Memorial to Medal of Honor recipient Capt. Lance P. Sijan—for whom the Colorado chapter is named —was dedicated in his hometown of Milwaukee in June. The Wisconsin AFA organization, the Billy Mitchell Chapter, and Capt. William J. Henderson Chapter were among the donors for the memorial, which includes a landscaped area in Milwaukee’s Arlington Park Cemetery, plaques, and stone benches. Sijan, a 1965 USAF Academy graduate, was an F-4 pilot during the Vietnam War. He was shot down Nov. 9, 1967, over North Vietnam and, despite extreme injuries and starvation, evaded capture for more than six weeks. He endured severe torture before dying in January 1968 at what the American POWs called the Hanoi Hilton. The memorial in the Milwaukee cemetery echoes the shape of an F-4 Phantom. A small headstone sits at its foot, inscribed in Vietnamese and with Sijan’s initials—in English—and the date of his death. A bronze plaque nearby explains that the headstone is a replica of one used by the North Vietnamese to mark Sijan’s grave and that, in an unusual gesture of respect, the original headstone was returned with Sijan’s remains in 1974. The second plaque bears the wording of Sijan’s Medal of Honor citation. Speakers at the ceremony included former Presidential candidate H. Ross Perot and AFRC Col. Michael L. Smith, who is a Henderson Chapter member and commander of the 440th Airlift Wing at Gen. Mitchell Arpt./ARS, Wis. (sic)
Lance Sijan’s Incredible Journey
By John L. Frisbee, Contributing Editor
Extracted from Air Force Magazine Vol. 69, No. 12
Alone in enemy territory with no food or water and unable to walk, Capt. Lance Sijan refused to give up. On the night of Nov. 9, 1967, Lt. Col. John Armstrong, Commander of the 366th Tactical Fighter Wing’s 480th Squadron based at Da Nang, rolled his F-4 into a bomb run. The target was Ban Loboy ford on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. In the backseat was 25-year-old Capt. Lance Sijan, flying his 53rd combat mission. Armstrong pickled his six bombs at 8:39 p.m. Almost immediately, the aircraft was engulfed in a ball of fire as the bombs detonated a few feet below the F-4. Neither the FAC controlling the mission nor Armstrong’s wingman saw chutes. But there was one chute. Sijan ejected and was drifting toward a flat-topped, heavily forested karst formation. For Sijan, recollection stopped as the 195-pound captain crashed into the towering trees. Sometime the next day, Sijan regained consciousness in a haze of pain. He had suffered a compound fracture of the left leg, a crushed right hand, head injuries, and deep lacerations. Most of his survival gear was gone. He tended the broken leg as best he could, then lapsed again into unconsciousness. The following morning, a flight of F-4s picked up the sound of Sijan’s beeper, and a search-and-rescue operation got under way. Throughout the day, Sijan maintained contact with the rescue force, but several attempted pickups were thwarted by NVA gunners. At 5 p.m., a Jolly Green chopper made it in directly over Sijan. In a desperate attempt to crawl through tangled vines to the chopper’s penetrator, Sijan lost contact with the rescue force. As darkness fell, the SAR operation was called off. Early the next morning, the search resumed, but Sijan’s radio batteries were depleted. Failing to make contact, the SAR team was recalled. Sijan was on his own. If he were to survive, he must make his way down the steep karst to water and an open area where he could warm the radio batteries and call in a chopper. With a crude splint on his shattered leg and only the thumb and forefinger of his right hand functioning, Sijan began the most incredible journey in the history of Air Force survival efforts. For several days, Sijan, lying on his back, pushed himself over the sharp rocks with his good right leg, a few painful inches at a time. His only source of moisture was dew licked from foliage in the mornings. There were many falls down the steep slope and periods of unconsciousness and delirium. First his clothing became shredded, then the skin on the back of his body, until he was inching along on raw flesh. At last he found water and pressed on, inch by agonizing inch. Forty-five days after he parachuted into the forest, Sijan saw ahead the open area he had been looking for. He dragged himself over a bank and fell unconscious in the middle of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, three miles from his starting point. The young captain regained consciousness in an NVA road camp, his formerly athletic body little more than a skeleton partially covered by transparent skin. He was given some food and water, but no medical attention. In spite of his pitiful condition, his mind focused constantly on escape. When some strength returned, Lance Sijan overpowered a guard and dragged himself up a trail, only to be recaptured and punished. Sijan was moved to a temporary prison near Vinh, where he was beaten severely, but refused to give any military information. The guards, who had never seen a human in such ghastly condition, refused to touch him. Sijan was put in the care of Maj. Bob Craner and Capt. Guy Gruters, an F-100 FAC crew who had been shot down near Vinh. The latter had been in Sijan’s squadron at the Air Force Academy. In his lucid moments, Sijan gave them the details of his long, painful journey. Several days later, the three were loaded on an open truck for a three-night trip to Hanoi in the chill monsoon rains. At Hoa Lo Prison, they were put in a damp cell. Sijan, who had contracted pneumonia and was near death, asked his cellmates to prop him up on his pallet so that he could exercise his arms in preparation for escape from that grim, impregnable bastion. On Jan. 22, 1968, Capt. Lance Sijan died. When the POWs were freed in early 1973, Craner and Gruters recorded the details of his long fight for freedom and his resistance to torture. Later, they were major sources for Malcolm McConnell’s book, Into the Mouth of the Cat. On March 4, 1976, President Gerald Ford presented the Medal of Honor posthumously to Sijan’s parents, and on Memorial Day of that year, a new dormitory at the Air Force Academy was dedicated in his memory. Sijan’s will to survive with honor was an inspiration to other POWs during the dark days of the Vietnam War, as it should be to all of us. He demonstrated, as few have the almost limitless capacity of the human spirit to triumph over the depredations of fate and the malevolence of lesser men.
The Courage of Lance Sijan
In the fall of 1967, traffic was surging on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the lifeline by which North Vietnam sustained the war in the south. The trail ran down the western side of the Annam Mountains, through the Laotian panhandle and Cambodia, into South Vietnam.
Truck convoys departing from the supply hub at Vinh in North Vietnam gained access to the Ho Chi Minh Trail through the Mu Gia and Ban Karai Passes in the mountains. The passes were heavily defended with anti-aircraft artillery.
Traffic on the trail moved mostly at night. During daylight hours, the trucks hid under camouflage or in concealed parking areas in the jungle.
In a renewed effort to interdict the flow of troops and supplies, the Air Force, in November 1967, doubled the number of attack sorties flown against the trail. The targets included not only the truck convoys but also the choke points, like the passes.
Among the units taking part in the intensified operation was the 366th Tactical Fighter Wing, which flew the Air Force’s newest fighter, the F-4C. The wing was located at Da Nang, the northernmost of the Air Force’s principal bases in Vietnam.
First Lt. Lance Peter Sijan, a 25-year-old pilot from Milwaukee, had been stationed at Da Nang since July. He graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1965 and went from there to pilot training, F-4 fighter crew training, and survival school. Da Nang was his first duty assignment.
Sijan was flying as a backseat pilot in the F-4C. He was crewed with Lt. Col. John W. Armstrong, commander of the 480th Tactical Fighter Squadron, to which Sijan was assigned. So far, he had flown 66 combat missions. He was looking to upgrade to the front seat of the F-4 before his tour was over.
Sijan was big—6 feet 2 inches, 210 pounds—and athletic. He was an all-city football player during high school in Milwaukee. He had been on the swim and track teams as well. He played two years of varsity football at the Air Force Academy.
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Gerald R. Ford
Remarks on Awarding the Congressional Medal of Honor
to Four Members of the Armed Forces.
Extracted from: The American Presidency Project John T. Woolley & Gerhard Peters • University of California at Santa Barbara
Medal of Honor recipients and their families, distinguished Members of the Congress, Secretary Rumsfeld, Secretary Middendorf, Secretary Reed, members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, ladies and gentlemen:
We are gathered here today to honor four Americans for exceptional military gallantry in the service of our Nation. All four of these men distinguished themselves above and beyond the call of duty. I deeply regret that one of the awards, to the late Captain Lance P. Sijan, of the United States Air Force, is posthumous. The other three, Rear Admiral James P. Stockdale, United States Navy; Colonel George E. Day, United States Air Force; and Lieutenant Thomas R. Norris, United States Naval Reserve, are here with us today.
We confer our highest decoration upon them for their inspiring and heroic conduct. We do this in realization of the simple truth that they have helped to preserve America’s future peace by demonstrating through their courage the dedication of those entrusted with our defense. Their bravery places them in the ranks of the finest of American heroes, from the present back to the year 1775, when we were forced as a nation to first take up arms to defend our liberty.
These four men served in Vietnam. The war in Vietnam is now over. But as we today confer the Medal of Honor on heroes who distinguished themselves in Vietnam, we have not forgotten others whose fate still remains unknown. We will continue on humanitarian grounds to press for a full accounting for those men, to resolve questions that keep many American families living in endless anxiety and agony.
The United States today honors four men of uncommon courage with the Medal of Honor, but we can and we must also honor these men by living up to their example of patriotism. We can do this by fulfillment of our own duty as a nation, the highest trust that we bear, the preservation of the safety and the security of the United States in a very dangerous world.
As we celebrate our Bicentennial Year, we take satisfaction in our power to preserve peace through strength. We are today the strongest nation in the world. As your President, I intend to maintain our total deterrent power. While we will do everything in our power to reduce the danger of war by diplomatic means, our policy for America’s security can best be summarized in three simple words of the English language–peace through strength.
I am gratified, as all of you are, that the United States is today at peace. No Americans are in battle anywhere. We have strengthened our vital alliances that preserve peace and stability throughout the world. By maintaining unquestioned strength and resolve, we can command respect and preserve the peace.
We cannot win against the enemies of freedom, big or small, without the kind of vigilance and valor symbolized by the Medal of Honor, the highest of all this Nation’s decorations. We will win by patient and persistent pursuit of defenses second to none in a world that knows that America says what it means and means what it says. By so doing, we will pay America’s debt to the men that we honor today and the many, many others who served with such courage. A grateful Nation thanks its defenders for their resolve in keeping the United States of America the world’s best hope of peace with freedom.
On behalf of the American people, I salute the cherished memory of Captain Sijan and the living example of Admiral Stockdale, Colonel Day, and Lieutenant Norris. You served your Nation well and have given all of us a clearer vision of a better world.
Note: The President spoke at 2:15 p.m. in the East Room at the White House. In his opening remarks, he referred to Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, Secretary of the Navy J. William Middendorf II, and Secretary of the Air Force Thomas C. Reed. Secretary Middendorf and Secretary Reed read the citations, the texts of which are printed in the Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents (vol. 12, p. 328). Mr. and Mrs. Sylvester Sijan accepted the medal on behalf of their son.
“We cannot win against the enemies of freedom, big or small, without the kind of vigilance and valor symbolized by the Medal of Honor, the highest of all this Nation’s decorations.”
~ Gerald R. Ford ~