May 29th, 2023

Lance P Sijan Medal of Honor Winner

Lance P. Sijan is an Air Force Medal of Honor winner and worthy to be remembered on this Memorial Day.  On Memorial Day it is Doctor Aviation’s practice to honor a fallen warrior.  In the past Paul J. (PJ) Weaver has been honored, Steve Phillis and the Thunderhawk crash victims.  This is the 50th anniversary if the return of the POWs from Vietnam.  At the National Memorial Day Concert on May 28, 2023, PBS did an excellent tribute to this group.  It is fitting that we honor those who did not return from Vietnam, chief among them Lance Peter Sijan.

Sijan’s Early Career

Lance Sijan hailed from Milwaukee Wisconsin.  The son of Sylvester and Jane Sijan, his mother reports that he loved to hear the story of Sir Lancelot when he was a boy.  One of the loudest ovations I ever heard in Mitchell Hall as a cadet is when Mr. and Mrs. Sijan came for lunch one day.  The ovation was as hearty as I ever remember and after reading this blog you will understand why. 

The Corvette was the cadet car of choice in the 1960s. Sijan told his parents that he was proud that “he bought the car with his own money”.

Sijan attended the Naval academy Pep School in Maryland following his high school graduation in 1960.  After a year of prep school Sijan gained an appointment to the United States Air Force Academy.  He played on the football team for three years and with his good looks, could have been a movie star in any football film.  He also had a soft side, enjoying sculpturing.  Some of his works on still on display at the USAFA where he was a member of CS-22.

Lance Sijan at his desk as a 2 degree (aka junior)

Sijan’s Last Mission over Vietnam

Following the Academy, he attended UPT and upon graduation was assigned to the F-4 Phantom out of Da Nang Air Base in South Vietnam.  Sijan flew 51 successful combat missions in Vietnam.  Mission 52 was a night bombing mission in Laos.  He and LTC John Armstrong were flying an F-4C.  When they went to release their ordinance, a malfunction occurred, and the bombs detonated near the aircraft setting it ablaze.  Sijan ejected and he landed on a ridge near the target. 

Sijan and his F-4C

During the violent ejection and landing Sijan fractured his skull, endured a compound fracture of his left leg and mangled his right hand.  Approximately 36 hours later, Sijan contacted a Forward Air Controller (FAC) flying overhead.  Rescue efforts were unsuccessful, partially because Sijan requested that no Para-Jumper (PJ) endanger himself by coming down to try and rescue him.  After an unsuccessful rescue effort, Sijan evaded the enemy for an astonishing 46 days by sliding on his buttocks along the ridge and jungle. 

In desperate straits and excruciatingly poor physical Sijan crawled onto a road which was part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail to be captured on Christmas Day 1968.  He was taken to a North Vietnamese Camp where he regained some strength.  He called a guard over in a ploy and was able to incapacitate him, and then slid into the jungle.  Unable to move quickly, he was recaptured in a few hours. 

Sijan as Prisoner of War

He eventually was moved to ”The Hanoi Hilton”.  During the move he was cared for by two fellow POWs to whom he told his story.  My POW Survival trainers (some of whom had served in Vietnam) told me that during intense interrogations Sijan was heard to yell, “My name is Lance Peter Sijan, First Lieutenant, Date of Birth April 13, 1942, Serial Number…”.  Sijan stayed completely in line with the required information from the Geneva Convention:  Name, Rank, Service Number, Date of Birth. 

Due to the severity of his injuries, his 40+ days of evasion with little food and water and minimal medical care by the North Vietnamese, Sijan’s condition grew dangerously severe.  When fellow prisoners asked about Lance, one guard replied, “Sijan very sick, very sick”.  Pneumonia set in and Sijan died in prison on January 22, 1968.

Sijan Hall

Meanwhile a new dormitory was built at the Air Force Academy, opening that same year, 1968.  The Cadet Wing expanded to its present strength of 4,000+ and another dorm was needed in addition to Vandenburgh Hall. While a suitable name was debated for the new facility, the cadets called it the Nhu Dorm.  It was a play on words.  It sounded like, “New” but actually referred to Madame Nhu, the powerful Vietnamese woman of intrigue. 

Upon their release from the Hanoi Hilton in 1973, two of his fellow prisoners lobbied hard to have Sijan awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. They cited his extraordinary resistance in the face of unbelievable injury, while Sijan clung faithfully to the Geneva Convention.  Their efforts were successful and on March 4, 1976, President Gerald Ford awarded the nations’ highest honor to Sijan posthumously. His parents receiving the honor on his behalf. 

The right choice for the name of the new dormitory now seemed clear.  The first Air Force Academy graduate to earn the Medal of Honor would be the namesake for the new dorm.  As a cadet and later as a professor, we could always tell when grads returned from the 1950s and 1960s. They would call the dormitory See-john Hall, (not realizing it is pronounced Sie-John Hall).  A beautiful painting of Sijan hangs on the terrazzo level northeastern stairwell.  On several occasions I would stop and just gaze upon the painting for inspiration.  Lance Peter Sijan was a man of courage, certainly worthy of the Medal of Honor and to be remembered this Memorial Day. 

Portrait hanging in Sijan Hall

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