Thursday, May 20, 2010

"The almost limitless capacity of the human spirit to triumph over the depredations of fate and the malevolence of lesser men."

Captain Lance Sijan, USAF

I first heard of CPT Lance Sijan from The Trainer the other day. He recommended
Into the Mouth of the Cat
by Malcolm McConnell. While I have not yet read it, I did locate this article ftom Air Force Magazine, Vol. 69, No. 12, December 1986.

Lance Sijan's story is a shining example to all of us as we move deeper into the coming darkness. No way out but through.


Lance Sijan's Incredible Journey

By John L. Frisbee

Contributing Editor, Air Force Magazine

Alone in enemy territory with no food or water and unable to walk, Capt. Lance Sijan refused to give up.

On the night of Nov. 9, 1967, Lt. Col. John Armstrong, Commander of the 366th Tactical Fighter Wing's 480th Squadron based at Da Nang, rolled his F-4 into a bomb run. The target was Ban Loboy ford on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. In the backseat was 25-year-old Capt. Lance Sijan, flying his 53rd combat mission.

Armstrong pickled his six bombs at 8:39 p.m. Almost immediately, the aircraft was engulfed in a ball of fire as the bombs detonated a few feet below the F-4. Neither the FAC controlling the mission nor Armstrong's wingman saw chutes. But there was one chute. Sijan ejected and was drifting toward a flat-topped, heavily forested karst formation. For Sijan, recollection stopped as the 195-pound captain crashed into the towering trees.

Sometime the next day, Sijan regained consciousness in a haze of pain. He had suffered a compound fracture of the left leg, a crushed right hand, head injuries, and deep lacerations. Most of his survival gear was gone. He tended the broken leg as best he could, then lapsed again into unconsciousness.

The following morning, a flight of F-4s picked up the sound of Sijan's beeper, and a search-and-rescue operation got under way. Throughout the day, Sijan maintained contact with the rescue force, but several attempted pickups were thwarted by NVA gunners. At 5 p.m., a Jolly Green chopper made it in directly over Sijan. In a desperate attempt to crawl through tangled vines to the chopper's penetrator, Sijan lost contact with the rescue force. As darkness fell, the SAR operation was called off.

Early the next morning, the search resumed, but Sijan's radio batteries were depleted. Failing to make contact, the SAR team was recalled. Sijan was on his own. If he were to survive, he must make his way down the steep karst to water and an open area where he could warm the radio batteries and call in a chopper. With a crude splint on his shattered leg and only the thumb and forefinger of his right hand functioning, Sijan began the most incredible journey in the history of Air Force survival efforts.

For several days, Sijan, lying on his back, pushed himself over the sharp rocks with his good right leg, a few painful inches at a time. His only source of moisture was dew licked from foliage in the mornings. There were many falls down the steep slope and periods of unconsciousness and delirium. First his clothing became shredded, then the skin on the back of his body, until he was inching along on raw flesh. At last he found water and pressed on, inch by agonizing inch.

Forty-five days after he parachuted into the forest, Sijan saw ahead the open area he had been looking for. He dragged himself over a bank and fell unconscious in the middle of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, three miles from his starting point.

The young captain regained consciousness in an NVA road camp, his formerly athletic body little more than a skeleton partially covered by transparent skin. He was given some food and water, but no medical attention. In spite of his pitiful condition, his mind focused constantly on escape. When some strength returned, Lance Sijan overpowered a guard and dragged himself up a trail, only to be recaptured and punished.

Sijan was moved to a temporary prison near Vinh, where he was beaten severely, but refused to give any military information. The guards, who had never seen a human in such ghastly condition, refused to touch him. Sijan was put in the care of Maj. Bob Craner and Capt. Guy Gruters, an F-100 FAC crew who had been shot down near Vinh. The latter had been in Sijan's squadron at the Air Force Academy. In his lucid moments, Sijan gave them the details of his long, painful journey.

Several days later, the three were loaded on an open truck for a three-night trip to Hanoi in the chill monsoon rains. At Hoa Lo Prison, they were put in a damp cell. Sijan, who had contracted pneumonia and was near death, asked his cellmates to prop him up on his pallet so that he could exercise his arms in preparation for escape from that grim, impregnable bastion.

On Jan. 22, 1968, Capt. Lance Sijan died. When the POWs were freed in early 1973, Craner and Gruters recorded the details of his long fight for freedom and his resistance to torture. Later, they were major sources for Malcolm McConnell's book, Into the Mouth of the Cat. On March 4, 1976, President Gerald Ford presented the Medal of Honor posthumously to Sijan's parents, and on Memorial Day of that year, a new dormitory at the Air Force Academy was dedicated in his memory.

Sijan's will to survive with honor was an inspiration to other POWs during the dark days of the Vietnam War, as it should be to all of us. He demonstrated, as few have the almost limitless capacity of the human spirit to triumph over the depredations of fate and the malevolence of lesser men.


Anonymous said...

When I went to DC in 2008, I made a beeline for the wall, then found Capt. Sijan's name.

He is one of my standards for manhood. Another of mine is my great uncle/3? cousin Herschel Peskin, a Polish Jew who escaped from a concentration camp and spent the rest of WWII fighting the nazis as a guerilla fighter.

The Trainer said...

In all fairness, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that the McDowell's book was brought to my attention by a former Marine I am proud to call my friend.

Once I started the book, I couldn't put it down. As my young Marine friend has said, "Sijan could share my foxhole any day..."

Dr.D said...

What can I possibly add.............


Dedicated_Dad said...

This was - clearly - a Man.


MPA dragon said...

this book is excellent. I had read it when the public library in town first got it. I may have been twelve. Well, recently I found a copy and picked it up, half worried that the book would not live up to my memory of it.

I am happy to say that it was better all these years later. The trainer friend has good taste.

You will not find a better story of courage, intestinal fortitude, and perserverence. Or to put it another way: Lance Sijan is the only flyboy who could unconditionally share my foxhole.

Anonymous said...


Some Guy said...

Amazing! I just found my copy of this book a week ago when going through boxes of books that I had in my closet. I am putting together a library of books that I will assign my son for "furtherance of his education" when he is a little older. I read "Into the Mouth of the Cat" when I was ten years old - the year it was published - and bought a copy when I was fifteen. It's an amazing book.

Even more amazing is seeing, in person, the limestone karsts that Sijan dragged himself across. Further, my wife was born 40 miles as the crow flies northwest of where he was shot down! Her father was a member of a Lao guerrilla army fighting against the NVA right in that area. When she and I visited the place of her birth with her mother a few years ago I was agape when I viewed the mountains there. They are amazing - sheer cliffs of limestone, jagged and harsh at the top. The locals almost never venture off well-trod roads and paths because they are so dangerous. To have seen where he was shot down, in person, and struggled for so long before being captured - it's absolutely amazing.

My father in law's family settled in that area for much the same reason - there are fertile river valleys accessible only via a handful of passes, easily defended, and they have fought for generations there against invaders and oppressors - the Siamese, Vietnamese, Japanese, French, and again the Vietnamese.

Sijan is a fine example of an American warrior, a Christian, and contextually, a bit of family history for my son. "Into the Mouth of the Cat" is highly recommended.

Brock Townsend said...

I can't believe I've never read this story. What an unbelievably will. I feel humbled. Reminded me of this 17 month trek to freedom.

I Believe In God, Justice And My Mission Against Communism

TypicalClinger said...

I read that book when I was in High School. I have often thought of him, when I feel sorry for myself because something is "hard" or a pain in the ass. Puts me back in perspective.

aughtsix said...

I am always awed and humbled by such examples of indomitable will and belief.

May Capt. Sijan's example inspire us in the trials ahead.



Knuck said...

Howdy folks, My Dad was twelve when he lost a lung to tuberculosis. He was not expected to live and spent the next three years in a sanitarium. At the onset of WWII my dad tried to enlist in all the branches of the military,none would have him. Being of the stubborn Scottish descent,he would not accept that he could not fight for the country he loved.Dad put himself through the Merchant Marine Acadamy and went to sea as a Lt.JG. He became the second in command of many of the ships he was on,making over 30 Atlantic crossings during WWII.Dad was blown out of the water four times. He was involved in the Mermansk run and the sinking of the Dorchester.He saw thousands of men die when attacked by Wolf packs,surface ships and the Luftwaffe. While in convoy you could not stop for survivors.Most of the Merchant Marine ships were unarmed. After WWII Dad re-upped for Korea. He is and always has been my hero and role model for being a true hero and patriot. I will place Captain Sijan right up there with Pop.That is the highest honor that I can give him. Knuck.

tom said...

I bought that book when it was published way back when from Military Book Club. Well worth a read.