The honor is mine

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Dean L. Couch
  • 372nd Training Squadron, Detachment 19
Airmen might have one ... two ... maybe three moments in their Air Force career when their name is mentioned alongside one of those that came before us. My moment came this year when I was selected to represent my squadron at the group level for an award.

To have my name associated with such an American hero is a humbling honor, and I am indebted to my supervision for nominating me for this. I don't know if there is anything that I could ever do to truly earn this honor in my own mind.

So, I began to research the life of Medal of Honor recipient Capt. Lance P. Sijan. It was during my desire to learn more about the man and his endeavors that led me to his story, the understanding of what it meant to simply be chosen to represent my squadron and the tremendous legacy left by Captain Sijan.

Lance P. Sijan was born on April 13, 1942, in Milwaukee, Wisc. His father remembers that from a very young age Lance had a drive to be the best at whatever he did. Never faltering from the prize, Lance led both the student body as president of the Student Government Association, and his high school football team to win the City Championship in 1959.

He was selected to attend the prestigious Air Force Academy where he worked diligently to absorb all of the knowledge he could while playing on the varsity team for two years. His roommate recalls that he would come home from practice and sleep for an hour, then stay up until 1 or 2 in the morning, studying to prepare himself for the academic challenge of the Academy. If Captain Sijan had done nothing else, this speaks to the kind of individual he was. His drive for perfection was surpassed only by his eagerness to accept all challenges presented to him.

Captain Sijan graduated from the Academy in 1965 and was selected to be a pilot, later gaining acceptance as an F-4C fighter pilot. He arrived at Vietnam in 1967, where he had already piloted 66 combat missions. As with all endeavors throughout his life, he was eager to become the front seat pilot during his service in Vietnam. Unfortunately, this great man would never accomplish this goal.

On November 9, 1967, he was on a night attack mission flying with Lt. Col. John W. Armstrong. Their target was the Ban Loboy Ford, a river crossing being utilized by the Vietnamese to transport needed war supplies to forward locations. Then-1st Lt. Sijan and Colonel Armstrong were flying under the call-sign of "AWOL 1." Dropping their 750-pound bombs on this area was no easy feat because any aircraft in that area was heavily fired upon with anti-aircraft artillery.

It is still disputed whether AWOL 1 was hit, or one of the six 750-pound bombs that they were carrying prematurely detonated too close to the aircraft. Not knowing which scenario depicts the tragic event accurately, one thing is for certain - AWOL 1 was going down. Their wingman, AWOL 2, reported that there was a massive explosion, and no chute was spotted. To this day, the remains of Colonel Armstrong have yet to be recovered. But Lt. Sijan survived the crash. Upon impact, he suffered severe injuries. He fractured his skull, suffered a compound fracture of his left leg, and horribly mangled his right hand.

Unable to walk, Lieutenant Sijan crawled backwards for 45 days, using only his elbows. He never gave up. Fellow POWs stated that Lieutenant Sijan could have easily allowed himself to be captured by the North Vietnamese, but refused to do so.

He expended all of his flares immediately following his crash and lost his survival kit soon thereafter. There were great efforts made by the United States to recover the downed pilots. In the first of the three-day venture, more than 108 aircraft were launched to find them. On one occasion, Lieutenant Sijan had made radio contact with a circling "Jolly Green" helicopter. He radioed, "There are bad guys down here. Just drop the penetrator and I will come to you." Even now, in his emaciated and vulnerable state, he refused to allow the helicopter to find him in the heavy foliage that he was concealed under. He did not want to see more of his fellow service members stranded in this hostile area with him. Once in position he radioed, "I see you. Stay where you are, I am coming to you." This was the last radio contact that anyone would have with Lieutenant Sijan. After hovering in that very location for 33 minutes, taking numerous rounds through the fuselage, the helicopter was forced to retreat and abandon the rescue attempt.

Lieutenant Sijan was initially captured approximately 45 days after the crash. After being treated for his wounds, he managed to muster the strength to knock a guard unconscious and try to escape. He was recaptured less than half a day later. His left leg was put in a cast from his upper thigh to his ankle. While it was to help treat his injury, it was also a ploy to keep him from being able to attempt another escape.

It was then that he was thrown into a POW camp alongside Robert R. Craner and Guy D. Gruters. They heard him being tortured and questioned by "The Rodent." Refusing to give any information for an hour and a half, he was severely beaten and tortured. The Rodent had started to twist and bend the already mangled arm of Lt. Sijan to get information out of him. His fellow POWs said that The Rodent grew infuriated at his lack of progress. Towards the end of this interrogation, they heard Lieutenant Sijan yell, "SIJAN! My name is Lance Peter Sijan!" This was all of the information that they could get out of the beaten and brave Lieutenant.

The three were later transported by truck to the "Hanoi Hilton." Craner and Gruters were told to help the injured Lieutenant Sijan to the truck. It was here that the lieutenant asked, "Aren't you Guy Gruters?" Gruters was confused and asked how Lance knew who he was. He asked who the beaten and wounded Airman was and he replied, "Sijan, Lance Sijan." Gruters could not believe that this was the same man that he attended the Academy with!

Once a 6'1, 210 pound football player, he was now a mere 100 pounds with every bone in his body visible to the naked eye. During the grueling three day journey to the Hanoi Hilton, the POWs were in the back of a truck with two 55-gallon drums of gasoline. Craner and Gruters would take turns on the trip; one always held the drums secure while the other held Lieutenant Sijan and tried to keep him safe. In and out of consciousness, the only thing that the mangled war hero would speak of was escape. "How are we going to get out of this situation," were the words he often muttered. At one point while Craner was protecting Lieutenant Sijan, he believed that he was dead.

Once they arrived at the Hanoi Hilton, they were separated and tortured for information at all times except for twice a day when they were allowed to eat. Even in this state, all Lieutenant Sijan would ask is, "How are we going to escape." His wounds were so severe that the flesh was gone and his hip bones were fully visible.

In the amount of pain that he had to have been in, he never complained about it. Sometimes he would yell and scream in pain, but never talked about how bad it hurt or gave up the hope of freedom. This was an inspiration to all other POWs in the camp. This man that was in an unimaginable state, yet he never complained about his injuries. But on Jan. 22, 1968, Lieutenant Sijan succumbed to his injuries and passed away.

After his death, he was still an inspiration to captured American soldiers. Unable to even walk, all he talked about was overtaking the guards and escaping. Posthumously he was promoted to the rank of captain. On March 4, 1976, his parents were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions. Future presidential candidate John McCain stated that he never got to meet this great man, but wished that he could have told him how much he admired him for his actions in the face of evil. Few men ever seriously contemplated escape, because those who did were severely tortured. Yet this was the only thing on the mind of then- Lieutenant Sijan.

Since his death, his name has been renowned throughout the Air Force with memorials and stories of his struggle. His memory has best been preserved is by way of the Lance P. Sijan award for leadership. Every year, four worthy Airmen are presented with this prestigious award at the Pentagon. And his parents attended every ceremony since its implementation in 1981.

To have bested an entire squadron and been nominated for the group is more than I could ask for after researching this man. My leadership drive is a mere shadow of that exhibited by Captain Sijan, but I will continue to try and honor this fallen hero by always putting my best foot forward, regardless of the task ahead of me.