The Story of Lance P. Sijan

The Lance P. Sijan Medal of Honor VFW Post 12100 became reality on October 10, 2010. The Post was born through the efforts of members of our community to honor one of our own. This is his story…

Lance Peter Sijan was born on April 13, 1942 to Sylvester and Jane Sijan in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Lance graduated from Bay View High School where he was a key member on the football team that won the City Championship in 1959. While in High School, Lance was the president of the Student Government Association and was awarded the Gold Medal Award for outstanding leadership, achievement and service. After graduation, Lance attended the Naval Academy Preparatory School in Newport, Rhode Island. He then gained an appointment to the United Sates Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs, Colorado. Lance also played football on the academy’s football team for three years. He quit the football team in his final year to concentrate on his studies. Lance graduated in 1965, and received his commission as a second lieutenant, and began pilot training. Upon completion of pilot training, he was assigned to the 366th Fighter Wing stationed at DaNang Air Base, South Vietnam. He flew as a pilot and systems officer in an F4C Phantom.

On Nov. 9, 1967, in the back seat of an F-4 piloted by Col. John W. Armstrong, commander of the 366th Tactical Fighter Squadron on a bombing pass over North Vietnam near Laos, their aircraft was hit and exploded. Armstrong was never heard from again. Sijan, plummeting to the ground after a low-level bailout, suffered a skull fracture, a mangled right hand with three fingers bent backward to the wrist, and a compound fracture of his left leg, the bone protruding through the lacerated skin. The ordeal of Lance Sijan–big, strong, tough, handsome, a football player at the Air Force Academy, remembered as a fierce competitor by those who knew him–had begun. He would live in the North Vietnamese jungle with no food and little water for some 45 days. Virtually immobilized, he would propel himself backward on his elbows and buttocks toward what he hoped was freedom. He was alone. He would be joined later by two other Americans, and in short, fading, in-and-out periods of consciousness and lucidity, would tell them his story.

Now, however, there was hope for Lance Sijan. Aircraft circled and darted overhead, part of a gigantic search-and-rescue effort launched to recover him and Armstrong. Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Service histories state that 108 aircraft participated the first two days, and 14 more on the third when no additional contact was made with Sijan, known to those above as “AWOL 1. “Contact had been made earlier, and the answer to the authenticating question, “Who is the greatest football team in the world?” came easily for the Wisconsin native. “The Green Bay Packers,” Sijan replied. In continuing voice contacts, “the survivor was talking louder and faster,” the history notes. “AWOL did not know what happened to the frontseater.” The rescue force, meanwhile, was taking “ground fire from all directions” and was “worried about all the [friendly] fire hitting the survivor.” Finally, Jolly Green 15, an HH-3E helicopter, picked up a transmission from the ground: “I see you, I see you. Stay where you are. I’m coming to you!” For 33 minutes, Jolly Green 15 hovered over the jungle, eyes aboard searching the dense foliage below for movement. Bullets began piercing the fuselage, a few at first and then more and more. Getting no more voice contact from the ground and under a withering hail of fire, Jolly Green 15 finally left the area. Rescue efforts the next day and electronic surveillance in the days that followed turned up no more contacts, and the search for “AWOL” was called off.  One A-1E aircraft was shot down in the effort–the pilot was rescued–and several helicopter crewmen were wounded.

“If AWOL,” said the report, “only had some kind of signaling device– mirror, flare, etc.–pick-up would have been successful. The rescue of this survivor was not in the hands of man.” Much later, a battered Lance Sijan was to ask his American cellmates, “What did I do wrong? Why didn’t I get picked up?” He told them he had lost his survival kit. On that November day, except for enemy forces all around, Sijan was alone again. Although desperately in need of food, water and medical attention, he somehow evaded the enemy and capture as he painfully, day by day, dragged himself along the ground–toward, he hoped, freedom.

But it was not to be. Former Capt. Guy Gruters, who was to be one of Sijan’s cellmates later, told Airman: “He said he’d go for two or three days and nights–as long as he possibly could–and then he’d be exhausted and sleep. As soon as he’d wake up he’d start again, always traveling east. You’re talking 45 days now without food, and it was a max effort!” Col. Bob Craner, the older cellmate in Hanoi, picked up the story: “When he couldn’t drag himself anymore and said, ‘This is the end,’ he saw he was on a dirt road. He lay there for a day, maybe, until a truck came along and they picked him up.” Incredibly, after a month and a half of clawing, clutching, dragging and hurting, Sijan was found three miles from where he had initially parachuted into the jungle. Horribly emaciated and with the flesh of his buttocks worn to his hipbones, Lance Sijan still had some fight left. “He said they took him to a place where they laid him on a mat and gave him some food,” Craner related. “He said he waited until he felt he was getting a little stronger. When there was just one guard there, Captain Sijan beckoned him over. When the guy bent over to see what was the matter, Captain Sijan told me, ‘I just let him have it–wham!’ “With the guard unconscious from a well-placed karate chop from a weakened left arm and hand, Sijan pulled himself back into the jungle. “He thought he was making it,” Craner said, “but they found him after a couple of hours.” Once again Sijan had been robbed of precious freedom. Once again he was down, but–as other North Vietnamese were to learn–by no means out.

Sylvester Sijan’s forefathers immigrated from Serbia, a separate country prior to World War I that later be came part of Yugoslavia “Serbians have been noted for their heroic actions in circumstances where they were outnumbered,” the elder Sijan said. “They were vicious fighters on a one-to-one or a one-to-fifty basis, so they have a history of instinct and drive.” He thinks a mixture of that tradition, his son’s love for his home and his competitive spirit spurred him through the painful odyssey in Vietnam. “What made Lance do what he did? One thing, for sure. He always wanted to come home, no matter where he was. He was going to come home whether it was in pieces or as a hero. “Lance’s competitive nature kind of grew with him,” said Sylvester Sijan. “A person never knows how competitive he really is until he comes up against the ultimate situation. He could have been less courageous; he could have retreated into the ranks of the North Vietnamese and said, ‘Here I am, take care of me.’ But he chose to go the other way. He probably never doubted that somehow, somewhere he’d get out.”

Lance Sijan had wondered about his ultimate fate even before leaving for Vietnam, according to Mike Smith. In the Air Force at the time and stationed at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, Smith enjoyed a visit from Sijan, who was on leave prior to going overseas.”I sensed a foreboding in him, and he and I dealt with the issue of not coming back,” Smith said. “I remember it distinctly because I talked with my wife about our conversation. I felt he had a premonition that he might not return.” Jane Sijan, too, sensed something. In Milwaukee prior to leaving, Lance asked her to sew two extra pockets into his flight suit, and he took great pains coating matches with wax. “One night he was sitting on his bed,” she recalled. “He was sewing razor blades into his undershirts so he would have them if he was ever shot down.”

Capt. Lance Sijan had been on the ground for 41 days when Col. Bob Craner and Capt. Guy Gruters took off from Phu Cat AB in their F-100 on Dec. 20, 1967. Pinpointing targets in North Vietnam from the “Misty” forward air control jet fighter, they were hit by ground fire and ejected. Both were captured and brought to a holding point in Vinh, where they were thrust into bamboo cells and chained. Reaching back into his memory, crowded with recollections of more than five years as a prisoner of war, Craner told the story: “As best as I can recall, it was New Year’s Day of 1968 when they brought this guy in at night. The Rodent [a prison guard] 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.” Guy Gruters, also an Air Force Academy graduate, but a year senior to Sijan, was in a cell down the hall and did not know the identity of the third captive. He does recall that “the guy was apparently always trying to push his way out of the bamboo cell, and they’d beat him with a stick to get him back. We could hear the cracks.”

After several days, when the North Vietnamese were ready to transport the Americans to Hanoi, Gruters and Craner were taken to Sijan’s cell to help him to the truck. “When I got a look at the poor devil, I retched,” said Craner. “He was so thin and every bone in his body was visible. Maybe 20 percent of his body wasn’t open sores or open flesh. Both hipbones were exposed where the flesh had been worn away.” Gruters recalled that he looked like a little guy. But then when we picked him up, I remember commenting to Bob, ‘This is one big sonofagun.”‘While they were moving him, Craner related, “Sijan looked up and said, ‘You’re Guy Gruters, aren’t you? ”Gruters asked him how he knew, and Sijan replied, “We were at the academy together. Don’t you know me? I’m Lance Sijan.” Guy went into shock. He said, “My God, Lance, that’s not you!”

“I have never had my heart broken like that,” said Gruters, who remembered Sijan as a 220-pound football player at the academy. “He had no muscle left and looked so helpless.” Craner said Sijan never gave up on the idea of escape in all the days they were together. “In fact, that was one of the first things he mentioned when we first went into his cell at Vinh: ‘How the hell are we going to get out of here? Have you guys figured out how we’re going to take care of these people? Do you think we can steal one of their guns?’ “He had to struggle to get each word out,” Craner said. “It was very, very intense on his part that the only direction he was planning was escape. That’s all that was on his mind. Even later, he kept dwelling on the fact that he’d made it once and he was going to make it again.”

Craner remembers the Rodent coming up to them and, in a mocking voice, he paraphrased the Rodent’s message:

“Sijan a very difficult man. He struck a guard and injured him. He ran away from us. You must not let him do that anymore.” “I never questioned the fact that Lance would make it,” said Gruters. “Now that he had help, I thought he’d come back. He had passed his low.” The grueling truck ride to Hanoi took several days. Sijan–“in and out of consciousness, lucid for 15 seconds sometimes and sometimes an hour, but garbled and incoherent a lot,” according to Craner–told the story of his 45-day ordeal in the jungle while the trio were kept under a canvas cover during the day. The truck ride over rough roads at night, with the Americans constantly bouncing 18 inches up and down in the back, was torture itself. Craner and Gruters took turns struggling to keep an unsecured 55-gallon drum of gasoline from smashing them while the other cradled Sijan between his legs and cushioned his head against the stomach.

“I thought he had died at one point in the trip,” said Craner. “I looked at Guy and said, ‘He’s dead.’ Guy started massaging his face and neck trying to bring him around. Nothing. I sat there holding him for about two hours, and suddenly he just came around. I said, ‘OK, buddy, my hat’s off to you.” Finally reaching Hanoi, the three were put into a cell in “Little Vegas.” Craner described the conditions: “It was dark, with open air, and there was a pool of water on the worn cement floor. It was the first time I suffered from the cold. I was chilled to the bone, always shivering and shaking. Guy and I started getting respiratory problems right away, and I couldn’t imagine what it was doing to Lance. That, I think, accounts ultimately for the fact that he didn’t make it.”

“Lance was always as little of a hindrance to us as he could be,” said Gruters. “He could have asked for help any one of a hundred thousand times, but he never asked for a damned thing! There was no way Bob and I could feel sorry for ourselves.” Craner said a Vietnamese medic gave Sijan shots of yellow fluid, which he thought were antibiotics. The medic did nothing for his open sores and wounds, and when he looked at Sijan’s mangled hand, “he just shook his head.”The medic later inserted an intravenous tube into Sijan’s arm, but Sijan, fascinated with it in his subconscious haze, pulled it out several times. Thus, Craner and Gruters took turns staying awake with him at night.

“One night,” the colonel said, “a guard opened the little plate on the door and looked in, and there was Lance beckoning to the guard. It was the same motion he told me he had made to the guy in the jungle, and I could just see what was going through the back reaches of his mind: ‘If I can just get that guy close enough. . . .”‘He remembers that Sijan once asked them to help him exercise so he could build up his strength for another escape attempt. “We got him propped up on his cot and waved his arms around a few times, and that satisfied him. Then he was exhausted.”

At another point, Sijan became lucid enough to ask Craner, “How about going out and getting me a burger and french fries?” But Sijan’s injuries and now the respiratory problem sapped his strength. “First he could only whisper a word, and then it got down to blinking out letters with his eyes,” said Gruters. “Finally he couldn’t do that anymore, even a yes or no.” With tears glistening, Bob Craner remembered when it all came to an end. They had been in Hanoi about eight days.

“One night Lance started making strangling sounds, and we got him to sit up. Then, for the first time since we’d been together, his voice came through loud and clear. He said, ‘Oh my God, it’s over,’ and then he started yelling for his father. He’d shout, ‘Dad, Dad, where are you? Come here, I need you!'”I knew he was sinking fast. I started beating on the walls, trying to call the guards, hoping they’d take him to a hospital. They came in and took him out. As best as I could figure it was January 21.” “He had never asked for his dad before,” said Gruters, “and that was the first time he’d talked in four or five days. It was the first time I saw him display any emotion. It was absolutely his last strength. “It was the last time we saw him.”

A few days later, Craner met the camp commander in the courtyard while returning from a bathhouse and asked him where Sijan was. “Sijan spend too long in the jungle,” came the reply. “Sijan die.” Guy Gruters talked some more about Sijan: “He was a tremendously strong, tough, physical human being. I never heard Lance complain. If you had an army of Sijans, you’d have an incredible fighting force.”

Said Craner: “Lance never talked about pain. He’d yell out in pain sometimes, but he’d never dwell on it like, ‘Damn, that hurts.’ “Lance was so full of drive whenever he was lucid. There was never any question of, ‘I hurt so much that I’d rather be dead.’ It was always positive for him, pointed mainly toward escape but always toward the future.” Craner recommended Sijan for the Medal of Honor. Why? “He survived a terrible ordeal, and he survived with the intent, sometime in the future, of picking up the fight. Finally he just succumbed. “There is no way you can instill that kind of performance in an individual. l don’t know how many we’re turning out like Lance Sijan, but I can’t believe there are very many.”

Other honors: Sijan’s heroism and courage brought him numerous honors.

  • The United States Air Force created the Lance P. Sijan Award, recognizing individuals who have demonstrated the highest qualities of leadership in their jobs and in their lives. It has become one of the U.S. Air Force’s most prestigious awards.
  • Because Sijan was the first graduate of the United States Air Force Academy to receive the Medal of Honor, a cadet dormitory, Sijan Hall, was named after him. The dormitory was dedicated on Memorial Day, 1976. As part of their training, all new cadets at the Air Force Academy are required to learn Lance Sijan’s story.
  • Sijan’s high school in Milwaukee set up a scholarship in his honor, presented each year to the student who best exemplifies Lance Sijan’s examples of leadership and courage.
  • A nearby park, Sijan Playfield, is dedicated to him, and Milwaukee’s Serbian community honors him with a memorial on the grounds of St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Cathedral.
  • An F-4 Phantom jet fighter on display in front of the 440th Air Force Reserve at Milwaukee’s Mitchell Airport is painted using the color scheme of the one he flew.
  • In June, 2006, before the 440th Airlift Wing was relocated to Pope AFB in North Carolina, there were calls to move the F-4 Phantom jet fighter display from Mitchell International Airport to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Lake Michigan lake front. However, the display continues to be housed at Mitchell until more permanent plans have been made.
  • A bronze, life-size statue of Lance P. Sijan, was erected and dedicated in 2010 at the USAF Academy