Family Keeps Legacy of Medal of Honor Recipient Lance Sijan Alive

December 12, 2012 04:49 PM
 Lance Sijan

Medal of Honor Recipient Lance Sijan’s Family Keeps Legacy of Courage and Service Lives On


Forty five years ago, Nov. 7, 1967, a young U.S. Air Force pilot Capt. Lance Sijan, met what would ultimately be his final journey as his plane went down over Vietnam.  Without food or water he heroically evaded capture for six weeks, but on Christmas Day exhausted, he was taken prisoner by the North Vietnamese.  Although severely weakened, he again escaped only a few days later but was soon recaptured.  His strong will to continue fighting and resisting the enemy while a Prisoner of War, even while being tortured, made his life an example of leadership and the Warrior Ethos that continues to be recognized by the United States Air Force Academy and throughout the armed forces.  Sijan’s military bearing, conduct and heroic action earned him the Medal of Honor and the eternal gratitude of his country.     

In Colorado Springs, Colorado an impressive portrait pays tribute to Sijan.  Painted by Maxine McCaffrey, the original artwork is displayed at the United States Air Force Academy’s Sijan Hall and seen daily by thousands of cadets.  A replica of the painting hangs in Arnold Hall where tens of thousands of visitors to the academy learn about Sijan’s example of courage and valor.  Sijan’s legacy of service is also carried on throughout the United States Air Force through the Lance P. Sijan USAF Leadership Award which recognizes outstanding Airmen who have demonstrated the highest qualities of leadership in their jobs and in their personal lives.  Likewise, Sijan's high school in Milwaukee set up a scholarship in his honor, presented each year to the student who best exemplifies Sijan's service and leadership.  A nearby park, Sijan Playfield, is dedicated to his courage and sacrifice.  Milwaukee's Serbian community honors him with a memorial on the grounds of St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Cathedral.  A replica of his F-4 Phantom jet fighter plane  is displayed in front of the 440th Air Force Reserve at Milwaukee's Mitchell Airport, painted in the same color scheme as the one he flew in Vietnam.

This inspiring image of Sijan is also the centerpiece of the new website, Team Sijan, developed by Lance’s sister, Janine Sijan-Rozina.  
TeamSijan.Com was established to preserve Lance’s legacy as Sijan-Rozina explains, "At a time when honor, courage, commitment, and integrity are fading from the forefront of public consciousness, Team Sijan is being created to celebrate these ideals once again."

Sijan’s name appears on Panel 29E, Row 62 of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. and Memorial Day 2012, his spirit was present at the launch of the United States of America Vietnam War Commemoration in recognition of the 50th anniversary of the war.  Sijan-Rozina represented both her family and all Gold Star families whose loved ones were killed in combat or died while a Prisoner of War, as her brother did, and was joined by The Vice President of the United States Joe Biden and his wife, Dr. Jill Biden.

Mick Kicklighter, Director of the United States of America Vietnam, a two-tour Vietnam veteran and retired U.S. Army Lieutenant General said, "we were honored to have Janine join us as we remembered Lance and all our Vietnam veterans, and their families for their service, sacrifice and valor. No one knows the cost of freedom more than our Gold Star Families.  Janine and others who laid wreaths on Memorial Day represented the families and friends of the more than 58,000 heroes whose names are forever enshrined on The Wall."     

Born and raised in Bay View, along Milwaukee's Southside, Sijan was a star athlete, student leader and scholar.  He graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1965 and went on to pilot flight training.  He trained to fly the F-4 Phantom and joined the 480th Tactical Fighter Squadron of the 366th Tactical Fighter Wing at Da Nang Air Force Base, Vietnam in July 1967.  By late October, Sijan had completed 52 combat missions.  He had completed an evaluation flight for an "upgrade-in-theatre" on his 44th mission.  He then spent a five-day rest and 
recuperation in Bangkok, Thailand.


Sijan’s first flight, after returning from Bangkok, was scheduled for Nov. 9, 1967.  His pilot was squadron commander, Col. John Armstrong.  A West Point graduate, Armstrong was a demanding and professional pilot who had experienced his first combat flying F-86 Sabers in Korea.  The mission included two F-4s, call signs AWOL-1 and AWOL-2 and had a scheduled takeoff of 2000.  The mission was to attack a river crossing of the Ho Chi Minh trail called Ban Loboy Ford.

During the attack, AWOL-1, Sijan's aircraft exploded as Sijan ejected.  The rescue process involved over 140 aircraft participating in the three-day long, yet unsuccessful rescue attempt.  Seven allied aircraft sustained heavy battle damage and one, an A-1E Sandy, was lost.

Christmas morning of 1967, 46 days after he ejected from his F-4, Sijan collapsed unconscious in an open area just three miles from where he had landed.  Within hours, a passing North Vietnamese convoy discovered him and took him to a roadside camp.  Rendering little medical aid, his captors replaced his tattered flight suit with the typical Vietnamese uniform, resembling black pajamas. After regaining consciousness, Sijan was provided some food and water.  After three days and some rest Sijan regained enough strength to overpower his guard and escape back into the jungle.

A few hours later and less than a half-mile away, Sijan heard alarm whistles and shouts and was recaptured.  He was taken by truck to the Bamboo Prison, located near Vinh, arriving Jan. 1, 1968 and soon was transferred to the infamous "Hanoi Hilton."  Jan. 22, 1968, after ten days in the Hanoi prison, Sijan died.  He remained listed as Missing In Action for nearly 7 years and his family did not learn of his fate until the surviving prisoners returned in 1973.  One surviving prisoner, Maj. Robert Craner, nominated Sijan for the Congressional Medal of Honor, which was approved, making Sijan the first U.S. Air Force Academy Graduate to earn our nation’s highest award for valor.  


The Medal of Honor Citation that was presented with his medal by President Gerald Ford is quoted below:

The President of the United States in the name of The Congress takes pride in presenting the MEDAL OF HONOR to Lance P. Sijan, Captain, U.S. Air Force.

Major Lance Sijan’s 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.

Gerald Ford, President of the United States

Sijan’s legacy of service lives on thanks to his family and the United States Air Force award that bears his name.  To learn more about the heroism and life of Sijan and the Vietnam War Commemoration visit the following websites:

United States Vietnam War Commemoration 

Team Sijan - 

USAF National Museum – Unbroken Will – the Lance Sijan Story

Lance Sijan at Vietnam Veterans Memorial –