Lance Sijan lived an All-American life. Raised in 1950s Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the young Boy Scout and athlete dreamed of one day becoming an Air Force fighter pilot. A star football player, he struggled with academics. But his determination took him to military prep school where he studied hard and was accepted to the Air Force Academy, with the end goal of receiving a commission as an Air Force officer. He would accomplish that, and so much more.
Lance gets a Stingray.
It was 1965, and General Motors had extended a special offer to all the seniors at the Air Force Academy to purchase a hot new Corvette Stingray at a discounted price. Maybe it was good marketing to have America’s finest behind the wheel of GM’s newest sports car – or maybe it was GM’s way of paying it forward, as the conflict in Vietnam loomed heavily in these cadets’ future. Either way, Lance plunked down $3,638.40 of his cadet salary and purchased a beautiful 1965 Roman Red roadster, accomplishing another milestone in every boy’s American Dream.
Lance ordered the car from Daniels Motors Inc. in Colorado Springs; it had the flashy red/white interior combo, the optional L-75 300-hp 327 engine, four-speed transmission, white wall tires and Positraction rear end. He specified factory pickup from the St. Louis Assembly plant (which discounted the car another $87 by waiving the shipping fee), vowing to drive the car all the way back to Milwaukee in the winter, with the top down.
Lance downplayed the purchase of the Stingray to his family, kidding his style-conscious mother that it was a color close to brown. When the car first appeared in the family’s picture window, they were electrified, meeting him in the driveway and begging for rides. The tight-knit family loved their son and brother and were proud of his successes — and he was eager to share everything with them.
But time with his new toy was short. In July of 1967, 2nd Lieutenant Sijan deployed to Vietnam to fly an F-4 Phantom with the 480th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Da Nang. Like so many others that went to war, he would never get to drive his beloved car again.
On the evening of November 9, 1967, during a bombing mission, Sijan’s F-4 experienced an ordnance malfunction that would cause him and pilot Lt. Col. John Armstrong to eject, parachuting into enemy-held territory. Sijan landed badly on a rocky ridge: fracturing his skull, mangling his right hand and compound-fracturing his left leg. Armstrong was never found.
Early on November 11th, an air reconnaissance patrol picked up Sijan’s distress beacon emanating from the jungle below. A massive effort was launched to rescue the downed airman, employing dozens of aircraft. Equally intense was the effort of the North Vietnamese army to capture the American. Anti-aircraft fire was heavy as enemy ground forces closed in on Sijan’s position.
Finally pinpointing their comrade, a Sikorsky HH-3E Jolly Green Giant helicopter made radio contact with Lt. Sijan and hovered in position, attempting to lower a rescue boom. Sijan had waved off a rescue jumper, not wanting to endanger another airman. As he pulled his broken body across the dense jungle floor towards the boom, the chopper came under heavy fire and had to retreat. Radio contact was never regained. Sijan was presumed dead, and the rescue mission was aborted. Thus began what would become the greatest chapter in Lance Sijan’s life.
For the next 46 days, Lt. Sijan avoided enemy capture, holding out hope for a rescue. His disabled body could only slide sideways along the rough ground. Finally, emaciated and weak, he dragged himself up on to a military road near the Ho Chi Minh Trail, were he was captured by the NVA and placed in a prison camp in Vinh, North Vietnam on Christmas Day, 1967.
Interrogated and beaten by his captors for information, Sijan refused, citing only his name, rank and serial number. When left alone with a single guard, Sijan overpowered him and escaped, only to be recaptured hours later. Continually plotting further escape, he was transferred to the Hoa Lo Prison, known infamously as the Hanoi Hilton. Though ravaged by disease, malnutrition and injuries, Sijan remained defiant, inspiring his fellow American prisoners with his indomitable willpower and spirit.
On January 22, 1968, Lt. Lance Sijan succumbed to pneumonia, his last words making light of his situation and urging his fellow POW’s to resist and persevere.
A few did persevere and lived to tell the tale of Lt. (now posthumously promoted to Captain) Sijan’s bravery, which has become required curriculum at the Air Force Academy. The Air Force’s most-prestigious award bears his name; he’s now held in the highest regard as the first and only Medal of Honor winner from that institution and a model to soldiers everywhere for his utter determination and defiance.
It’s time to relocate Capt Sijan’s jet to a place of prominence.
In his hometown of Milwaukee, Captain Sijan is memorialized with a twin of his F-4 aircraft placed on display at the old 440th Air Lift Wing of the Air Force Reserve located at the south end of General Mitchell Field. In 2008, the base was closed as part of the federal Base Realignment and Closure Act and the 440th moved to Pope Air Force base in North Carolina. The facility was mothballed and used sparingly as a business incubator for the last few years. Now, the base has a new private redevelopment plan which doesn’t include the monument.
An effort is under way, led by Lance’s sister Janine Sijan-Rozina, to raise funds to relocate the fighter jet. The project is estimated to cost around $175,000 for the move and new pedestal. Milwaukee County has given provisional approval to display the monument elsewhere, providing the Sijan family can raise the necessary funds to move it there.
On Saturday, June 25, a car show hosted by the Original Memories Car Club set out to help raise funds to move the F-4 Phantom to a new home. 140 cars, with about 80 percent owned by Vietnam-era veterans, turned out to honor Capt. Sijan in Milwaukee. And there under a small tent was Lance’s 1965 Roman Red Corvette, now owned by Greg Lawless of Summit, Wisconsin, freshly restored and looking completely original, save for the addition of a military MIA Challenge Coin adhered to the console.
We have many freedoms in this country — enabled by our military who have acted so selflessly and paid so dearly. We have lost the best and bravest among us to war, those men and women who answered the call, and inspired us through their acts of courage and character, like Capt. Lance P. Sijan.
“This is a guy who would have been President,” said high school friend and fellow Air Force veteran John Munzinger. “Everything he touched turned to gold.”
If you would like to help donate funds or resources to the Lance Sijan F4 Relocation Effort, you can do so by clicking or going to LanceSijanMOH.com. We think Hemmings Nation will answer the call and we’d like to report it; please add the note “HMN” along with any donations.
[Editor’s Note: This story was originally posted at Hemmings Daily, a publication of Hemmings Motor News. The article was written by frequent Hemmings contributor William Hall. William is a writer, car collector and classic car broker based in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. We thank Hemmings Daily for allowing us to share this story of an American Air Force hero with our fellow Avgeeks! Please consider contributing to this great cause.]