I've written many articles about Medal of Honor recipients, and I usually try to feature Iowa soldiers. But on a recent trip to the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, I learned of Lance Sijan's story, and felt it was worth sharing. Captain Lance Sijan was a graduate of the class of 1965 at the United States Air Force Academy, where he was assigned to the 366th Fighter Wing out of DaNang Air Base, South Vietnam. On the night of November 9, 1967, Sijan and his co-pilot were on a bombing mission over North Vietnam when their F-4C was engulfed in a ball of fire. The Phantom jet then entered a banking climb before plunging into the jungle. Sijan ejected from the aircraft and a search and rescue crew radioed him that they were attempting a rescue. After a whole day spent locating his position, SAR forces were able to get a helicopter roughly over his position. During this rescue mission, over 20 aircraft were damaged by anti-aircraft fire and had to return to base. One was shot down, although the pilot was rescued. Sijan refused to put other airmen in danger, insisted on crawling into the jungle and having a penetrator lowered by the helicopter. However the helicopter crew could not spot him in the jungle and after 33 minutes the rescue team, faced with enemy fire and growing darkness had no choice but to withdraw. Search efforts continued the next day but they were called off when no further radio contact was made with Sijan.
Sijan had suffered a fractured skull, a mangled right hand and a compound fracture of the left leg. He was without food, with very little water, and no survival kit, nevertheless he evaded enemy forces for 46 days (all the time scooting on his back down the rocky limestone, which when he landed, caused more injuries. He was captured by the North Vietnamese on Christmas Day 1967. Emaciated and in poor health he still managed to overpower his guard and escape, but was recaptured several hours later.
Sijan was transported to a holding compound in Vinh, North Vietnam. In considerable pain from his wounds, during interrogation he was severely tortured but never gave any information other than what was dictated by the Geneva Convention. Suffering from exhaustion, malnutrition and disease, he was sent to Hanoi. There Captain 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. In his weakened state he contracted pneumonia and died on January 22, 1968.
Sijan was the only graduate of the United States Air Force Academy, to receive the Medal of Honor. It was presented posthumously to Sijan's parents by President Gerald Ford on March 4, 1976. The Air Force created the Lance Sijan award, recognizing individuals at the Air Force who have demonstrated the highest qualities of leadership and it has become one of the Air Force's most prestigious awards. Sijan was buried with military honors in Arlington Park Cemetery in Milwaukee, Wis.