Since its inception in 1862, the Medal of Honor has stood alone as the nation’s highest and most prestigious military award, given to the rare individual who “distinguishes himself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.”
To date there have been 3, 507 recipients of the award, each representing a unique yet for them common story of selfless bravery and courage in the finest tradition of this country’s armed forces.
The story of Captain Lance Sijan is one such example. Born in Milwaukee in 1942, Sijan graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1965 and was assigned to the 480th Tactical Fighter Squadron, stationed at Da Nang Air base in South Vietnam.
He was flying his 52nd combat mission on the night of November 9, 1967 with his commander Lt. Col. John Armstrong — a bombing run over the Ho Chi Minh Trail, when a malfunctioning fuse on one of his bombs caused an explosion that brought his F-4 Phantom flaming down in enemy territory.
Sijan and Armstrong ejected from the fiery cockpit and engaged their parachutes. (Armstrong’s body was never recovered and he was eventually declared Killed in Action.) For Sijan this was only the beginning of an odyssey of endurance and defiance regarded by military experts today as nothing short of miraculous.
Crashing violently through the jungle canopy in the dark, he suffered a fractured skull, a gashed right hand, a compound fracture of his left leg, and deep lacerations over much of his body. Without first aid or food or water he knew the situation was dire. He made a makeshift crutch out of a stick and, using a compass, started dragging himself through the underbrush, at all times trying to stay hidden. Given the extent of his wounds it was all he could do to crawl for maybe a hundred yards in a day before succumbing to exhaustion, but he felt it his duty to avoid capture and do everything in his power to make it back to safety in South Vietnam.
For 46 days he endured pain and deprivation few dare imagine. He survived by eating jungle plants and licking the dew off of leaves. The broken bone in his leg made every movement excruciating. The jungle air was hard to breathe. But he kept going. Until Christmas Day of 1967 when a North Vietnamese army patrol found his emaciated and unconscious body lying just a few yards from a foot path. Lance Sijan was now officially a Prisoner of War.
He was held in a prison in the city of Vinh where, along with other POWs, he was beaten and tortured for days on end. As they often did during the war, the North Vietnamese showed they would stop at nothing in their savage attempts to extract information and propaganda statements from American prisoners. Already in agony from his untreated wounds, not to mention seriously malnourished, Sijan held fast and refused to give the enemy anything but name, rank and serial number.
Then he did something truly amazing. One night he saw a vulnerable moment and managed to overpower one of his guards. Even in his dangerously weakened condition he was able to slip out of camp and escape into the jungle again. He was captured several hours later, and one need only imagine the punishment he received then. Still, he wouldn’t submit. He refused to cooperate with his captors.
Next was Hoa Lo prison, known derisively amongst prisoners as ‘the Hanoi Hilton’. Following a three-day trip in the cold rains of monsoon season, Sijan arrived in Hoa Lo suffering from pneumonia, in addition to just about every wound a human being can withstand. He was immediately put in solitary confinement and subjected to yet more torture and interrogation. At some point he lapsed into delirium and was subsequently placed in the care of another prisoner who started to nurse him back to some semblance of health.
But it all proved to be too much to overcome and Lance Sijan died in captivity on or about January 22, 1968. To the very end, according to fellow prisoners, he kept talking about trying to escape.
In 1975 Sijan became the first Air Force Academy graduate to be (posthumously) awarded the Medal of Honor for showing valor in the face of the enemy. In 1976 a dormitory hall at the Air Force Academy was named in his honor.
“A long time ago, I lived for a time in the company of heroes, men who endured great hardships but who refused to lose faith in their God, their country, and their comrades. I am a witness to a thousand acts of compassion, sacrifice, and endurance. But of all the men whose dignity humbles me, one name is revered among all others — Lance Sijan.”
- Former POW and U.S. Senator John McCain