Sister of Medal of Honor recipient, 480th Fighter Squadron pilot, recounts brother’s heroism

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. Casey Rodriguez
  • 52nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs
When one reads about war and hears the stories told by those who were there, they seem like just that: a story. The events, places and people may be real, but if you haven’t been directly touched by that event it’s easy to distance yourself from it. “That’s quite a story and I’m sure it was scary to go through something like that,” and then you move on to the next task of the day.

The Vietnam War grows a little more distant each year. There have been plenty of movies made and books written about it, to the point now that it’s etched into popular culture.

One thing most of these mediums lack is a humanizing aspect that puts this huge event into the context of a single family.

Janine Sijan-Rozina visited Spangdahlem Air Base on May 31, 2018, and spoke with a group of officers and senior enlisted leaders about the story of her brother, Capt. Lance P. Sijan, both before and after the Vietnam War.

She remembers her brother as someone who loved his family and his country. He played the lead role in his high school’s production of The King and I. He was the photographer with the red Corvette who was always up to something.

During his years at the Air Force Academy, he struggled with academics and found himself giving up his extracurricular activities to focus on his studies. Times were tough and there were no guarantees, but he persisted and earned his commission in 1965.

After graduating from undergraduate pilot training, Capt. Sijan was assigned to the 480th Tactical Fighter Squadron (predecessor to the modern 480th Fighter Squadron) at Da Nang Air Base, Vietnam. As he was still junior to other officers in the unit, he flew many mission in the back seat of their F-4 Phantoms as the weapon systems officer.

On November 9, 1967, on his 52nd combat mission, Sijan and his pilot, Lt Col. John Armstrong, were tasked to bomb targets in Laos along the Ho Chi Minh trail. As their ordinance released from their aircraft a malfunctioning fuse caused a bomb to explode just under their aircraft, engulfing the jet in flames. Sijan ejected, but it is unclear what happened to Armstrong.

During the rough ejection and landing on uneven terrain, Sijan suffered a mangled right hand, skull fracture and a compound fracture of his left leg. His survival kit had been blown away by the ejection and he was without food or water. Upon regaining consciousness, he was able to contact an American Forward Air Control aircraft in the area and relay his general position to rescue aircraft.

Of the more than 100 aircraft sent to aid in his rescue, 20 received damage from enemy fire and one was shot down. Unwilling to put any more of his comrades at risk, he waved off rescue.

Efforts continued the next morning but were called off when radio contact was lost. He was officially listed as “Missing in Action,” and back in Milwaukee, two servicemen broke the news to his family. His fate would remain a mystery to them until 1974.

After rescue attempts failed, Sijan inched himself through the jungle, falling in and out of consciousness. Three fingers on his right hand were held in place on the back of his palm using a strip of fabric from his flight suit. His broken leg was held in place using improvised rope and a few branches.

After 46 days without real food or clean water, we was captured by enemy forces and moved to a nearby holding facility. Even after what he had been through, he still was able to overpower a guard and escape captivity for a few hours before being re-captured.

By January of 1968, Sijan was moved to the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” POW camp and placed in the care of fellow Airmen, Maj. Robert Craner and Capt. Guy Gruthers, both recently captured themselves. Though he was subjected to torture and beatings in addition to his already severe wounds, he did not disclose any information his captors other than his name, rank, date of birth, service and service number.

On January 22, 1968, he succumbed to pneumonia and died in captivity at age 26.

His remains wouldn’t return to the US until March of 1974. The story of the last few months of his life, as told by Col. Craner and Capt. Gruthers, would earn him the Medal of Honor for heroism above and beyond the call of duty at the cost of his life. He was buried in his hometown of Milwaukee with full military honors.

Nearly 60,000 Americans were killed during the Vietnam War. If you visit the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., take a moment and look at their names inscribed on the wall. Take a moment and let it sink in: each had families, friends, likes and dislikes, hopes and fears. Lance Sijan’s name is there – panel 29E, line 62.