Lance P. Sijan was the first graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy to receive the Medal of Honor posthumously for heroism above and beyond the call of duty. His spirit and determination inspired a fellow prisoner of war to nominate him.
Sijan was born in April 1942 and graduated from Bay View High School in Milwaukee, Wis. He originally planned to attend the Naval Academy. However, he was attracted to the prestige and quality education of the Air Force school, plus he had developed a love of flying. He played football, but quit the team in his senior year to concentrate more on his studies. After graduation in 1965 from the academy, he attended pilot training. Then he was assigned to the 366th Wing, at Da Nang Air Base, Vietnam.
On his 52nd mission, 25-year-old Sijan ejected from his F-4C Phantom after it was hit Nov. 9, 1967, over North Vietnam. A search-and-rescue crew, Jolly Green 15, radioed to Sijan that they were sending down someone to assist him, but Sijan refused to put another person in danger. He asked that a penetrator be lowered instead. However, he couldn't grab the dropped steel cable, and after 33 minutes the rescue team faced enemy fire and had to leave.
Even with no food and very little water he managed to avoid capture for 45 days. Because of a serious compound fracture of the left leg, he was unable to walk but did manage to pull himself backward through the jungle. Even with a broken leg, a skull fracture and a mangled right hand he was able to escape shortly after his initial capture. Upon recapture he was taken to Vinh and thrown into a bamboo cell. He was 'interrogated' repeatedly, and in spite of his captors technique of twisting his damaged right hand he refused to disclose any information but his name.
Sijan was soon moved to a POW camp at Hanoi. Even in his emaciated condition, he attempted more escapes all meeting with failure. His physical condition continued to weaken without proper food or medical attention . He developed additional respiratory problems including pneumonia in January 1968. After many months of ill treatment, his health broke. Sijan was removed from his cell during the night of Jan. 21, 1968 and died the following day at Hoa Lo according to his Vietnamese captors.
He was promoted posthumously to captain on June 13, 1968. On March 4, 1976 President Gerald Ford presented the Medal of Honor to his parents, Sylvester and Jane Sijan.
His citation reads:..."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."
The U.S. Air Force Academy named Sijan Hall, a cadet dormitory, in honor of him on May 31, 1976. Additionally, the U.S. Air Force honors Air Force personnel who exhibit the highest example of professional and personal leadership standards with the Lance P. Sijan Award.
Sources compiled from U.S. Air Force Museum and the Air Force News Agency.