Valor Friday

| August 30, 2019

Mason is back, and today his work honors Lance Sijan, Captain USAF, and relates to us his valor as a Phantom pilot over Viet Nam, and his incredible will as a POW.

Mason

The US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado can lay claim to having many heroes and notable men and women among their alumni. For example, the USAFA has commissioned 403 people who later became general officers, 36 graduates became prisoners of war who were later repatriated, 39 have become astronauts, and two became combat aces. However there has only been one USAFA graduate who has been awarded the nation’s highest honor, the Medal of Honor. His name is Captain Lance Sijan.

The child of Serbs who had immigrated to the US after World War I and settled in Wisconsin, he attended the Naval Academy Preparatory Course right after high school. From there he was able to secure appointment to the US Air Force Academy (USAFA). At the USAFA he played football for three of his four years, graduating in 1965.

Newly commissioned a second lieutenant, Sijan was sent to pilot training and by the summer of 1967 was flying in F-4 Phantoms over North Vietnam as a first lieutenant.

On August 22, 1967 he was piloting a Phantom over North Vietnam and repeatedly put himself in mortal danger while attacking a defended storage area. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions that night. The citation reads that “despite heavy ground fire, he participated in multiple passes to deliver flares and ordnance directly on the target. Undaunted by darkness, treacherous terrain, marginal weather, and determined defenses, Lieutenant Sijan dealt a telling blow to the hostile forces by denying them vital war material and petroleum products.”

The night of November 9, 1967 saw Sijan on his 52nd combat mission. He was acting as the weapons system officer (WSO) in the back seat in an F-4 being piloted by the squadron commander Lt Col John Armstrong. Their mission was to bomb the Ho Chi Minh Trail along the Lao/Vietnam border.

As the men brought their aircraft in to drop their bombs, the plane suddenly exploded in flame. At least one of their bombs was fitted with a faulty fuse that cause it to explode just after release.

Sijan ejected. It’s unknown if Armstrong made it out. He was listed missing in action, a status he still holds to this day. Promoted to colonel while missing, his remains have never been recovered and his location never accounted for.

Knocked unconscious during the ejection, Sijan landed on a rocky outcrop near their initial bombing target. Rescue aircraft combed the area. From the night of the 9th into the 10th and then into the 11th, nothing was heard from the two men.

In the early hours of the 11th, Sijan made radio contact with a forward air control aircraft. In response, the Air Force launched a massive effort to recover the downed airman. They attacked enemy air defenses in the area and were finally able to put a CH-3 Jolly Green Giant rescue helicopter over Sijan’s suspected location that evening.

Sijan refused to allow the helicopter’s pararescue jumper (PJ) to come down into the dense jungle to locate him, not wanting to put any other men at risk. Sijan insisted on coming to the helicopter, telling them to drop the jungle penetrating harness to lift him out. After hovering on station for 33 minutes and not seeing Sijan nor getting any more radio contact from him, the search and rescue commander feared they were entering an enemy trap and called all aircraft off.

The search resumed the following morning, but Sijan’s radio was silent and never heard from again. He was listed as missing in action.

During the rescue operations, more than 20 friendly aircraft were damaged by anti-aircraft fire. Many of them severely enough they had to return to base. One A-1 Skyraider was downed, with the pilot quickly getting rescued by helicopters already nearby.

What the rescuers didn’t know was how dire the situation was for Sijan. During his ejection and landing Sijan had sustained several severe injuries. He had a fractured skull, a compound fracture of his leg, and his right hand was mangled. His only way of moving was to literally crawl his way through the thick jungle and rugged mountains. He had no survival kit, no water, and no food.

Somehow, Sijan managed to not only survive this ordeal, but he evaded capture. One might think that a fit, young man like him could survive for a few days in these conditions, and you wouldn’t be wrong. They say one can survive three days without water and three weeks without food. Injured as he was, those estimates of survival would normally be cut down considerably.

Surviving with no food, no water, and critically injured for more than a day would be a legendary feat of courage and determination. Sijan survived not for a few days. He survived for more than six weeks! He eventually found himself passed out on a truck road or in a clearing a full 45 days after he landed.

This truck road or clearing, stories differ on which, was along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. When Sijan came to, he had been captured by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). It was Christmas Day, 1967.

He was taken to a holding area by the NVA. Over the past several weeks, Sijan had lost considerable weight. He was emaciated and in cripplingly poor health. Despite this he managed to incapacitate a guard and make his escape by literally crawling into the jungle from the prison camp.

He was recaptured again a few hours later. He was subsequently beaten heavily by his captors who interrogated Sijan viciously. Descending into delirium, the good lieutenant, despite the torturous beatings on top of his significant injuries and ailments, didn’t break. He steadfastly refused to submit any more information to the enemy than his name, rank, and service number.

The NVA then took him to a holding compound in Vinh, North Vietnam. Here he was cared for by two other recently captured Americans, Air Force Major Robert R. Craner and Air Force Captain Guy Gruters. Gruters and Sijan had been in the same squadron at the Air Force Academy. Sijan’s appearance had changed so drastically due to his harrowing journey that Gruters didn’t even recognize the man.

Sijan’s condition worsened due to malnutrition, starvation, and his physical injuries, ultimately he contracted pneumonia. He was moved to a hospital in Hanoi, under the continued care of both Craner and Gruters.

He suffered from deliria due to his illnesses and injuries. In his moments of lucidity, Sijan never complained of his injuries. He even spoke of future escape attempts. Even on the brink of death his only thoughts were continuing the fight. Sijan died of his numerous injuries on January 22, 1968 in the Hoa Lo Prison, better known as the Hanoi Hilton.

It was six years before his fate was known. Sijan’s remains were returned to the United States in 1974 and positively identified later that year. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Posthumously promoted to Captain (the Air Force still listed him as MIA at the time of his promotion), Sijan was recommended for the Medal of Honor by his former co-prisoner now Colonel Craner, with supporting testimony from Gruters, upon his repatriation from captivity. Gruters said of Sijan, “He survived a terrible ordeal, and he survived with the intent… of picking up the fight… I don’t know how many we’re turning out like Lance Sijan, but I can’t believe there are very many.”

He was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1976. The medal was presented to Sijan’s parents by President Ford.

In the early 80’s, Sijan’s 1965 Air Force Academy class ring, engraved with his full name Lance Peter Sijan, was recovered from the Laos/Vietnam border area by an American Lt Col Gritz who had gone in search of information regarding living POWs. His ring was returned to his family.

Medal of Honor
AWARDED FOR ACTIONS
DURING Vietnam War
Service: Air Force
Division: Prisoner of War (North Vietnam)
GENERAL ORDERS:
Department of the Air Force, Special Order GB-181, March 23, 1976
CITATION:
The President of the United States of America, in the name of Congress, takes pride in presenting the Medal of Honor (Posthumously) to Captain Lance Peter Sijan (AFSN: AF-16419378/F-80654/3537K), United States Air Force, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving with the 366th Tactical Fighter Wing, 480th Tactical Fighter Squadron, as a Prisoner of War being held in Laos and North Vietnam. On 9 November 1967, while on a flight over North Vietnam, Captain Sijan ejected from his disabled aircraft and successfully evaded capture for more than six weeks. During this time, he was seriously injured and suffered from shock and extreme weight loss due to lack of food. After being captured by North Vietnamese soldiers, Captain Sijan was taken to a holding point for subsequent transfer to a prisoner of war camp. In his emaciated and crippled condition, he overpowered one of his guards and crawled into the jungle, only to be recaptured after several hours. He was then transferred to another prison camp where he was kept in solitary confinement and interrogated at length. During interrogation, he was severely tortured; however, he did not divulge any information to his captors. Captain Sijan lapsed into delirium and was placed in the care of another prisoner. During his intermittent periods of consciousness until his death, he never complained of his physical condition and, on several occasions, spoke of future escape attempts. Captain Sijan’s extraordinary heroism and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty at the cost of his life are in keeping with the highest traditions of the U.S. Air Force and reflect great credit upon himself and the United States Armed Forces.

Hand salute. Ready, Two!

Thanks again, Mason.

Category: Air Force, Guest Post, POW, Valor, Viet Nam

Comments (5)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. 5th/77th FA says:

    It is stories of men such as Captain Lance Peter Sijan that makes the persecution and PROSECUTION of valor thieves so important. It is men like this whose body and blood is being stood on and in. Much Respect!

    Hand Salute…Ready…Two!

    Thanks Mason!

  2. Dennis - not chevy says:

    From Warhawk history and many other sources, “The Rodent pressed Sijan for military information. Sijan’s voice was weak but determined. “Sijan! My name is Lance Peter Sijan!” He gave his name, rank, and service number, but refused to answer questions, even when The Rodent twisted his injured arm.”

  3. OldSoldier54 says:

    That there is some REAL grit.

  4. ninja says:

    Thank You, Mason, so much for sharing this information.

    Bet the Elko, Nevada POW/MIA Awareness Biker Club have no clue about our Vietnam POWs or those MIAs….or even our other POW/MIAs.

    They glorified Bergdahl because Bergdahl was in the limelight which they did project his “capture” on their group so that they would look “cool…a way of stroking an ego, “Look At Me! for their Biker Group.

    Would love to make a POW/MIA Book Test for them and show up at Elko for those Bikers to take the test to see if they know our POWs and MIAS. I speculate the failure rate WILL BE HIGH.

    It is so obvious that Lester Kent Brown has no clue about AR 670-1.

    Still waiting to see that Retired Military ID Card, Lester Kent Brown. Also still waiting to see Lester Kent Brown’s FIRST DD214 when he was at Lewis.

    Same with Wulf’s explanation of the 82nd ABN Pins.

    I have said it once and I will say it again…those folks in Elko, Nevada are covering up something. They are hiding something. No telling what are in those mines.

    Elko, Nevada is beginning to remind me of Peyton Place with all their unique characters running around and taking over that town.

    Charlie Myers has a HUGE Family Tree. WAY TOO HUGE. Figured out why the his last name changed from Coon to Myers, even though Coon is his birh name.

    Myer’s Half Sister is the Elko, Nevada Public Administrator who handles Estates. She was not a Coon, but a Lingo.

    Charlie Myers AKO Charlie Coon said he came from an extensive Military background. Am just trying to figure out which Tree he is talking about on that military experience background. He said he Father was a Combat Korean War Veteran?

    Which Father? Coon (USAF), Lingo (USN) or Myers? (USN)