A POW’s True Grit

Good morning, it’s Thursday, November 9, 2017. Tomorrow the United States will officially venerate the nation’s military veterans — past and present — by paying homage to their sacrifice, heroism, and suffering.

Partly because Sen. John McCain is facing brain cancer so valiantly, my thoughts as we approach Veterans Day are with the men who fought in a singularly unpopular war and came home from nameless battlefields or brutal prison camps to continue to contribute. Along with McCain are former prisoners of war with iconic names: James Stockdale, Jeremiah Denton, Bud Day, Thomas R. Norris, Everett Alvarez. They were partially broken when they returned from Vietnam. Yet they were determined to serve their nation in other ways.

At the time, there was an Air Force pilot whose mention still engenders awe even among the bravest of the brave. He was Lance Peter Sijan, and his plane crashed 50 years ago today.

On November 9, 1967, U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. John William Armstrong was flying his McDonnell F-4 Phantom on a combat mission over the Ho Chi Minh trail with co-pilot Capt. Lance Sijan when their plane burst into flames.

Although Armstrong’s body was never found, Sijan managed to eject from the cockpit. But when his parachute cascaded him into a row of tall trees, he suffered a skull fracture, a broken left leg, a crushed right hand, and deep lacerations. He awoke on the ground, most of his survival gear destroyed or missing. He was a 25-year-old military officer alone in enemy territory, wounded but determined to stay alive, and stay free.

For 45 days, Sijan did just that, crawling along in the forest, licking dew from the leaves of plants, until he was captured by the North Vietnamese, who gave him food and water but no medical attention. The captured aviator was in pitiful physical condition, but he’d played football for three years at the Air Force Academy and drew on that strength to overpower a guard at a prison road camp and escape into the jungle again.

After being caught a second time, he was beaten mercilessly before being taken to the infamous prison called Hoa Lo — better known as the “Hanoi Hilton.” Put in a damp cell and given no medicine or treatment, Lance Sijan contacted pneumonia and died on January 22, 1968. His fate wasn’t really known until 1973, when the POWs came home and the Americans who attended to him began telling his story.

He was recommended for the Medal of Honor, an award bestowed posthumously by President Gerald Ford on March 4, 1976. Jim Stockdale, Bud Day, and Tom Norris were present in the White House East Room that day to receive their own medals. So, too, were the parents of Lance Sijan.

“On behalf of the American people, I salute the cherished memory of Captain Sijan and the living example of Admiral Stockdale, Colonel Day, and Lieutenant Norris,” said President Ford. “You served your nation well and have given all of us a clearer vision of a better world.”

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)

November 9, 2022

About Author