On the afternoon of March 4, 1976, President Gerald R. Ford conferred the Medal of Honor on four heroes of the Vietnam War in the East Room of the White House.
One of the medals was awarded posthumously, presented to Jane and Sylvester Sijan, parents of Air Force Captain Lance P. Sijan, who died a prisoner in Hanoi in January 1968.
The citation accompanying Sijan’s medal, emotionally read by Ford, contained the words courage, intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty and selflessness—words that defined heroism, but only hinted at what it meant.
Three months after Sijan’s medal was awarded—in honor of the first graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy to receive America’s highest award for military valor—a cadet dormitory on the Colorado Springs, Colorado, campus was named Sijan Hall. New cadets were required to learn the Sijan story and to understand, by his example, the meaning of heroism.
Lance Peter Sijan was born in Milwaukee in 1942. His father was a restaurant owner of Serbian ancestry, his mother Irish-American. After high school graduation, Sijan attended the Naval Academy Preparatory School in Bainbridge, Maryland, and upon completing the program received appointment to the Air Force Academy. He graduated in 1965, earned a second lieutenant’s commission and, following pilot training, was assigned to the 480th Tactical Fighter Squadron, 366th Fighter Wing, stationed at Da Nang Air Base in South Vietnam.
He flew as an aircraft commander and a combat systems officer out of Da Nang in the F-4C Phantom, a 20-ton, two-seat fighter-bomber.
When his ordeal began, Sijan was serving as GIB—guy in back, or in the rear cockpit—on a bombing mission over the Ho Chi Minh Trail with squadron commander Lieutenant Colonel John W. Armstrong, a 41-year-old Texan.
This was on the night of November 9, 1967, and it was Sijan’s 52nd combat mission. The Armstrong-Sijan Phantom crossed the Laotian border to a place called Ban Loboy Ford, where Armstrong released the bomb load. Then, instantly, the F-4C was swallowed up in an enormous ball of flames. The premature explosion was later attributed to malfunctioning fuses.
As the Phantom plummeted toward the jungle, the two men managed to eject, but massive search-and-rescue attempts, all under withering anti-aircraft fire, were suspended after failure to maintain contact with the men. Both were declared missing in action.
Armstrong’s fate remains unknown and details of Sijan’s last two desperate months of life were not known until 1973, when two fellow POWs gave testimony on the dying man’s last days in the infamous Hoa Lo Prison, nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton by the Americans imprisoned there.
A Hero’s Fate
Sijan’s parachute fall through the trees and onto the sharp, pitted, limestone karst formation of the Laotian mountains injured him gravely. He suffered a fractured skull, mangled right hand, compound fracture of left leg and deep lacerations over most of his body. He had no survival gear, no food and little water, but with a makeshift crutch, he inched and scooted his way along, surviving by eating jungle plants and licking dew from them. Wearing tattered clothes after a miraculous 46 days, he was found emaciated and unconscious by a North Vietnamese army patrol on Christmas Day 1967.
In a holding compound in the town of Vinh, halfway between Hanoi and Hue, Sijan joined two other American prisoners, both Air Force officers from an F-100 Super Sabre that had been shot down near Vinh. These officers later testified that Sijan, in constant pain from his untreated wounds, was beaten, tortured and grilled relentlessly for information on American unit strengths and whereabouts, armament and air power. He supplied no information outside the protocols of the Geneva Conventions.
The final chapter of Sijan’s ordeal was the three-day trip in a cold monsoon rainstorm from Vinh to Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi. He arrived close to death from pneumonia, malnutrition and weakened constitution. His cellmates remembered how they propped him up on his pallet so he could exercise and get ready to make an escape.
His escape wasn’t meant to be. He died January 22, 1968.
Among His Brothers
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, known as The Wall, is made of black granite into which are carved the names of the 58,300 American military personnel who were casualties of the war.
Look for Lance P. Sijan on the East Wall, Panel 29E, Line 62.
Dale L. Walker of El Paso, Texas, is a past-president of Western Writers of America, Inc., and author of many historical books and biographies.