Monday, May 30, 2016

Sijan! My name is Lance Peter Sijan!

Here's hoping you are having a peaceful, reflective Memorial Day weekend.  I was blessed with a surprise call from the Most Beautiful Daughter on Saturday asking if I'd mind driving over to a state park she and some friends had camped in Friday night and "rescue" her.  Seems she had slept in her sleeping bag in a hammock, and the local mosquito population had had a lavish banquet on her face and neck.  Once again, and it's been awhile, I got to experience the feeling of being needed and riding to the rescue.  

It also meant we had a chance to visit a local winery and sip a glass of Albariño while chatting and listening to music.  Life is good.

She bought the T-Shirt, but I am good at that!
Sarge asked if we'd take a moment to remember those people who have given their lives to protect the freedoms that we cherish.  I have.  I thought it also fitting that I do the research on another name on my list of Air Force Medal of Honor Recipients.  While I had been focusing on the Recipients whose name I didn't immediately recognize, today I thought I'd discuss someone who is a bit more familiar to me and see if I couldn't expand on my knowledge of the man.

Capt Lance P. Sijan

That man is Lance P. Sijan.  Capt. Sijan (pronounced sigh-john') was a 1LT Back Seat Pilot in an F-4C, lost over North Vietnam, captured by the North Vietnamese and transported to Hoa Loa Prison, where he died of pneumonia.  During the time he was a POW, he was promoted to Captain.  That's the long and short of it.  

I had read an Air Force Magazine article about Capt Sijan in 1986, that intrigued me.  I sought out his Biography (this was pre-Amazon instant book gratification days, so involved a bit of effort), "Into the Mouth of the Cat: The Story of Lance Sijan, Hero of Vietnam"  by Malcolm McConnell.  A very sobering book, to say the least. 

It had been about 30 years since I had read Capt Sijan's story. While "incredible endurance and courage" are the phrases that flash through my memory whenever I hear his name, I'd forgotten the details.  So to refresh my memory and for the edification of any interested readers, here we go.


I had originally thought that Capt Sijan's F-4, like so many others, had been shot down but apparently his ordnance and that of the other F-4 comprising Baffle 01 flight had been outfitted with a new type of fuse.  The weapons were released in a low altitude high speed pass and all immediately detonated, destroying both aircraft.  Capt Sijan was able to eject, and was severely injured in doing so.  His AC also ejected, which may have been command initiated by Capt Sijan's ejection from the back seat, however neither he, nor the other crew was heard from again.

The high speed ejection causes a compound fracture to one of Capt Sijan's legs and "mangled" one of his wrists bending it backwards.  Additionally, on landing in the rocky Karsts of the target area, he sustains a skull injury.  

So, he's on the ground in North Vietnam, in relatively close proximity to a target he's tried to attack "in anger" (evidently that's a perjorative now and not to be used. Don't get me started.).  Anyhow....He's on the ground, in bad guy territory and critically injured. He manages to contact other aircraft and a rescue operation is started.  At one point he sees a Jolly Green and tells them "I see you, I see you. Stay where you are, I'm coming to you."  The Jolly hovers in position for 33 minutes while receiving fire.  (Ok, one more example of why Jolly crew members never pay for beer in fighter bars.) Finally, the increasing volume and accuracy of the fire forces their withdrawal.

At this point, Capt Sijan starts to try to evacuate the immediate area.  Remember, he's got a compound fracture of his left leg, the bone is protruding through the skin. How is he going to evacuate the immediate area?  He pushes himself along on his butt using his good arm and leg.  He successfully evades the immediate threat.

He continues to use this method of movement.

For. Forty. Five. Days!

He would travel for 2-3 days until exhausted, sleep and then wakeup and continue moving eastward.

Very little to eat and drink during the ordeal, as well as the friction of his method of movement has left him emaciated and covered in sores.  Finally, after six and a half weeks, he collapses by the side of a road and is picked up by the North Vietnamese.  He's managed to make it 3 miles from his landing site.

The story is not over, though.

The North Vietnamese, thinking he's close to death, place him on a table in a hut and post a single guard, leaving him to die.

When he regains consciousness, he signals to the guard.  When the guard approaches, he manages to knock him unconcious.  That's right, little food and water for six and a half weeks, crawling through a jungle with a broken leg and hand, sick and covered with open sores, he knocks a guard unconscious with a single punch.

He crawls out of the hut and back into the jungle and evades for another 8 hours before being recaptured.

For those of you who have read the stories of POWs of the North Vietnamese, it should come as no surprise that the next few hours of Capt Sijan's life were not pleasant.

Eventually, he's loaded on a truck and transported to a POW camp near Vinh.  

While there, he's put under the care of then Major Bob Craner and Capt Guy Gruters.  The two Misty FAC aircrewmen care for Capt Sijan while at Vinh and during his transport to Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi.  While awaiting that transport, their cell is next door to the interrogation room where they are forced to listen to Capt Sijan's interrogation.  

According to Capt Gruters
 "As best as I can recall, it was New Year’s Day of 1968 when they brought this guy in at night. The Rodent came into the guy’s cell next to mine and began his interrogation. It was clearly audible.
He was on this guy for military information, and the responses I heard indicated he was in very, very bad shape. His voice was very weak. It sounded to me as though he wasn’t going to make it.
The Rodent would say, “Your arm, your arm, it is very bad. I am going to twist it unless you tell me.” The guy would say, “I’m not going to tell you; it’s against the code.” Then he would start screaming.
The Rodent was obviously twisting his mangled arm.  
The whole affair went on for an hour and a half, over and over again,and the guy just wouldn’t give in. He’d say, “Wait till I get better,you S.O.B., you’re really going to get it.” He was giving the Rodent all kinds of lip but no information.
The Rodent kept laying into him. Finally I heard this guy rasp, “Sijan! My name is Lance Peter Sijan!” That’s all he told him.

Returned to his cell, Major Crane and Capt Gruters administered to him as best they could.  Whenever he'd regain consciousness, he'd ask them "How are we getting out of here?"  

His injuries and physical condition caused him to contract pneumonia, which contributed to his passing circa 21 January 1968.

One of my favorite comedy movies "Galaxy Quest", has an oft repeated line "Never give up, Never surrender!".  I think that pretty well defines Capt Sijan.

His Medal of Honor 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.
Rest In Peace, Captain Sijan, I am grateful for, and awed and honored by your courage and sacrifice.


  1. "Grateful for, and awed and honored by your courage and sacrifice." Well said and thanks again for a great post.

    I read the book a long time ago, in my recollection it would have been about 1974, but I see it's copyrighted 1985. I have just an inkling that a condensed version may have appeared in readers digest and that was what I read first.

    Sijan and a few others (Dieter Dengler comes to mind) came up in lectures at SERE. Always made me wonder, glad I never had to find out.

    This is a good day to reflect on the gift such men have bestowed on us.

    1. Thanks.

      Yeah as I was doing the research for this, I thought I'd read that book earlier than 85 also, like maybe as early as college. 85 would have been transitioning to the Eagle and those two events don't seem to synchronize in my brain. Oh well, CRS may be setting in.

  2. Replies
    1. Yeah. As PA mentioned above, going through SERE school, we were taught about him. Going a week without significant food in mid Winter North Western Idaho, I got pretty hungry. Can't imagine what it took to do it for 6 times as long with serious injury and actual bad guys looking for you.

  3. In awe as well. We are blessed to have such men in this country.

    1. Yes we are. God bless and protect them all.

  4. Captain Sijan is one of those Air Force legends whose story we tend to forget. The award named after him (The Lance P. Sijan USAF Leadership Award) is something I vaguely remember. Never knew anyone who won it, it always seemed like one of those things folks at some headquarters always won. The Air Force, outside of the flying units, has never been all that great at celebrating its heroes.

    Reading your post was like reading Captain Sijan's story for the first time.

    You might want to scope out the header. A change was made. An overdue change I think.

    Captain Sijan was a warrior.

    1. Thanks Sarge!

      Regarding your first paragraph, I agree. More's the pity.

      Regarding the last. Yes, he was.

  5. I arrived at DaNang not long after Lance died. He had been in a different squadron than mine and much of what transpired was only released much later, so at the time he was only one of many from the 366th of that period that were MIA/KIA. Was only yrs later when the full story came out..LOTS of losses in 67/68. In memoriam I salute good friend Capt Sam Deichelmann, RAVEN 47, MIA Aug, 1968 (later declared KIA)

    1. Yeah, the ballad contained in the Mishalov makes a reference (accusation) which bears looking into. Faulty fuses destroyed these two F-4s and 3 others?

    2. I note that that ballad was written by a Juvat!

    3. I think he was before my time! (although probably a fellow Juvat Boys Choir member)

  6. Thank you for reminding us of a brave man who's story is seldom told.

    1. My pleasure. I'll try to rectify that issue.

  7. How can one read these kinds of stories and not wonder what kind of men were we marching with - unknown to us! What a fighter. What a patriot! I'm asking my kids to read this today.

    1. Yeah, I've asked myself that many times. Could I have done the same thing, in similar circumstances? I'd hope so, but am glad I never had the opportunity to know for sure.

  8. Wow. The story of Bud Day, a Misty, and his E and E for 5 days was amazing enough.

    And for Captain Sijan that was just the beginning.

    1. Interestingly, Admiral Stockdale, Col Day and Capt Sijan's Medal of Honor Ceremony was the same day, March 4, 1976. All 3 for Conduct above and beyond the call of Duty while POWs.

  9. We can only stand in awe...

  10. A tough man in a tough profession.

    Captain Lance P. Sijan, farewell.

    And if you find any of those Marine guards in the way, just push them aside and tell them you know me. They know where to find me.

  11. Absolutely outstanding post for Memorial Day Juvat. What a complete and total badass he was!


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