Capt. Lance P. Sijan: A legacy of valor

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Joshua Hastings
  • 6th Air Refueling Wing/Public Affairs

Acts of bravery and heroism by Airmen have shaped the U.S. Air Force into the world’s greatest air power.

U.S. Air Force Capt. Lance P. Sijan exemplified what it means to live by a warrior ethos, leaving behind a heroic legacy of tough-mindedness, tireless motivation, an unceasing vigilance and a willingness to sacrifice one’s life for their country.

“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and success of liberty,” President John F. Kennedy during his Inaugural Address to the nation on Jan. 20, 1961.

A few months after that empowering speech by President Kennedy, Sijan began his pursuit of commissioning as an officer in the Air Force by becoming a cadet at the United States Air Force Academy.

Sijan developed his ability to be a leader among his peers during his time at the Academy. He learned about the history of the U.S. military and of the brave men and women that wore the uniform before him.

He also learned about what was required of him to serve as an Airman in the Armed Forces, which included following the Code of Conduct.

The Code of Conduct is composed of six articles that guide service members of the Armed Forces on how to act in combat or, if a captive, in a prisoner of war compound.

The articles state that members are to resist capture by our enemies and never surrender, and if captured, to make every effort to escape enemy confines, and not divulge any information that could be harmful to the United States.

Having trust in the Code of Conduct and the courage to follow it has helped service members endure the terrors of captivity, prevail over their captors and return home with pride and honor.

After graduating from the Air Force Academy and commissioning as an officer, Sijan became a fighter pilot in the Vietnam War where his resiliency would be put to the test.

America’s involvement in the Vietnam War lasted from 1961 to 1973. In response to increased Communist efforts in Laos and South Vietnam, in April 1961, President Kennedy ordered the deployment of the 440th Combat Crew Training Squadron to train the South Vietnamese Air Force.

War ensued with North Vietnamese forces, a conflict that challenged the Air Force’s ability to adapt to stringent rules of engagement that negated the speed, surprise and flexibility of massed air power.

Sijan piloted the F-4 Phantom, an aircraft that was used extensively for ground-attack and aerial reconnaissance roles during the Vietnam Era.

On Nov. 9, 1967, Sijan was flying in the back seat of an F-4 on a bombing pass over North Vietnam, when his plane was engulfed in flames from an ordnance explosion. Sijan ejected himself from the destroyed aircraft and parachuted to the mountainous terrain below him.

The impact he sustained from the trees and ground caused Sijan to suffer a skull fracture, a mangled right hand and a compound fracture of his left leg.

Despite being severely injured and going in and out of consciousness, Sijan was able to elude enemy forces for 46 days.

Because of his injuries, the wounded Airman had to crawl on his back over sharp limestone karsts to keep moving. During his evasion, he had lost a significant amount of weight from the lack of access to food and water.

Sijan’s body may have been broken and malnourished, but his mind was still strong and his will to survive overcame his physical limitations.

On Christmas Day, 1967, Sijan was captured by North Vietnamese soldiers and taken as their prisoner. Sijan’s warrior spirit drove him to overpower a guard monitoring him and escape. Unfortunately, he was recaptured within hours.

Sijan spent the next three months in an interrogation camp where he endured severe torture and constant beatings from his guards for his relentless efforts to escape. Other American prisoners heard the screams from the F-4 fighter pilot who the Vietnamese were attempting to make an example out of. Sijan never caved in. He refused to provide information that may have been harmful to the United States. The love Sijan had for his country and freedom drove him to stay true to the Code of Conduct.

On Jan. 22, 1968, Sijan finally succumbed to his injuries as a prisoner of war in Hanoi.

The Medal of Honor is the most prestigious military decoration the United States can present to a member of the Armed Forces.

On March 4, 1976, President Gerald R. Ford awarded the medal to Sijan posthumously for his extraordinary heroism and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty at the cost of his life.

Three other prisoners of war also received Medals of Honor on that same day, including U.S. Air Force Col. George E. “Bud” Day. Day said that Sijan was the epitome of dedication up to his death.

Today, the Air Force recognizes Airmen who demonstrate the highest qualities of leadership and moral character with the Lance P. Sijan Leadership Award, which allows the award recipients to wear the Air Force Recognition Ribbon on their uniforms.

The Air Force also remembers Sijan with the naming of one of the two cadet dormitories at the Air Force Academy as Sijan Hall.

“As an underclassman Academy cadet, I passed by a large painting of Lance P. Sijan every day in my stairwell at Sijan Hall as I went to daily formations,” said U.S. Air Force Col. Benjamin Jonsson, 6th Air Refueling Wing commander. “It was a large and imposing painting, and his story loomed large over us as cadets. He was an inspiring figure as a combat pilot, and his story demonstrated tenacity, grit, courage and sacrifice that we all hoped we could measure up to someday. It still inspires me today all these years later after graduation.”

Sijan was the embodiment of President Kennedy’s message in his Inaugural Address, having paid the ultimate price for the values that distinguish the United States from every other country in the world.

When confronted with the choice of giving in to America’s enemies, Sijan said no every time. Sijan didn’t just die for his country—he fought for it to the end. That is his legacy of valor.