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Valor Beyond WordsLance Sijan endured unfathomable grief in Vietnam.
He paid with his life, and by doing so inspired legions at the Air Force Academy
By Clay Latimer, Rocky Mountain News
MILWAUKEE - For Capt. Lance Sijan, it began like any other night in Danang, South Vietnam, in the fall of 1967. The classic fighter pilot - big, rugged, handsome, a former football player at the Air Force Academy - eased into the back seat of an F-4 Phantom about 8 p.m.
Ten minutes later, Sijan and fellow pilot Army Lt. Col. John Armstrong were streaking over North Vietnam, looking down at bursts of artillery fire and glowing firefights.
Thirty minutes into the mission, they were flying at 19,500 feet above the dark Ho Chi Minh Trail, six miles into Laos, ready to roll into their bombing run before returning home. But they never made it.
Seconds after releasing six bombs, the Phantom exploded into flames and plunged into the mountainous jungle below, killing Armstrong.
Mary Jo Walicki © Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Sylvester and Jane Sijan attended the unveiling of a memorial to their son, Capt. Lance Sijan, in 2003 in Milwaukee. Sijan's plane crashed in Laos in 1967, but he ejected and eluded capture for six weeks. The injured Sijan was tortured, escaped, then was captured again. He died while in captivity and was the first Air Force Academy graduate to earn the Medal of Honor.
Ahmad Terry © News
Lance Sijan's prisoner-of-war bracelet is on display at Vandenberg Hall at the Air Force Academy. The date on it marks when his plane burst into flames while flying over Laos.
Ahmad Terry © News
So revered is Lance Sijan by those at the Air Force Academy that the largest hall at the academy bears his name.
Mary Jo Walicki © Milwaukee Journal
Sentinel Janine Sijan looked upon her brother Lance as her knight in shining armor, and she likened the family's Midwestern life to that of Leave it to Beaver. Said their mother Jane: "She admired him so much."
Football was a passion for Sijan (No. 82, front row, with members of the Air Force junior varsity team in 1963). But because of academic problems, he quit the team after his junior season, but not before laboring over his decision.
In the fiery chaos before the crash, Sijan instinctively reached for his ejection handle, saving himself from immediate death.
But his ordeal was only beginning.
Despite crippling injuries and meager supplies, the 25-year-old captain evaded capture for six weeks in extremely treacherous terrain.
Eventually captured and moved to a holding camp, Sijan knocked out a guard and crawled back into the jungle, only to be recaptured hours later.
Sijan's captors interrogated him repeatedly, but he refused to say anything. Savagely beaten, he would scream obscenities at his guards.
When they carried him away to die Jan. 21, 21/2 months after the crash, Sijan's pus-covered body weighed less than 100 pounds, his hip bones poked through infected flesh, he was slipping in and out of consciousness and he couldn't speak, though he summoned the strength for a few final words.
"Oh, my God. It's over. It's over . . . Dad, Dad . . . help me, Dad. I need you."
The story of Sijan's heroism might have died there, but his cell mates committed it to memory and shared it with others when they were returned to the United States several years later.
Sijan was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously in 1976 for his valor, the first Air Force Academy graduate to earn the nation's highest military honor. The academy also named its biggest dormitory after him that year.
But his impact hardly ended there.
The code of conduct for prisoners of war requires every American soldier to try to evade capture, and when captured, to seize opportunities for escape.
With America at war again, -Sijan's lonely struggle is more relevant than ever at the Air Force Academy, whose football team will play Army today, 37 years to the week after Sijan and Armstrong, a West Point grad, disappeared in Southeast Asia.
"It's crazy how important he is at the academy," said Bobby -Giannini, an Air Force football player who lives in Sijan Hall. "As freshmen, we're required to study him for a week. When we see Sijan Hall, we think, 'What an amazing man. What an amazing thing he did.'
"He was kind of a normal cadet, a normal person . . ."
Added Capt. Guy Gruters, an academy classmate of Sijan and a cell mate in North Vietnam: "There were a lot of tough guys who took a lot of punishment over there, but I don't know anyone else in Lance's condition who took that kind of punishment. He wouldn't give them anything."
"We were in awe of that guy. He's an example to (cadets). He's an example to soldiers of all time."
An Idyllic Upbringing
Sylvester and Jane Sijan's comfortable, two-story home sits on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan, in an old working-class section of Milwaukee known as Bayview.
A flagpole rises from the front yard, a short distance from a park that slopes gently into the shore, where Lance worked as a lifeguard.
Several blocks away stands ancient Bayview High, which Syl and his three children - Lance, Marc and Janine - attended.
Inside the Sijan home, the stairway and family room walls are filled with memories - old black-and-white photos, awards, family portraits, artwork - that trigger proud anecdotes from Syl and Jane.
For years, life with the Sijans was a cozy blur of summer fish fries, football weekends and winter nights spent around the fireplace, where it was easy to envision an enriching future.
"If you could paint a Norman Rockwell-esque portrait of a typical loving, caring Midwestern family, the Sijans could well be the ones to do," said Fletcher Wiley, an Air Force Academy classmate of Sijan's.
Added Janine: "It was like Leave it to Beaver."
But the Sijan family was shaped by old Europe as much as by modern America.
Syl's grandfather emigrated from Lika, a tough mountain region in Serbia. "Any true Likan was always the biggest guy . . . the best fighter, the most feared," Syl said.
Syl's mother was married at 15 and widowed when he was a boy, at the height of the Great Depression. Syl worked at the family business, a working-class bar called the Log Cabin, which he eventually took over.
Syl, a Bayview native, married Jane, an attractive Irish-American woman from Boston whose grandparents had been vaudeville performers. She would become Mrs. Milwaukee in 1949, president of the local PTA and a prisoner-of-war activist. The -Sijans doted on their first son, whose interest in sports surfaced early.
"I used to ride my bike around," Syl said. "Well, I'm riding one day, and I see 20 kids playing football. And one kid keeps mowing in there, play after play. And then I say, 'Oh, my gosh, that's Lance.' "
Passionate About Football
Lance earned letters in track and swimming, but football was his passion, as it had been for his father. In 1959, Lance was an all-city end on Bayview's city championship squad. In 1936, Syl had been an all-city end on Bayview's first title team.
"Lance was a lot like his dad. His dad is right out of central casting; he's a pretty tough guy. But Lance was a gentle giant as well," Wiley said.
In fact, Lance Sijan defied easy labels.
He was president of the Bayview student body, but he also demonstrated a flair for photography and sculpture and earned the lead role in the school play, The King and I.
Janine, then 4, played a little princess in the play. Every now and then, the Sijans listen to a recording of that magical night.
"At the end, Lance was standing in the middle of the stage, with the whole cast," Jane said. "Everyone was applauding. And then Janine came running along, and the audience went crazy.
"She admired him so much. Lance was her knight in shining armor."
Following his father's advice, Lance turned down an appointment to the Naval Academy in 1960 and attended the Air Force Academy prep school instead. He quickly befriended Wiley, a black football player from Indianapolis.
"You couldn't believe what America was like in the '50s," he said. "Being the only black guy out of 125 young men selected to go to AFA prep school, and then going down to basic training in Texas, was not a comfortable experience. They were trying to figure out who was going to be my roommate, and Lance stepped up and said, 'I don't mind rooming with the black guy.' "
Known as Tough, Stubborn
Accepted into the Air Force Academy Class of 1965, Sijan quickly became known for his athletic talent, easygoing charm and ability to get along with classmates from varied backgrounds.
But it was his stamina and his stubbornness that marked him as uncommon.
"Basically, Lance was just a tough, tough guy who wouldn't take 'no' for an answer," Wiley said. "If you got in the way of something that he was trying to get done, or if you did something wrong, or offensive . . . you had to reckon with him.
"But if 30 guys were running an obstacle course and one of the guys fell behind, he'd be one of the guys pulling (the straggler) along or carrying some of his equipment or helping the guy up.
"You always hear the old question: 'Who'd you want in a foxhole with you?' Well, Lance was always one of those guys. He got your back."
But Sijan's academy years hardly were easy. Because of academic problems, he decided to quit the football team after his junior season.
"He mulled over, grieved over, that," Syl said. "It really shook him up."
Haunted by POW Scene
After graduation and pilot training, Sijan was assigned to combat duty in Danang beginning in July 1967.
Before he left, he watched a newscast of Lt. Cmdr. Richard Stratton reading a confession, zombielike, from a prisoner-of-war camp. The scene haunted -Sijan, who vowed never to be taken alive.
On his final visit home, he asked his mother to sew hidden pockets in the inside leg of his flight suit. He filled them with a backup compass, a multiple-blade pocketknife and other survival gear. It was an edgy time.
"My mom quickly assembled everyone to go down and get a family photo," Janine said. "My parents usually don't spend that kind of money. But it was so important to her. It was the last group photo we ever really had."
Sijan's life in Danang quickly turned into a blur of daily briefing sessions and bombing runs over the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the supply lifeline by which North Vietnam sustained the war in the south.
In early November 1967, Sijan flew to Bangkok, Thailand, for several days of recuperation, spending some of his down time recording Christmas messages to his family for the final time.
When he returned to Danang, he picked up his first assignment with Armstrong in the back seat of an F-4.
Their target was Ban Loboy Ford, a river crossing just inside Laos at the Ban Karai Pass, part of the supply line and theoretically off-limits to American pilots.
Everything followed the script until 8:39 p.m., when Sijan's worst fears materialized, but not because of lethal flak or a surface-to-air missile. An inquiry later revealed that an electrical problem caused the plane's bombs to explode near the aircraft, ripping it apart.
Sijan ejected in darkness, into a wall of wind. When he landed, his helmet, parachute and auxiliary survival pack were ripped away.
Severely injured with a compound fracture of his left leg, a concussion and a fractured skull, Sijan lay semiconscious on the ground for a day and a half.
He made radio contact with rescue aircraft two days after the crash, Nov. 11. Soon after, a helicopter dropped a cable into the jungle, and an American soldier prepared to drop down to pick up Sijan.
"But Lance actually said, 'Don't send anyone. It's too dangerous down here. I can get to the probe,' " Gruters said. "Looking back, I think his leg was more of a hindrance than he expected when he made that transmission. I think he underestimated how tough that jungle is.
"Nobody knows what might have happened if the rescue guy had gone in there. He might have gotten to him. But Lance said, 'No.' "
After hovering in the area for a half-hour, the helicopter was forced to flee because of enemy fire. The search resumed the next morning, but the batteries in Sijan's radio had run out of power.
"Very few people could survive what he survived (next)," Gruters said.
Lying on his back, Sijan pushed himself along the rocky jungle floor, advancing a few painful inches at a time. During the next month and a half, he fell over embankments, into sinkholes, in out of consciousness. Often delusional, he continued to crawl, even as his frayed clothes, and then the skin on his backside, were ripped away, leaving only raw flesh.
By firing his handgun to attract North Vietnamese soldiers, Sijan could have guaranteed himself food and shelter. But that was unthinkable to Sijan, who subsisted on ferns, leaves, moss and insects. For drinking water, he relied on dew, rainfall and an occasional mountain stream.
Found by Viet Cong
On Christmas Eve, Sijan tumbled onto a dirt road, unconscious. North Vietnamese soldiers found him the following morning - 46 days after the crash and three miles from his starting point.
Seemingly near death, he was placed on a mat and assigned only one guard. At an advantageous moment, Sijan whispered to the guard to come to his side, then knocked him out with a karate chop and crawled back into the jungle.
"I never heard of anyone else who escaped after knocking out a guard," Gruters said. "And he was in such bad shape. After 46 days, he was weaker than a kitten. I mean, go live for 46 days without food; you don't have much left."
Sijan had enough strength to knock out a guard and escape his temporary holding cell for several hours.
At virtually the same time, Viet Cong soldiers dragged two American pilots, Gruters and Maj. Bob Craner, to Bamboo Prison, near Vinh, North Vietnam.
Sijan was moved there Jan. 1. Guards started interrogating him immediately; when he refused to talk, they kicked him repeatedly and beat him with a bamboo club.
"They beat the devil out of him," said Gruters, who wasn't aware of Sijan's identity at first. "They beat the wounds, twisted the wounds, tortured the wounds. But he still wouldn't say anything. We were in awe. We couldn't believe this guy. He looked so small, so . . .
"One day the guards told us we had to help him leave his cell, so he could relieve himself."
Craner nearly retched when he entered Sijan's cell.
"It was so bad," Gruters said. "You can't even imagine. It's impossible to describe. As an example, there was no flesh on about half his hip bone and just a thin layer of skin on the other half. Bones were showing through his fingers; his whole body was covered in pus. The only weight he had at all was in his upper arms and shoulder. Everything else was just down to the bone.
"When we picked him up, he was so much taller than we expected. I said, 'Bob, this guy is bigger than we are.'
"Then Lance said, 'Aren't you Guy?'
"I said, 'Yes. Who are you?'
"And he said, 'Lance.'
"I said, 'Lance who?'
" 'Lance Sijan.' "
Gruters stepped back in horror: This skeletal figure was a former classmate - and 210-pound football player - at the Air Force Academy.
"It was impossible to believe," Gruters said.
Almost as startling, Sijan actually began to quiz Gruters and Craner about camp security and escape possibilities.
"This guy is saying, 'I'm with you on any escape attempt. Don't worry. I can handle my end.' "
As guards prepared to transport the American pilots to a Hanoi prison, one of them told Gruters and Craner to care for Sijan.
"He told me Lance was a pain in the neck, a royal pain in the neck," Gruters said.
"The ride took two days, and we almost lost him. I was literally crying in the truck, trying to spoon-feed him. The food wouldn't even stay on his tongue.
"Without eating, there was no way he'd make it. He started eating a little again when we got there, but he never really recovered from that ride."
Working in shifts timed to the tolling of a nearby church bell, Gruters and Craner tried to comfort Sijan during his final hours, cradling him in their laps, whispering consoling words, sharing common prayers.
Occasionally, Sijan would rise out of his delirium and find something humorous about their predicament. But when the guards placed him on a stretcher, Sijan knew they were taking him away to die.
"It's over, it's over," he told his friends.
Sijan was listed as missing until his family learned his fate in 1973 as prisoners of war returned from North Vietnam. His remains were returned to the United States in 1974. As a remarkable show of respect, captors also returned the tombstone they had placed on his grave in Hanoi.
During those six years, Jane -Sijan had become a spokeswoman for parents of POWs, distributing information in downtown Milwaukee about their plight.
"One day a guy next to her, an anti-war demonstrator, called Lance a baby killer," Janine said. "Here's this gentle woman, so humble, and . . .
"One day she spoke to my class. I couldn't keep it together. I was just bawling. But she never lost her composure.
"My life was picture-perfect until I was 12. Then it was like I fell off a cliff. When we found out it was Christmas Day that he'd been captured, it caused such deep pain. But we never stopped celebrating Christmas. Each year we had gifts for Lance. We had all the gifts gathered for him."
Telling Sijan's Story
Gruters and Craner spread the story of Lance Sijan and nominated him for the Medal of Honor. Airman Magazine's Fred Meurer and Malcolm McConnell, who wrote the book Into the Mouth of the Cat, brought Capt. Lance -Sijan to a wider audience.
Today, Gruters is a retired business executive in Ohio. Craner died in 1980, and Wiley is a lawyer in Boston.
Syl and Jane Sijan remain active in business and community affairs. Janine, an advertising manager, has raised two grown children. Her brother Marc is a nationally regarded sculptor.
If Lance Sijan were alive today, he would be 62. Instead, he's forever 25, frozen in time in the paintings that hang in the Sijans' living room as well as in the Air Force Academy dormitory named in his honor.
On their way to and from classes, cadets frequently stop and salute his image.
"He's been deified," Wiley said. "To a point, that's good. But when I speak to cadets, and they ask me about Lance, I tell them that there is a Lance Sijan in all of us.
"There is an opportunity for all of us to rise to the occasion when called upon. He didn't walk on water. He was just an outstanding human being who transcended his surroundings, a strong American who took it over the top.
"We hope all of us would perform similar heroism. But he's the one who was there, he's the one who did it, he's the one who showed us the way."
latimerc@RockyMountainNews.com or 303-892-2596
© 2005, by The E.W. Scripps Co.
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
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