BAY VIEW - “A made-up mind is a powerful thing. Faith can move mountains, or an F-4C phantom jet.”
Those words from Bay View resident Janine Sijan-Rozina could be about the long, difficult process of raising a memorial to her brother, U.S. Air Force Capt. Lance P. Sijan. Or they could be about the ordeal he faced on his final mission to Vietnam in 1967.
After much work, faith and the made-up mind of Sijan-Rozina, a memorial plaza commemorating the legacy of her brother was dedicated on May 26 at General Mitchell International Airport.
It was a moment further honoring Bay View resident and Bay View High School graduate Sijan, a pilot who died bravely, though terribly, in an Air Force mission to Vietnam nearly 50 years ago.
The F-4C Phantom jet, the memorial’s shining pinnacle, is a replica of the one that Sijan flew during Vietnam, and is painted in the same color scheme as the aircraft he flew. The jet was previously housed at the southwest corner of the airport grounds.
In its new, more prominent location at the entrance to the airport, the memorial at 5500 S. Howell Ave. serves to introduce visitors and area residents alike to Sijan's legacy.
The memorial dedication event included the words of some high-profile dignitaries.
During his speech, Gov. Scott Walker read a proclamation declaring May 26 as Lance P. Sijan Day in the state of Wisconsin.
In a letter read aloud to the crowd Friday by Col. Dan Yenchesky, Commander of the 128th Air Refueling Wing, U.S. Sen. John McCain, wrote, “Today, the warplane of Captain Lance Sijan stands as a reminder of his dignity and sacrifice; something I hope you will carry with you when you leave here today. Keep his memory alive, confident in your faith that almighty God blessed him and gave him the strength to prevail over his enemies. Though they took his life, they could not take his dignity. Lance Sijan prevailed.”
McCain’s letter also stated: “I am a witness to a thousand acts of compassion, sacrifice and endurance. But of all the men whose dignity humbles me, one name is revered among all others. I never knew Lance Sijan, but I wish I had. I wish I would have had one moment to tell him how much I admired him; how indebted I was to him for showing me, for showing all of us, our duty; for showing us how to be free.”
On November 9, 1967, while on his 52nd combat mission in the Vietnam War, Lance P. Sijan’s plane malfunctioned and crashed into the jungle below. Two days later he was able to make radio contact, but the dense jungle resulted in failed rescue efforts. Without food and only little water, his legs broken, his skull fractured and infections worsening, Sijan somehow evaded the enemy for 46 days.
On Christmas Day, he was captured and imprisoned, and, though still badly injured, managed to overpower an armed guard and escaped back into the jungle.
Crawling through the dense forest until he collapsed on a dirt road, Sijan was recaptured and transported to the prison infamously known as the Hanoi Hilton. Despite torture, he obeyed the Code of Conduct for prisoners of war, releasing only his name, rank and serial number.
From the cell his fellow captives shared with him, they hard Sijan tell his tormentors, “I’m not going to tell you anything. I can’t talk to you. It’s against the code.” His silence only resulted in increased torture; beatings and whippings with a bamboo cane.
On January 22, 1968, inside of the Hanoi Hilton, Sijan died.
From those who knew him came similar heartfelt appreciation.
Stories of Sijan’s time in the U.S. Air Force Academy, in Vietnam and the torturous weeks that followed his crash until his last breath were recounted by Col. Lee Ellis, Sijan's friend, and Capt. Guy Gruters, his U.S. Air Force Academy classmate, both also POWs in Vietnam.
Wisconsin Adjunct Gen. Donald Dunbar spoke about Sijan's perseverance under tough circumstances.
“His body gave up but his spirit and his soul were intact as he never, ever, faltered as an armed forces officer for this great country.”
'So we remember'
Sijan’s enduring dignity will remain in the reminder that is his new memorial, said those at the Memorial Day weekend ceremony.
As Sijan-Rozina stated: “This plaza was built on a foundation of love because love rules. A true soldier doesn’t fight because he hates what’s in front of him; but because he loves what is behind him. The Sijan Plaza is tangible evidence of what the power of faith and stewardship can do.”
As Dunbar stated, “And so, why a memorial? So we remember.”
Sijan was posthumously promoted to captain, and was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1976; what Gov. Walker proclaimed as “a first for a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy.”
Bay View High School has a scholarship in his honor, and the Lance P. Sijan U.S. Air Force Leadership Award is given through the Air Force. A hall at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs is named after Sijan.