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Sijan: The Vietnam War Hero Who Gave His All

Remembering the Late Captain Lance Sijan USAF

The story of Lance Peter Sijan (pronounced sigh-john) began on April 13th 1942 when he was born in Milwaukee Wisconsin. His early years were spent as a city championship high school football player and being the older brother to his brother Marc and sister Janine. He was also president of the Student Government at his Bay View High School and winner of the Gold Medal Award for outstanding leadership, achievement, and service. Lance Sijan was the kind of fierce competitor and principled leader the United States Air Force is sometimes fortunate enough to discover and develop.

Although Lieutenant Sijan was a rated F-4C Phantom II pilot, he was flying as the Weapons Systems Officer (WSO) or “back-seater” in his 480th Tactical Fighter Squadron (TFS) commander’s jet on November 9th 1967 when the fuses on its payload of bombs detonated prematurely just after release near the Mu Gia Pass and destroyed the aircraft. Sijan was able to eject from the stricken jet, although he suffered severe injuries during the ejection sequence and subsequent landing. Despite their best efforts rescue personnel were unable to locate Sijan on the ground. But Sijan was alive and evading his pursuers down below the jungle canopy.

Official Air Force Photograph

Sijan’s compound leg fracture made it extremely difficult for him to move around. The initial rescue effort involved more than a hundred sorties by rescue helicopters and escorts. But Sijan spent the next 45 days in the jungle evading enemy troops looking for him. When Sijan was finally worn down to a hollow shell of his former 220 pound Air Force Academy football player self by his ordeal, he allowed himself to be captured during early January 1968 hoping that he might receive some desperately needed medical attention and water. Unfortunately capture was no better for Sijan than evasion.

Sijan was a defiant prisoner who attempted escape several times even though he still could not walk. He never asked anything of his fellow captives and did not complain about his pain or personal situation during his time as a prisoner. It was probably a move from his initial prisoner compound to a different prison in Hanoi that finally did Sijan in. Slipping in and out of lucidity for long before the hellish move and seldom gaining it thereafter, Lance Peter Sijan passed away on or about January 22nd 1968- about eight days after arriving in Hanoi.

Sajin’s dedication, courage, and selflessness were recognized by every prisoner who shared a compound with him. It was a fellow prisoner who recommended Sajin for his Congressional Medal of Honor, which his mother and father received along with his posthumous promotion to Captain on March 4th 1976.

Here are ten things you might not know about Captain Lance Peter Sijan:

  1. When Lance’s high school football team won the Milwaukee City Football Championship in 1959 it was the first time the Redcats had won it since 1936- when his father Sylvester played on the team.
  2. After high school graduation Sijan actually attended the Naval Academy Preparatory School in Maryland before he gained his appointment to the Air Force Academy.
  3. Sijan was the first Air Force Academy graduate awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
  4. Lance played the role of The King in the play “The King and I” during his sophomore year at Bay View High School.
  5. Lance’s younger sister Janine played the role of the child princess in the play.
  6. Sijan was shot down during his first mission after returning from R&R in Thailand- previously Siam- the setting of the play.
Photo Credit: WISN
  1. As a Wisconsin native, when Sijan was asked to name the world’s greatest football team as part of the rescue communications protocols, his predictable response was “The Green Bay Packers.”
  2. During the initial rescue attempts Sijan refused to allow the Jolly Green Giant rescue helicopter to lower a para-jumper (rescue-trained aircrewman) to assist him with extraction because he did not want to put anyone else’s life in danger.
  3. The City of Milwaukee has dedicated a retired Air Force F-4C Phantom II painted to represent the jet last flown by Sijan as part of the new Captain Lance Sijan Memorial Plaza at the city’s General Mitchell International Airport.
  4. Lance’s sister Janine Sijan Rozina was one of the driving forces behind the move of the F-4C from its former limited public access location at the airport to the new more accessible memorial site.

Into the Mouth of the Cat may be the best book available about Lance Sijan.

This video is an excellent documentary about the life and death of Lance Sijan.

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Written by Bill Walton

Bill Walton

Bill Walton is a life-long aviation enthusiast and expert in aircraft recognition. As a teenager Bill helped his engineer father build an award-winning T-18 homebuilt airplane in their Wisconsin basement. Bill is a freelance writer, an avid sailor, engineer, announcer, husband, father, uncle, mentor, coach, and Navy veteran. Bill lives north of Houston TX with his wife and son under the approach path to KDWH runway 17R, which means they get to look up at a lot of airplanes. A very good thing.