Lance Peter Sijan (April 13, 1942 – January 22, 1968) was a United States Air Force officer and fighter pilot. On March 4, 1976, he posthumously received the Medal of Honor, the United States’ highest military award, for his selflessness and courage in the face of lethal danger.
Lance Sijan was born to Sylvester and Jane Sijan in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His father, who owned a restaurant, was of Serbian ancestry; his mother was an Irish-American. Lance was the eldest of three children. Sijan graduated from Bay View High School. Immediately after his graduation he attended the Naval Academy Preparatory School at the United States Naval Training Center, Bainbridge. After completion of the program, he gained an appointment to the United States Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs, Colorado. He played on the academy’s football team for three years, but quit the team in his final year to concentrate on his studies. Graduating in 1965, he was awarded a second lieutenant’s commission and began pilot training. After its completion, he was assigned to the 480th Tactical Fighter Squadron, 366th Fighter Wing, stationed at Da Nang Air Base, South Vietnam. He flew as a pilot and systems officer in an F-4 Phantom.
On the night of November 9, 1967, for his 52nd combat mission, Sijan and pilot Lt. Col. John Armstrong were tasked with a bombing mission to Ban Laboy ford in Laos. As they rolled in on their target to release their ordnance, their F-4C (s/n 64-0751) was engulfed in a ball of fire, due to the bomb fuses malfunctioning and causing a premature detonation on their release.
Sijan managed to eject from the aircraft, and although likely rendered unconscious in the ejection, his parachute landed him on a rocky limestone karst ridge adjacent to the target. From the night of 09/10 Nov to the morning of 11 November, no electronic or radio signals was heard from either Sijan or Armstrong. However, early on the morning of 11 November, Sijan came up on the radio and made contact with a Misty FAC F-100F aircraft that was flying over his crash site. For the duration of that day (11 November), the USAF launched a massive effort to locate his position, and ‘soften up’ the numerous enemy air defences in his area. At dusk, the SAR forces were finally able to position a Jolly Green Giant helicopter near Sijan’s position. (During this overall rescue operation, over 20 aircraft were damaged by anti-aircraft fire, and many had to return to base. One A-1H aircraft was shot down, though its pilot was soon rescued by a SAR helicopter on station. Sijan, refusing to put other airmen in danger, insisted on trying to crawl to a jungle penetrator lowered by the helicopter, and he directly opposed the helicopter’s Para-Jumper coming down to find and rescue him. Sadly, the helicopter crew could not see him in the heavy jungle, and strangely, they did not deploy the ‘PJ’ to find and rescue Sijan. After the Jolly Green hovered for an agonizing 33 minutes, and upon hearing no further radio transmissions from Sijan, the on-scene SAR commander (call sign ‘Sandy’, flying in an A-1H ‘Skyraider’ aircraft) suspected a trap, and thus ordered the Jolly Green and the entire SAR armada to withdraw.Search efforts continued the very next morning, but they were called off when no further radio contact was made with Sijan. He was then listed in a MIA casualty status.
During his violent ejection and very rough parachute landing on the karst ridge, Sijan had suffered a fractured skull, a mangled right hand, and a compound fracture of the left leg. He was without food, with very little water, and no survival kit; nevertheless, he evaded enemy forces for 46 days. During this entire evasion and escape period, Sijan was only able to move by sliding on his buttocks and back, along the rocky limestone karst ridge, and later along the jungle floor. After managing to move an astonishing several thousand feet, Sijan crawled onto a truck road along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, where he was finally captured by the North Vietnamese on Christmas Day, 1967. Terrifically emaciated and in poor health, Sijan was placed in custody in an NVA camp. Soon thereafter, he managed to incapacitate a guard and escape into the jungle, but was recaptured several hours later.
Sijan was transported to a holding compound in Vinh, North Vietnam, where he was placed in the care of two other recently captured POWs, Air Force Major Robert R. Craner (later COL) and Air Force Captain Guy Gruters. Although in terrific pain from his severe wounds, and in suffering brutal beatings and torture from his captors, Sijan displayed superhuman defiance, and did not disclose any information other than what the Geneva Convention guidelines allowed (name, DOB, service, rank, and service number). Suffering terribly from exhaustion, malnutrition, and disease, he was soon transported to Hanoi, under the attentive care of both Craner and Gruters. However, in his weakened state, he contracted pneumonia and died in Hoa Lo Prison (the notorious Hanoi Hilton) on January 22, 1968.
Second Lieutenant Sijan was promoted posthumously to Captain on June 13, 1968. His remains were repatriated on March 13, 1974 and were positively identified on April 22, 1974. He was buried with military honors in Arlington Park Cemetery in Milwaukee. His former cellmate USAF Colonel Craner recommended him for the Medal Of Honor (MOH), with supporting testimony provided by his other fellow cellmate, USAF Captain Guy Gruters. Sijan received the Medal Of Honor posthumously in 1976, with his parents (Sylvester and Jane Sijan) receiving the MOH on his behalf, on March 4, 1976 from President Gerald R. Ford.
Medal of Honor citation
The President of the United States in the name of The Congress takes pride in presenting the MEDAL OF HONOR to SIJAN, LANCE P. Rank and organization: Captain, U.S. Air Force, 4th Allied POW Wing, Pilot of an F-4C aircraft. Place and Date: North Vietnam, 9 November 1967. Entered service at: Milwaukee, Wis. Born: 13 April 1942, Milwaukee, Wis.
Citation: While on a flight over North Vietnam, Capt. Sijan ejected from his disabled aircraft and successfully evaded capture for more than 6 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, Capt. Sijan was taken to a holding point for subsequent transfer to a prisoner of war camp. In his emaciated and crippled condition, he overpowered 1 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. Capt. 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. Capt. 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 U.S. Armed Forces./S/GERALD R. FORD