There, wedged between some rocks, lay a bracelet. She picked it up and realized immediately, this wasn’t just any bracelet. “Lt. John F. Conlon III, 3-4-66,” read the inscription.
Shields and her husband, John, recognized it was a POW/MIA bracelet worn in honor of soldiers who never returned from war. Someone had apparently lost it while swimming.
They knew their find would be important to the family of this soldier they had never met, and immediately set out to find them.
With the help of the Internet, they eventually tracked down Conlon’s sister, Claire Evans, of Dallas. They returned the bracelet to her and continued to correspond for several years.
In June, the couple from Huntington, Ind., were stunned when Evans called to tell them her brother’s remains had been recovered. They were even more stunned when Evans called last month to invite them to his funeral services held Tuesday at Arlington National Cemetery.
“It’s just so special. We wanted to follow it through,” Diane Shields said, her voice choking with emotion. “She was so gracious to invite us, we wanted to be here.” That sentiment was echoed by others who were among the more than 100 people who attended the services.
Some, like Eric Malm and Denny Johnson, served with Conlon in the Air Force before he was deployed to Vietnam. Others, like Jim Haas, Walt Williams, John Morris, Jim Judge and John Diamond, were high school classmates at Wyoming Seminary. Then there were longtime friends of the family, like Frank Henry and John McSweeney Jr.
Malm traveled from Seattle Wash., and Johnson from Breckenridge, Col. They were among several in attendance who traveled thousands of miles to pay tribute to Conlon. “He was my best friend. We went to college together. We joined the Air Force together,” Malm said. “This summer I got the call they found him. It was amazing. I was in tears.”
The large turnout was a testament to the kind of person Conlon was, said several people interviewed at a luncheon held after the services. Fun-loving, adventuresome and handsome, Conlon had a way about him that instantly bonded him with people, they said.
“If someone were to play him in a movie they’d cast Steve McQueen,” Haas said.
Asked to share some memories of their escapades with Conlon, his high school buddies smiled but politely declined to provide specifics. Suffice it to say, “life would have been a lot more fun with John around,” Judge said.
McSweeney recalled Conlon’s artistic talents. He still has a painting of a waterfall flowing through a wooded area that Conlon made as a present for him.
While they laughed and reminisced about their fond memories of Conlon, his friends also paid tribute to him. “He did it all, and he did it for his country. We’re here for him today,” Haas said.
Henry, a longtime friend of the Conlon family, was several years older than Conlon and didn’t know him as well. He attended more out of respect and admiration for the sacrifice the young soldier made.
“We’re lucky this country produces men like John. It’s what makes this country great,” he said.